Up in the hills of Keelung, Taiwan, not far from New Taipei City, lies Jiufen. This historic centuries-old town, overlooking the sea, has become a buzzing center of Taiwanese culinary exhibition. Jiufen Old Street, as the long sprawl of indoor/outdoor market stalls is known, is home to some of Taiwan’s very best cuisine. Whether it’s a tried-and-true snack, mysterious beverage or specialty dessert, if you have a craving, it can be satisfied here. Buses packed with tourists Taiwanese and foreign-alike open their doors to flood the lanes daily and everyone — walking, scooting or even seated comfortably in a stroller — is eating.
Translated as “nine portions,” Jiufen received its name from the multiple sets of supplies its native families were obliged to bring up the mountain each time they traveled down so the other families wouldn’t have to. And speaking of good neighbors, the close quarters inside the maze-like street market breed a similar environment of intimacy — you’ll often see vendors sharing and enjoying each other’s fare, borrowing necessities or simply exchanging a friendly hello. A rolling meat truck keeps vendors and customers alike in all manners of pork butchered freshly on the flatbed — any cut you can imagine.
In 1989, Taiwan’s longtime cinema master Hou Hsiao-Hsien shot a historic, Golden Lion-winning film, A City Of Sadness, in Jiufen, spiking tourism to the idyllic region that remains strong to this day. And why not? There are breathtaking views from every angle, restaurants to sit down when you’re done with mobile munching, a celebrated tea house with in-house art gallery, a gold mine-turned-museum and thousands of photos to take. Take a stroll through Jiufen Old Street with us, and check out the dishes that keep locals and travelers coming back year after year.
This is one snack you’ll encounter into no matter which region of Taiwan you find yourself in. Simple to prepare and easy to eat on the go, tea eggs are iconic, the Taiwanese equivalent of a street cart hot dog (but seriously, eat Jiufen’s dozen-plus varieties of sausage and don’t think about hot dogs again til you go home). Simmer parboiled, slightly cracked eggs in strong tea spiked with whole spices, then pull off the shell to reveal the sweet and savory brown-marbled treat within. They’re made by the vat with chicken, duck or even goose eggs, and you’ll see people eating them everywhere.
Remember that quip about abandoning all notions of hot dogs while you’re in Taiwan? Continue to do that, and grab a stick of spicy pearl sausages hot off the grill. Two theories as to why they’re called pearl sausages: the first (and more obvious) one being that they’re round, shiny, bead-like sausages threaded onto a stick. The second (and more delicious) is that there are big round chunks of translucent pork fat throughout the sausage, which resemble pearls. Either way, walk through the market while gnawing on a skewer of these sweet, snappy gems and you’ll fit right in with the crowd.
Don’t pass the snail vendor without buying a couple — at $100 NTD (about $3 for two) you can’t afford not to try these giant mollusks the size of your fist, grilled in-shell in their own juices, then extracted, chopped into chunks, dusted with black and white pepper and served with five-spice ketchup for dipping. They’re not rubbery in the least but are rather silky with a smooth minerality and a sweet and saline finish that might make you wonder why we don’t sell these snug little gastropods at oyster bars.
You’ll find the most famous taro balls in Taiwan at Jiufen market — like tea eggs you can find taro balls anywhere, but at Jiufen they’re a regional specialty people come from all over to enjoy. The sweet, chewy, slippery nuggets are time and labor-intensive to make — mixing, kneading just right, sectioning, rolling, cutting and boiling — but the vendors are masters of the craft, displaying the whole process in an open window facing the open corridor, and the end product is enjoyed in sweet, iced soups that are exceptionally refreshing in Taiwan’s humid heat. Best of all, they’re light enough so that you’re not too full to continue your walking feast through Jiufen’s maze of incredible snacks. Not even close to too full.
For those who love the vast world of cured meats and think they have their jerky game down: think again. If you’ve never had Chinese-style pork jerky, it’s sliced thin, cured meticulously to maintain its meaty characteristics, lacquered with sweet, shiny char siu-style glaze and hung from hooks in windows or displayed prominently in clear bins. After one tender sweet and savory bite, you’ll shun the supermarket stuff in the resealable plastic bag forever (yes, even while camping) so proceed with commitment. This is as good as dried meat gets.
Harvested locally for hundreds of years, Taiwan’s king mushrooms are a point of pride for their culinary scene. Oversized, flawless and bursting with pure savory umami flavor, the mushrooms are scored with a knife and brushed with a simple soy marinade while they grill over an open fire. Slice into juicy spears and eat or batter and deep-fry to take your snack to the next level. Any further preparation would overtake the majesty of these supreme shrooms.
Purple dragonfruit juice
I was handed a large cup of ice-cold, deep purple liquid and told to guess what it was. I went through plum, prune, beet, blueberry, concord grape and every other fruit I knew it wasn’t, before it was revealed to be purple dragonfruit juice. A close relative of the seed-studded fuchsia and white dragonfruit you may be familiar with, purple dragonfruit has more antioxidants and much more fruit flavor than the often-bland white version. Here’s the crazy thing: it does taste like plum-beet-blueberry-concord grape juice. You’ll just need a thick bubble tea-style wide straw to get that healthy stuff inside you. Insider tip: don’t wear a white shirt.
Jiufen’s signature pastry is the traditional pastry, mostly made with Taiwan’s own golden pineapples and churned out in the small “cake” size as well as larger “pies,” which are decorated with lucky inscriptions for weddings and other occasions. I passed many stands selling the cakes and pies freshly baked or beautifully wrapped in red cellophane with gold trim to give as gifts — a common and polite gesture. Getting married? Buy the big pineapple pies (pictured above) and send your guests home with a box, a long-standing Taiwanese cultural tradition. Hankering for a sweet, fruity snack? The flavor and texture of these dense, velvety confections will stay with you long after you come home (presumably with several boxes of them packed in your suitcase).
Peanut ice cream rolls
The only reason we still eat ice cream in cones is because the burrito concept hasn’t quite caught on here yet. Peanut ice cream rolls, a favorite snack or dessert in parts of Asia, consist of rice wraps spread with sweetened crushed roasted peanuts, sprinkled with a little cilantro, dolloped with scoops of vanilla ice cream, rolled up and wrapped in wax paper for mobile munching. Great news: if you get as addicted to these portable dessert pouches as we did, you can make them at home!
14-year aged pu’er tea
Having eaten all that food, I sat down at the old Jiufen Teahouse overlooking the hills and ocean for some of the best tea in the country. With hundreds of varieties, it can be a little overwhelming to decide what to sip on in this idyllic, utterly serene environment. Our hosts brought over cool clay jugs of iced 14-year aged pu’er, a type of fermented tea with a host of health benefits and an exquisitely delicate flavor and texture that evokes freshly-turned earth, mountain air, crisp minerals and cold spring water. In short: this tea tasted like drinking one of the tall majestic hills we admired while sipping and was a singularly special experience.