Friday, November 25, 2011

Post 68: Taipei - Never Too Far from Dessert

No matter where you are, you are never too far from dessert in Taipei.  Around every corner, at every intersection, and down every alley, you can find a plethora of post meal refreshments such as handmade mochi, shaved ice, fresh tropical fruit, milk tea, and ice cream.

One of my favorite sweets is mochi (麻糬).  Although the invention of mochi is usually accredited to the Japanese, the Taiwanese have their own balls of rice cake as well.  Whereas the Japanese mochi is filled with sweet pastes such as red bean paste or peanut butter, the Taiwanese version is often not filled at all.  Taiwanese style mochi is dense the entire way through and is also much smaller in size.  The mini mochi balls are commonly rolled in peanut powder, black sesame seeds, granulated sugar, or a combination of the above.  The flavor factor is on the outside rather than enclosed within the layer of pounded rice.

Mochi can even become a form of entertainment at some dessert shops.  I found this out at Sweet Rice Ball (雙連圓仔湯), where I was served one giant blob of mochi (燒) plopped within a sandstorm of peanut powder, black sesame seeds, and little bits of sugar crystals.  A few toothpicks were placed alongside the enormous sphere of congealed rice.  My aunt picked up the toothpicks and started puncturing the rice cake.  After she had perforated the rice cake, she separated it into a dozen or so miniature mochi balls and rolled them around in the sweet peanut and sugar mixture.  She did it so quickly that I didn't even get a chance to try it for myself.  But no worries... I saved my energy for chewing the ridiculously elastic and malleable sticky rice balls.  No chocolate, no syrups, no heaviness.  Just naturally and slightly sweet.  It's even more fun to eat because it can be popped into your mouth in just one bite.

Sweet Rice Ball also serves shaved ice, which is one of my favorite chilled desserts.  Shaved ice is one of the most powerful ways to combat Taipei's horrendous heat and humidity.  What I like about the shaved ice at Sweet Rice Ball is that they not only have the traditional shaved ice toppings such as red bean, peanuts, and mochi, but they also have lots of unique toppings that other shaved ice shops don't offer as well such as sweet taro paste, corn, and white wood ear fungus.  I would choose this over artificially flavored, multi-colored snow cones any day.

If traditional or unique shaved ice toppings isn't your thing, count your blessings because Taipei has a wealth of shops that serve mango shaved ice and green tea shaved ice. Literally around the corner from world famous dumpling house Din Tai Fung is a shop that specializes in shaved ice called Smoothie House (思慕昔). What's cool about the shaved ice there is that fruit and condensed milk has been infused directly into the ice.

Every part of the dessert is covered in either fruity mango ice, fragrant Taiwan mango (艾文芒果), or golden yellow mango ice cream, so every bite of shaved ice tastes like a milky avalanche of sweet, tropical mango.  It's not even shaved ice or shaved snow anymore.  It's like a shaved mango bonanza. 

The matcha green tea shaved snow here is just as good.  It is as green as Kermit, which means the flavors of Japanese green tea have been truly conquered every part of the ice.  The hill of green tea ice is covered in a mound of sweet, soft azuki bean, and topped off with a panna cotta that is smooth and supple.  It tastes like an East Asian Christmas party.

If healthy is your thing, then you are in luck.  Taiwan is one of the best places in Asia to get fresh fruit.  With its sub-tropical climate, harvesting tropical fruit such as bananas, guavas, lychees, mangoes, mangosteens, pineapples, and wax apples are no trouble at all.  Fruits from Taiwan are, in a word... beautiful.  The first thing you notice about the guavas at the sidewalk fruit stands is the bright color of the fruit.  It's nothing like the pale pink that we get here in the States or in our cartons of Kern's Nectar.  Its fruitful fertility beckons you over the stand, which is when you smell the utterly fragrant scent of the bananas, mangoes, and pineapples.  Those are smells that literally open your eyes and take your breath away.  It's no wonder that the Taiwanese have one of the highest rates of fruits and vegetables consumption in all of Asia.

If you're like me and hate peeling and cutting fruit, then skip the fruit stands and grocery stores altogether.  Instead, head over to a café that serves afternoon tea.  My favorite place to munch on juicy, succulent fruit is in Tamsui, a district of New Taipei City on the edge of the coast.  Red 3 Café (淡水紅樓咖啡館) is atop a staircase that appears to have a million steps.  But the hike to the top is worth it.  There are ample fruits in the afternoon tea selection, and of course, there is a view overlooking the Tamsui River.  Did I mention the beautiful castle that sits halfway to the top? A reward for your efforts on the brick Stairmaster, no doubt.

Too full from dumplings or beef noodle soup and can't hold down another bite? Well, Taipei offers the best iced beverages around.  There are tea houses everywhere that serve fruit infused tea and milk tea.  You may even see some familiar stores such as Quickly, Ten Ren, and 85C.  If you are craving a Frappuccino, Taipei is abound with three or four-storied Starbucks stores.  Almond milk tea? You got it.  Crash milk with grass jelly? You got it.  Lychee flavored Slurpee from 7-Eleven? Not even a problem.

What you may not know, though, is that Taipei also has plenty of coffee houses.  Taiwan is not a major player in the coffee bean industry, but its climate makes for rich and aromatic coffee beans.  Cama Café is brews its Joe (Chou in Taiwan?) to order.  From first hand experience and according to A Girl Lost in Taipei, you can smell their coffee from way down the street.  Their iced chocolate is also good.  It's not just syrupy sweet... it's packed with chocolatey cocoa punch.  Just enough sweet to seal off your appetite.  Oh, and it's just plain cool that they delivery your coffee on bicycles.

Anywhere you go in Taipei, you will find a dessert that is sweet enough for your palate.  Personally, though, I'd say you can't leave Taiwan without having some fresh fruit and some shaved ice.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 201109XX

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