The third place that the driver took us to after the big seafood lunch was Jiufen (九份 Jiǔ fèn). This place is a cultural foodie paradise! Jiufen is a small town northeast of Taipei. It takes a little over 45 minutes to get to from Taipei. Jiufen, historically known as Chiufen, was a gold mining town during the Japanese occupation. It is a popular destination by tourist and locals alike for it’s alleyways of numerous eateries, tea houses, shops, and its view of the ocean. It was also made famous by the Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Spirited Away. It was used as the inspiration for the town that the main character, Chihiro, stumbled upon in the animated movie. As fans of the movie, our group were super excited to see this little gem and to eat our way through it. I have to watch the movie again now that I’ve experienced the real thing!
Take my one advice if you are visiting Jiufen and that is to go on a weekday. We went on Saturday despite my Taiwanese friend warning us that it will be crowded. How bad can it be right? Well…we got there around the afternoon which was for the most part okay, but somewhat crowded. It also started to rain a little. By the time we turned around to go back out the main entrance, we were elbow to elbow in the narrow alleyway inching little by little to get to our driver meetup spot. This place is especially popular at night when the shops, lanterns, and street lights light up the whole town. The town is also up in a mountain so the alleyways consists of stairs that go up and down; like a maze! It’s really an amazing place. Plan on spending quite a few hours here to explore and eat.
If you haven’t read my previous post, I highly recommend bundling another place to visit along with Jiufen since you will be outside of Taipei city. I recommend going to Yehliu Geopark in the morning/afternoon and then making your way to Jiufen in the late afternoon or early evening. The driver suggested to visit Jiufen when the sun goes down so you can enjoy the many lanterns lighting up the side of the mountain. We did the most ambitious thing which is to explore Yehliu, Jiufen, Shifen, and Pinxi all in one day. It was a bit rushed and we had to skip Shifen. We all lamented that we did not get to explore Jiufen as much as we wanted to. I think the biggest issue was to find a tour that was reasonably priced and researching online only turned up hits to sites that were kind of sketchy and not in English. So, we ended up contacting my Taiwanese friend to book a driver for us and tried to get to all of the places we wanted to see in one day with my limited Chinese. Although, I have to say that my Chinese was decent enough to hold up a conversation with the driver. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Sept. 22, 2017 Update: I am so happy to announce that Round Taiwan Round has found my blog and is giving my readers an exclusive 5% discount with the code ExpRich. My Taiwanese friend and his circle of friends and coworkers have used their services before and have positive experiences with them. I just wish I found them when I was planning my travels to Taiwan. Their rates are really reasonable and they have English-speaking drivers. Their recently launched Jiufen Tripool Tour package is just like what we did. We had 6 people so we were able to book a driver to ourselves and picked places that we want to go see that day (9 hours). If you don’t have enough people you can carpool with other people or you can arrange for a private tour, but you won’t enjoy the cost benefit of carpooling. The website is really nice and simple. On the page you can select the other places you want to go visit. There are places on the page that I haven’t gone to yet that looks really interesting. Maybe I should plan another trip to Taiwan! The Tripool custom tour fee is US$30 per person with a Mandarin-speaking driver, or US$70 per person with an English-speaking driver. Don’t forget to use the discount code ExpRich.
We tried to eat and see as much as we can when we were in Jiufen, but since we booked a driver we didn’t have much time in each of the places we visited. I would recommend booking a driver for two days. One day for Yehliu and Jiufen. Another day for Shifen and Pinxi.
- Taro Ball Soup (芋圓 yù yuán). It’s literal translation is “taro rounds”. There are many variations of it in Jiufen. It is a sweet dessert soup that you can order hot or cold. If you order cold it is basically the hot soup with ice. It’s really delicious both ways! We got ours cold since it was crowded and slightly hot that day. These chewy potato balls are really hard to make and was recommended as the number one thing to eat here. It’s usually served with other toppings. I tried 3 different combinations going through Jiufen. It’s so good.
