This October, my husband and I returned to Taiwan for two weeks. This is our third time traveling to Taiwan, and we love it more each time we visit! Last year, we were teaching a puppetry workshop for the Close to You Puppet Festival (You can see last year’s post about traveling in Taiwan here). This year, the festival arranged for us to collaborate with two fantastic Taiwanese artists to create and perform a show!
The Close to You Festival asks puppet artists to create and perform puppet shows in unusual spaces in the city of Taipei. Shows can happen in antique stores, tea shops, cafes, bookstores, schools, animation studios, galleries or restaurants. The audience attends three shows in each evening, each in a different location within a particular neighborhood. In between shows, a festival guide walks the audience around the neighborhood, drawing attention to points of interest and history.
We performed in the Yongkang Road area, a very beautiful and upscale neighborhood with boutiques, cafes and a lovely peaceful park. This neighborhood has two of my favourite places to buy gifts such as handmade puppets and handbags and artisanal jam made with seasonal Taiwanese fruit. The festival put us up at Hotel 73, which was a fantastic place to stay. The staff was so sweet and helpful, the room was bright and they serve a good breakfast. The hotel was right next to Dongmen Market, which is a maze of vendors offering fresh fruits, vegetables and other treats. It was nice to see a very down to earth local market right in the middle of a rather fancy neighborhood.
As audience members, we attended one of the other sets of shows in the Dadaocheng area, which in days gone by was the commercial center of Taipei owing to its waterfront location. It is still the home to a large concentration of herb shops, a huge fabric market, beautiful old architecture and winding alleys full of tiny machine shops next to equally tiny temples and alters. We visited the excellent Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Museum in this neighborhood seven years ago (and again this year), and since then the area has attracted more and more young people who are interested in renovating these beautiful old buildings. Our friend told us that, in Mandarin, the phrase for renovation could be translated to New bones/ Old house. Isn’t that poetic? After our show was over, we went to stay in Dadaocheng so that we could have more time to admire this historic area.
We decided to stay in Taipei after the show was over this time, because we wanted to spend more time with the people who we had met at the festival. Also, there were many corners of Taipei and nearby areas that we had not yet explored. I will be posting more about our adventures and all of the savoury snacks that we ate later, but for today I am going to focus on tea.
Taiwan is famous for its excellent tea. Tea is prepared and offered with a certain amount of ritual, designed to ensure that you are experiencing the full range of flavours that each tea has to offer. Our friend Xiaochu took us to a beautiful tea house in Jiufen (a seaside mountain town that is just a day trip out of Taipei), where we learned about how long you are supposed to steep the tea for each time. Beyond the practicality behind each of the steps there is also an overall sense of care and communion between the people preparing and drinking the tea together that is truly lovely.
This care is not limited to tea houses. The owner of the beautiful antique store where we performed was a wonderful hostess and made us tea between shows. She also gave us fresh papaya from her mother’s tree!
There is actually an entire district on the outside of Taipei filled with tea houses perched on the side of the mountain overlooking the city. You get there by riding a glass bottomed gondola to Maokong. I had expected a quick ride, but the entire trip takes about half an hour. The gondola hops from across several ridges, where it makes turns. You ride right over forests and tea farms! When you arrive in Maokong, you can stroll on the winding mountain roads past dozens and dozens of tea houses until you decide to sit down in one to have a meal and some tea while you watch the sunset over the city.
We also returned to the Chen-Wey Teahouse on Dihua Street (where we saw one of the puppet shows) and the owner spent about an hour preparing different varieties of Taiwanese tea for us in his beautiful shop. Luckily for us a friend and patron of his shop decided to stick around to try teas and translate for us. The owner laughed that his shop had three powers that made it special.
- The breeze from the garde.
- The sun from the skylight.
We went home with three kinds of tea. Our favourite is the oolong from the Alishan region.
My husband and I noticed that the care and pride taken with tea extends into the preparation of other beverages as well. Coffee beverages are painstakingly prepared and presented and seem to be universally excellent. I cannot imagine how these coffee artists would survive in NYC. They would be torn to bits by rabid, rushed caffeine addicted New Yorkers long before they had perfectly steamed and decorated the milk for a latte. Our New York impatience probably goes a long way to explaining why we often pay 4 dollars or more for a “fancy” coffee that looks and tastes awful. Also, when we went out for drinks with our cast at Caffe Libero. I ordered a scotch (They have a particularly fantastic selection of whiskeys) which took a very long time to arrive. While I waited for my drink, I watched the bartender who was working intently for the longest time on a project which I did not have in eyeshot. When my drink finally arrived I realized that he had been carefully carving a prism of ice for my glass!
In truth, we did not eat many tea time snacks while in Taiwan, since I am allergic to most baked goods. But I did buy some black sesame powder in Taipei (it turns out that I can get it in Chinatown in NY too). In the back of my mind I thought that I might try to make these amazing black sesame mochi, that they sell in Beitou (on the edge of Taipei) not far from the public hot springs at a bakery called Milk House.
I am obsessed with these things. I talked about them last year too and they inspired some very delicious Black Sesame Shortbread Cookies with Candied Ginger.
I did not make the mochi. Instead I made a financier, which is quickly becoming my favourite kind of cake (Pistachio Financiers with Sour Cherry Rhubarb Compote, Brown Butter, Buckwheat, Hazelnut Financier, Little Almond Cakes with Fresh Raspberries). There are three reasons I am such a financier fan. Financiers use nut flour and are easy to make gluten-free. Financiers use up a lot of egg whites (I always have a bunch in my freezer). Finally, financiers improve with age and keep for quite a while, so you can make a batch and eat them slowly over the course of a whole week. Adding lemon was my husband’s suggestion and a very good one indeed!
- 10 tablespoons butter, plus extra for buttering the tins
- 3/4 cup black sesame powder or black sesame seeds
- 1/4 cup almond meal
- 1 cup sugar, divided in half
- 1/2 cup brown rice flour (white rice flour is fine too)
- 1/4 cup tapioca starch
- 1/4 cup arrowroot
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 white pepper
- the rind of one lemon, grated
- 8 room temperature eggs whites (about 1 cup)
- a pinch of salt
- Extra black sesame seeds for the top
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter 6 mini loaf pans.
- Melt the butter, remove it from the heat and set it aside to cool.
- Combine the sesame seeds and 1/2 cup sugar in a food processor or blender and pulse until the seeds are finely ground (if using sesame powder you can skip this step).
- In a large bowl, combine the almond meal, brown rice flour, tapioca starch, arrowroot starch, ground ginger, white pepper and grated lemon rind and the ground sesame seed and sugar mixture.
- In another clean large bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a steady stream, beating until the mixture forms soft peaks again.
- Starting with the dry mixture and ending with the melted, cooled butter, alternately fold the dry ingredients and the butter into the egg whites, one-third at a time.
- Fill your tins with batter until they are nearly full. Sprinkle some more black sesame seeds on top and bake in the center of the oven until the cakes are firm in the center (about 25 minutes). Let the cakes cool before turning them out the tins. These will keep in a sealed container at room temp for about five days!