Monday, February 16, 2009

Tainan

The slower pace of life in Tainan hits you almost as soon as you get off the bus. Or, more accurately, it moseys over, shakes your hand and asks you what you want to eat first, reminding you to enjoy yourself as much as you can. In Tainan, that isn’t that difficult and task. In many ways, it reminds one of the feel in Chengdu, Sichuan, where life just goes by to the beat of another, much more relaxed drum (they say you can see the mahjong tables during your plane’s descent and that the smell of tea is ubiquitous). I was particularly lucky with my trip down south, as one of my good friends is a local and knows the city well and enjoys sharing its sights and sounds. Most of the stories and all the experiences are thanks to his well developed sense of what makes Tainan a truly unique place. And, as one of the oldest cities in Taiwan, it truly is a historical, cultural and culinary icon.

The city doesn’t skimp on history. In the 17th century, Tainan was the sight of a Dutch colony from which the Dutch staged a good deal of trade in the region. Their presence was short lived, as after the fall of the Ming dynasty, one of the Ming soldiers who continued to fight against the invading Manchus beat back the Dutch and claimed the city (and the island as a whole, really) as his staging area for further attacks on the mainland. Admiral Koxinga (陈成功) is praised throughout the island for this achievement (especially given he is one of a few examples of Chinese defeats of Westerners before the 1940s) and he is worshipped like a god. The marks of both these historical moments were on display at a few of the places I visited – namely the old Pingan fort (also known as old fort Zeelandia) and Chihkan Fort (Fort Provintia). Both boast little remaining Dutch architecture, but the images of the past are still quite evident and prove quite interesting. The Chihkan fort, now a temple in honor of Koxinga, has a series of tablet bearing stone tortoises. The story surrounding one of them is quite unique. According to the rumors, one of them mysteriously “wandered” down the street one night and was found blocks away. Some believed this a miraculous sign, others wondered if it was some kind of elaborate trick. My guide couldn’t really place which tortoise had been involved, but it made for a fun story. Another intriguing historical spot is an old trade office with what is called the “tree house.” I, of course, was expecting to find a lofted house high up in the boughs of some nearby tree. I had forgotten that I am in the land of the Banyan tree. These types of trees grow voraciously, like ivy, and literally pour all over and through nearby structures. The “tree house” was one such example, and was covered with the sprawling roots and branches.

Tainan boast some of the biggest, oldest, and most numerous temples of anywhere in Taiwan. The place is crawling with them. Think churches in the Bible belt and double it. Linked with temples are the many festivals that sprinkle the traditional Chinese calendar, and I was there for the specific purpose of taking part in celebrating one of them: the Lantern Festival (yaun xiao jie). Part of the festivities related to the Lantern Festival is the lighting of lanterns. These are rather large shuts on which are written prayers and hopes for the coming year. One can understand the symbolism.
Lit up like a small hot air balloon, the lanterns soar toward the heavens, carrying the prayers they wear with them. [as an aside, I noticed an eerie symbolism as I watched the lanterns go on their way. As they nearly winked out of sight, I often noticed that the fire that fueled them would weaken and, still slightly illuminated, the lantern would slowly fall back to earth. The remaining, feeble light seemed almost to mark the embarrassment at not having made it all the way to heaven with the prayers they carried. The poet in me munched away on this] Another classic part of the celebration in Tainan is the fengpao. Large scaffolds lined with mini fireworks are set up with the explosives aimed parallel to the ground and people crowd around, girded with thick layers and motorcycle helmets. The fireworks are then lit and go blazing into the crowd. It was quite the sight. You have to see it to fully understand the chaos. And of course, no Chinese holiday would be complete without an over-the-top fireworks display. Seated nearby manning a grill, it was a truly enjoyable experience for all the senses.

But if you go to Tainan, the real reason is always the food. As my friend put it, usually people just go from one meal to another with little in between as they enjoy the slower pace of life and the good company of friends. I will share some highlights. Though found throughout the island, oyster omelets in Tainan are a particular treat as the oyster come fresh from the nearby oyster farms. They are plump and tasty and the omelet is one of Taiwan’s culinary gems. Another dish that takes advantage of the juicy oysters is the shimu yu congee. The story I was told is that, when trying to name this local fish, some confusion developed and when one man asked “what type of fish is this? Zhe shi shenme yu?”it was mistaken for a statement and with the listeners thinking that shenme yu was the name of the fish. Shimu yu is of course a tad different, but pronunciation is like that sometimes. Regardless, this fish mixed with oysters in a salty congee with a little youtiao on the side is a delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The douhua (a type of tofu mixed with a sweet juice and other toppings) is also supposed to be particularly good. The difference I noticed is that they serve it here with lemon juice, which adds a whole new delicious twist to the dish. Guancai ban is a fried bread that is cut opened and filled with various substances, one of which tastes almost exactly like what you would find in a pot pie – chicken, peas, and carrots in a savory cream sauce. They seem a tad odd, but are delightfully tasty. The last one I will mention was perhaps my favorite – Tainan style shrimp rolls. It is more like a fried shrimp mixture, as there isn’t an actual wrapping to it like one thinks of when they think of a role. But whatever you want to call them, the mixture of fresh shrimp and seasonings fries up scrumptiously. I could go on with the Tainan variation of flan, the night markets, fruit ices and more, but I am starting to salivate.






In all, a trip to Tainan is presents a compelling image of Taiwan. Whether it is the history, the cultural trimmings and trappings, or the famous eats, Tainan tells you something, not just about the local Tainanese, but about the sensibilities of the people all over the island.
[all pictures were randomly scoured off the internet. but they look exactly like what i ate.]

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1 Comments:

At 6:51 AM, Blogger Carol Yu said...

FOOD LOOKS AWESOME. and we have those lantern thingies in changsha too! they did that on christmas. haha!

 

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