The first combination I had consists of taro balls, sweet potato balls, red beans, and douhua. Douhua is a Chinese tofu dessert made with soybean and it’s super soft. It is like a light, silken tofu pudding. The texture is really hard to make right. My mom used to make it.
The second combination consists of taro balls, sweet potato balls and tapioca pearls (usually in bubble tea).
The third combination that I got from a stall way inside one of the alleyways was my favorite. It looked super authentic; like the way my mom and aunt would make some of the famous Hong Kong sweet soups. Look at all the colors! It has taro, sweet potatoes, purple yam, and green tea flavored balls. It also has red beans and I believe kidney beans.
2. Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐 Chòu dòufu). This famous, stinky delicacy were featured in many of the Chinese movies and TV series we grew up watching. I’ve heard so many stories about this particular dish. Many of those stories are about how it is made. Some of those stories would deter you from eating it. It’s just fermented tofu. No dad, it’s not made in someone’s shoe! Some say that the stinker it is the better it taste. In Taiwan it is in every street market. You know where there is stinky tofu because you can usually smell it before you see it. My first stinky tofu experience in Taiwan was in Jiufen. I got some sweet chili sauce on it just in case. It was really good actually. It’s pungent and a little sour. The soy based sauce that it was braised in was a little sweet and salty. I liked that they put some what-I’ll-call a slaw on top. If I had to describe it…it would be like tofu mixed with blue cheese and soy sauce. As with blue cheese there is only so much you can eat before it is too much. I’ve tried a couple of different style of stinky tofu since then. I really like the deep fried ones with a garlicky-soy dressing. Can’t go wrong frying the stuff!
3. Peanut Ice Cream Roll (雪在燒 Xuě zài shāo) The most famous stall is A-Zhu Peanut Ice-Cream Roll (阿珠雪在燒). The literal translation is “snow is burning”. The name itself makes you want to try it out. It’s ice cream with shaved caramelized peanut candy in a spring roll skin. This spring roll skin is also called popiah which originated from the Fujian province. Our family usually use these as wrapping for a filling consisting of stir-fried bean sprouts, sliced fried tofu, thinly sliced pork and other vegetables. To see this used as wrapper for ice cream was interesting, but pretty good. It was crunchy (peanuts), chewy (spring roll skin), and cold (ice cream). I didn’t know I had to asked for cilantro (香菜 Xiāngcài). I saw some people add cilantro to theirs. Sigh….next time.
4. Custard puffs 奶油餅 (Nai You Bing). Okay, I think I’ve said everything I ate was “so good”. But, but, but…these are soooo good! I’m sorry but you have to have these. I might have to find a way to make these at home. The custard was warm and creamy. The puff pastry was like an airy cake with a thin crispy outer layer. It was so good; especially in the rain. The stall I went to was called (客家仙草 Kèjiā xiān cǎo). I’m not sure of it’s English equivalent name. You can find it elsewhere in Taiwan too, but these were so good.
5. Aiyu Jelly Drink (愛玉冰 àiyùbīng or 愛玉凍 àiyùdòng). Aiyu is a jelly made from the gel extracted from a variety of fig seeds found in Taiwan. It taste like a slight tart but sweet jelly. You’ll find this drink in several night markets because it is pretty refreshing after eating lots of greasy food. It’s commonly served with lime in a lemonade-kind of concoction. This one place in Jiufen I got it from had it with grapefruit juice. Yum! I was really thirsty from all the stair walking.
6. Sesame or Almond Tuiles. I don’t know what these are called in Chinese. So if anyone know what they are please let me know and how I can get some more. They are crispy, thin wafers of sesame or almond. It super thin, crunchy, and addicting.
7. Jiufen Jinzhi Red Meat Dumplings (金枝紅糟肉圓). My sister got these from a stall and was telling me that this was one of the things that Chihiro’s father ate in the movie Spirited Away. I believe the dumpling is steamed. The skin is made of either tapioca or glutinous rice flour. It is really gelatinous. The inside is filled with some sort of braised meat. Here they served it in a bowl with some cilantro. It like a savory pudding. It was interesting.
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