Maokong: Dan Zai Mian Lunch, Gondolas & Tieguanyin Tea

June 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the many destinations that I was most interested in involved visiting Maokong (貓空), an area just outside of Taipei lush with terraced tea plantations and tea houses with scenic overlooks of the landscape and the Taipei skyline.  One of the best ways to get to that area is by taking the subway to the gondolas that travel across the rolling lush terrain to the zoo, a temple, and the tea houses of Maokong.  Of course, make sure that you haven’t planned this trip on a Monday as we had as the gondola is apparently closed on Mondays to keep up with maintenance.  Before our second venture out in an attempt to see the tea terraces, we decided to have an early lunch in Taipei on the way out.

We decided to stop at one of the oldest places for Taiwan style noodles:  dan zai mian at Slack Season Noodles.

SLACK SEASON NOODLES
TU HSIAO YUEH
度小月
No. 12, Alley 8, Lane 216, ZhongXiao E. Rd, Sec. 4
(02) 2773-1244

Despite being quite busy, we were seated immediately in what I thought was probably one of the best seats in the house right next to the main source of action where the dan zai mian (擔仔麵), lu rou fan (卤肉饭), and other signature dishes were being served up.

It was a flurry of slinging both white vermicelli noodles and yellow oil noodles from steaming hot baskets and swirling gravy around a strangely crusted bowl and flicking broth and meat into dishes effortlessly.

I chose the vermicelli variant of dan zai mian for myself, watching them prepare my bowl with a steam of white noodles, a slosh of broth,  a sprinkle of fresh herbs, and one perfect shrimp on top.  The broth was very light, seemingly of shrimp stock and mellow coriander and ultimately simple and comforting.  The minced pork added a layer of fat and additional flavor floating on top.  It was a somewhat small bowl, but still fairly cheap especially for such a nice environment at TWD$50.  It’s a great size if you’re just snacking or planning on eating a few other dishes.

Their lu rou fan had a looser, brothier feel to it than what I had experienced at Formosa Chang, but still had the same simple comfort food vibe of lu rou fan in the sense of meat umami mingled with the deep notes of soy, spice, and a very mild sweetness.  This serving was TWD$30.

Lastly, we tried something else off the menu, a steamed scallop dish.  The scallops themselves were so exceptionally fresh once again,  and were soft and buttery in texture.  They were primarily flavored by the rehydrated dried shrimp that had opened up and flavored the steaming liquid adding a bit distinctive funky fishiness, and they were served with bright greens steamed to softness.

After lunch, we went back on the subway, and I was amused to see that our train featured a bright pink skin with characters from 7-11.  This was the first of many unexpected bright cartoony icons that day.

I’m not entirely sure why she was bopping the chipper pink pup on the head with her staff that said “please,” and not the grumpy windmill head on her right who appears to need an attitude ajustment, but there are some things I suppose I may never understand.

More amusement occurred while waiting in line for the gondola.  Apparently this giant column warranted a warning sign.

Since the gondolas also take you to the zoo, bright pictures of cartoony animals awaited on the gondolas.  You have the option of getting into a regular one or an “eyes of Maokong gondola” with a transparent floor for the same price.  I suppose since there are fewer of the eyes of Maokong gondolas the only drawback is that you have to wait a little longer for the experience, but the lines were not very long enough that day to make a difference in wait time.  I would say that the novelty is worth a small additional wait, but not a large one since I didn’t notice anything directly underneath us to examine.  I was hoping we’d be looking down into the zoo, but we didn’t see anything noticeable.

I’d show you what it looked like from my feet, but you mostly saw a blur of green underneath you along the way.  The real view comes from out the window of both styles of gondola.

The ever-present Taipei 101 looms in the distance.

Once we arrived in Maokong, we were greeted posters of their mascots, the cats of Maokong.  There are many variants in story regarding the exact origin of the name, but ultimately it seems to derive from the appearance of “cat holes” of the landscape–potholes of sorts in the rock formations in the area that are reminiscent of cat paw prints.  Unfortunately, we never quite made it to see any of these formations as they didn’t happen to be on the particular hiking paths we took that day, but there were still plenty of tea terraces to be seen.

Not only were there plenty of tea terraces, but there were a staggering amount of tea houses to visit.  It never occurred to me that figuring out where to go would have been that complicated, but it was a little bit overwhelming.

We set off for some hiking past the tea houses up the sides of steep landscapes and on stone paths and stairs.  The most memorable moments where when we were passing  large fermenting containers of oolong, and the intoxicatingly perfumed scent would waft through on the wind as you passed by.

Finally, we stopped for a rest at a teahouse that seemed fairly busy with a nice lookout for some local Tieguanyin, 铁观音, or “Iron Goddess” tea.  The tea was TWD$600 for a pot which felt pricey compared to the cost of most things in Taiwan, but it was indeed really fine local tea and came in quite an abundance.  The complicated part of it was figuring out the tea ceremony process.  Someone came over to help show us the complicated process that involved pre-steeping the leaves the twisted, dried loose leaves with hot water, using that hot water to both heat and rinse the cups, steeping for 30 seconds, and then using a very fine strainer to pour some tea back into the other pot.  I think we were told we could steep the same leaves two times.  Well, the tea that was made for us as an example was extremely delicious, both bright and heady and rich with the smells we had experienced hiking through the farms.

The tea pots we made for ourselves on the other hand were about every different possible combination of incorrectly steeped despite counting out the steeping time and everything.  I suspect we were just using poor ratios of tea leaves to water, but our cups were generally bitter and too strong.  Even when it was wrong, though, it was still good, but it didn’t approach the level that it could be when the process is done correctly.  It was still a really fantastic experience feeling the dry and steeped twisted leaves and experiencing the wonderful smells and warmth of the tea with the landscape reaching out as far as you could see.

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