YILAN, Taiwan – The agricultural area of Yilan in Taiwan is not top of mind for most tourists, who are likelier to head for picturesque Sun Moon Lake or Beitou’s hot springs.
The old tribal name for the region is Kavalan, which is also the name of the whisky made here.
I did not go to the distillery, but I find plenty of unexpected treats on a day trip from Taipei during a recent visit. Thanks to the Hsuehshan Tunnel, the longest in east Asia, Yilan is only about an hour’s drive from Taipei, although the traffic can peak on weekends and public holiday eves.
The glutton in me is especially thrilled by a morning market tour (from NT$1,200 or S$53 a person, go to https://str.sg/wyzh) and the mandatory Taiwan night market experience.
Farmer Fang Li-you and self-styled Young Ah Gong (Young Grandfather, facebook.com/MusicRice) conducts tours in the sartorial get-up favoured by elderly men: cotton shirt, plastic slippers, towel slung around his neck and pant legs rolled up unevenly.
Yilan City’s Shengping Street has a long history as the city’s marketplace, dating back to the early 20th century when the colonial Japanese authorities built a sheltered market on the northern stretch. The southern end is more laissez-faire in nature as locals colonised the street to take advantage of shopping traffic.
Mr Fang grew up in Shengping Street, where his parents still run a clothing shop, and is well-acquainted with the vendors along this still bustling thoroughfare.
Even on a Tuesday morning, it is packed with locals. Shoppers come on foot as well as on scooters, so pedestrians need to be on their toes as motorbikes squeeze through gaps in the traffic.
As we amble, various vendors hail Mr Fang and he stops to chat. Before we even enter the street proper, he zeroes in on a couple of pushcarts manned by friendly women.
One sells ai cao (mugwort) kueh (NT$10 a piece), but I luck out. She has run out of ai cao and instead made kueh flavoured with xiangchun (toona sinesis). The regional delicacy is a rare homemade treat – the mochi is tenderly chewy and lightly umami from the herb.
Next to this stall is another selling the Taiwanese version of kueh lapis – a nine-layer steamed cake flavoured with savoury onions on top and sweet brown sugar below.
Another Yilan delicacy is chai por (preserved white radish), which is fermented in pots and sweeter than the usual salted sun-dried versions. One of the vendors makes a version seasoned with garlic sprouts (NT$100 for a 100g pack) which packs an extra umami punch.
At the Japanese end of the street, I meet Mr Wang Chi-chien, third-generation owner of Gong Ping, a 100-year-old popiah skin stall. The 75-year-old, along with his wife, works all year round and takes only one day off on Chinese New Year. The Taiwanese-style skins are larger than Singapore versions and cost NT$50 for 10 pieces.
We stop at an underground market for lunch supplies. The shy hawker who runs stall No. 92 makes a staggering array of smoked meats. There is a whole pig’s head skin smoked with sugar cane and an intriguing sausage made with sweet intestine filled with minced pork and sweet potato flour which gives it a gelatinous, chewy consistency.
The tour ends with a lunch that I help assemble at Mr Fang’s office.
The highlight is a regional favourite: A simple soup made with little parcels of pork, carrot and salted mustard greens tied with dried gourd and layered with clams and generous piles of shredded ginger.
After lunch, I check out Luodong Forestry Culture Park (No. 118, Zhongzheng North Road, Luodong Township, Yilan County). In 1905, the Japanese built a railway to log native cypresses here.
The little railway station, built from the fragrant wood, smells heavenly. It overlooks a logging lake and there are picnic tables as well as a small museum focused on the rail facilities. Workers’ dormitories have been turned into a cafe, so I grab a cuppa amid the lush and calm greenery and enjoy a brief respite.
Another charming find is the Sanshing Four Seasons Blue And White Pottery (266, No. 275, Section 2, Xingjian 2nd Road, Xingjian Village, Sanxing Township, https://str.sg/wyzh). This ceramics house offers workshops where one can paint one’s own ceramic pieces (from NT$500 to NT$1,680 including firing but excluding shipping).
I spend an hour painting the simplest thing I can think of – soot sprites from Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – and pay extra for shipping. It will take at least two months for the item to be fired and shipped, so I cross my fingers.
I discover the workshop also runs Childhood House, an attached bed-and-breakfast place with modest rooms (from NT$4,800 a night) overlooking tranquil rice fields.
Any stop in Yilan has to end with a visit to Luodong Night Market. At the central road junction of the market is Xiao Chun (Little Spring), a 50-year-old stall which sells an unusual treat: gao za (deep-fried soup).
If you have tried xiao long bao, this is essentially the gelatinous mix which, in the dumplings, melt into soup. Here, however, the cubes hold their shape and taste like lightly savoury aspic with a crisp exterior.
This stall also offers another regional delicacy, pao rou (deep-fried pork) seasoned with cinnamon. Try the deep-fried century egg, which sounds odd but turns out to be a good introduction to century egg as the frying mellows the strong flavour of the egg.
Another shop to look out for is simply named Boneless Phoenix Claws, which serves braised chicken feet which have been miraculously deboned. This is perfect beer food.
Detour a little from the main night market stretch and there is a dessert treat. At No. 180, section 3 Zhongshan Road, is a little corner shop that dishes up a lovely red bean soup brimming with yuan zai (NT$140). These are tang yuan (glutinous rice dumplings), but mini ones with a light, bouncy bite – perfect with the red bean soup which is not too sweet.
It is the ideal way to end a day in Yilan, and even as I head back to Taipei, I am scheming to return for a longer stay in this rustic region.
* The writer’s trip was hosted by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the Taiwan Tourism Board.