Taiwanese Breakfast: Youtiao, Shaobing, Soy Milk, Xiao Long Bao, & Taipei 101

January 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

After securing some coffee and green milk tea from a convenience store in the morning, we set off in search of a more traditional Taiwanese breakfast beyond the neighborhood we were staying.  It wasn’t long before we stumbled across one of the many places serving up some youtiao (油条), shaobing (燒餅), soy milk, and of course xiao long bao (小笼馒头).

While we were staring at the goodies on the counter, A helpful man completing his order at the counter greeted us in English and suggested he would order for us.  We took him up on the offer and he urged us to sit down.

Pictured stacked in squares near the middle is luo buo gao (萝卜糕), a fried turnip cake that I saw several times but never managed to try.  I will next time for sure.

First up was soy milk which was offered hot or cold, sweet or salty.  I went with the more soothing sweet and cold variety to contrast the salty warm accompaniments.  It was a lot better than any soy milk I’d had in the states.  It was fresh, creamy despite its thinness, and had a nuttiness to it that really pushed the flavor to another level.  The sweetness level was once again very mild and only enhanced the natural flavor instead of drowning it with sugar.  I would happily enjoy replicating this experience at home if anyone can suggest a brand that has this same flavor profile to it, but I bet half of the charm was its apparent freshness.

The rest of breakfast ended up being on the straightforward and simple side of things.  I am not sure if it’s because he wanted to go easy on the tourists or if they offered fewer of the more enhanced versions, but once I saw one of the owners sit down with some fish and seafood curdled soy looking dish I figured they might be serving up a little bit more than what was apparent on the counter.  No worries, though.  It’s better to start with the basics, right?

First up from the bottom of the picture are fried oily sticks called youtiao.  They look better than they taste.  They are sort of bland, almost stale, and well, a little oily.  Their name translates to oil strip, so what do you expect?  They are meant to be dipped into your congee or soy milk much like a donut in coffee which I neglected to do since there was such a convenient lid on my milk.  I ended up dipping it in the black vinegar and chili oil mixture I concocted for the xiao long bao which is probably the furthest thing from what you are supposed to do with it, but it tasted a lot better soaked through with tangy vinegar and a tinge of heat.

On top of that is the sesame crusted shaobing which tastes about like you’d expect.  This one wasn’t filled or sweetened or anything, so it was very straightforward sesame bread.  These can be served savory-style with eggs,  meat, or green onion.  The sweet version is filled with things like sesame paste, sweet red beans, or sugar.  Apparently you can also put the youtiao inside the shaobing  to make shaobing youtiao: a bread on bread carbtastic sandwich.  This can be eaten on its own or enhanced with eggs and meat.

The xiao long bao here was actually quite good.  It wasn’t Din Tai Fung or anything, but it was nice and it was my favorite part aside from the soy milk perhaps because it was the most flavorful and was a good representation of xiao long bao.  The wrapper here had an odd translucency to it, but it held its own as being neither too thick nor too thin and the simple pork filling wasn’t overshadowed.

Bellies full, we wandered around.  I’m pretty sure that’s all we did for most of the trip–eat to capacity and wander the streets.  There isn’t a single thing wrong with that.

I really enjoy the juxtaposition of architecture in the city, and it’s magnificent to see an old, ornate temple in the midst of the orthogonal, modern buildings.

Afterwards, we headed to one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, Taipei 101.  The illusion of its closeness due to its size became quite apparent as we walked towards it for quite some time until it finally appeared to get closer.

Taipei 101 primarily houses offices, but there is a large, high-end mall area, fine dining, and of course another huge basement-level food court.  Fortunately, it was a Monday, so the queue to ride the elevator up to the conservatory at the top was quite short.  I was a little surprised that the cost was NT$400, but I feel that it was worth doing at least once.  The elevator is an experience unto itself.  It’s to the best of my knowledge the fastest in the world, streamlined to prevent shaking and noise, and has an ornate constellation ceiling to stare at while you hurdle into the air three times faster than an average ascending passenger plane.  It feels like an amusement park ride, and it’s almost a little scary feeling the pull of gravity on your body even though you know it’s probably also one of the safest elevators in the world.  This elevator gets you to the top in 39 seconds.  Whew.  The view from the top is pretty surreal.  I’m not usually one to really brag on a view, but you feel like you can see so much from all directions.

There was a sign on one of the windows apologizing if the windows are dirty as it takes a while to clean them.  They also tell you to wave and take pictures if you see someone washing the windows.  I shudder to imagine that job especially at this extreme height.

There was a lot of interesting information about the engineering of the building and the dampers that keep it stabilized in the event of up to 134 mph winds.  They even let you observe them.

Hey Mr. Damper!  Of course, it wouldn’t be as much fun if they didn’t turn the visual into a cute, adorable series of characters that stare you down throughout the conservatory and well into the gift shop.

By cute, I also mean sort of creepy and appropriately decorated for the holidays.

There were of course plenty of opportunities for souvenir shopping on the upper levels as well as a few snacks.  I heard of a beer (pijiu) float vendor (actual beer, not root beer).  It seemed fitting to sip a beer float on the top of one of the largest buildings in the world, but I didn’t get a chance to try it.  I ended up becoming distracted by a luxurious coral company that had a shop that extended into museum-quality showpieces of coral.  There was a representative of this shop on the lower level, but there was some amazing stuff in the conservatory along with lots of historical and informative information about its history in jewelry.

They showcased large organic pieces as well as large carved pieces.  Nearly all of these pieces had price tags on them with so many zeros that I figured dividing by 33 to reach a total in US$ was still going to be entirely too many zeroes for my liking.

After checking out all the coral and the vibrant blue chalcedony on display, we went down to the basement to see what they had to offer.  There was entirely too much variety of great Chinese food to pick, so I secured a rare seat and trusted that someone would be bringing me back something tasty.

First up was Hainanese chicken rice (Hai Nan Ji Fan  海南鸡饭).  It’s a cold white boiled chicken flavored with a bit of ginger served with chicken stock and rice flavored with chicken.  It’s prepared to use the chicken in its entirety.  This was super simple and refreshing if nothing else but its coldness and very mild flavor.  I wasn’t terribly delighted with the greens as the had a sticky sauce on them and they were chilled.  It was still overall fairly nice and a good contrast to the overindulgent spicy and fatty treats we had been consuming.

I’m still not entirely sure what this was.  That’s half the fun of ordering things sometimes when you aren’t a master of the language.  It was a pork soup of some kind that was once again very simple.  The meat was chewy and fatty along with the noodles that were chewy as well.  The peppers pictured along were pretty hot which overwhelmed the quiet flavor of the broth.  This was a miss, but I’d still eat this more happily than most packaged ramen any day.

We kept finding more and more food as we left and it was here that I was lured into tasting some samples of mochi that were shockingly delicious at a place that I believe is called Shu Shin Bou.  I haven’t had anything near this fresh before and the rice cake melted away into the luxurious black sesame paste inside.  I was hooked and I ended up bringing some home.  After some research, I’m regretting not trying the custard-filled cakes and many of the other delicious looking Japanese goodies that they had, but I’m not sure that it was possible for me to have eaten anything more on this trip.  Next time I shall try more of what they have to offer.

In the process of leaving Taipei 101, we found ourselves in another giant mall with another giant food court and basement.  We were being perpetually bombarded with food and I ended up figuring I’d try something else while someone took a detour for a coffee fix.  I found a pretty interesting green tea themed vendor that sold green tea ice cream, shakes, and smoothies.  They were also right next to a Cold Stone which is one of those random American brands I saw quite a bit while I was there, oddly enough.

After a bit of pointing and nodding, I ended up with a combination of their main offerings.  It was green tea ice cream floating in a green tea slushie made by blending green tea powder with ice and some water.  This was garnished with a scoop of red bean.  I’m not one to favor sweet azuki bean.  I suppose this is because nearly every time I’ve tried it, it’s been over sweetened for my taste.  I was actually nicely surprised by this version as it was creamier and less sweet than I’ve ever had.  On the other hand, the ice cream portion of this was really too rich for me, and I was glad that the unsweetened slushie brought it down a notch.

There was still a little bit more exploring and quite a bit of post-food walking to do before preparing ourselves for another dinner feast…

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