Heading south on New Year’s Eve day we decided to make a side trip up to Nanzhuang in Miaoli (苗栗 miáo lì) County. Nanzhuang was formerly written as “Nanjuang” though it was always 南庄 (nán zhuāng). Seems that they have been switching a lot of the romanization over to the ping ying system while I was away. Taking the train from Taipei we disembarked at Zhunan, formerly Jhunan, and always 竹南 (zhú nán) walked across the street and grabbed the bus up to Nanzhuang.
Nanzhuang is where I first encountered 腐乳 (fǔ rǔ) and first had a 菜脯蛋(cài fǔ dàn) both at an Atayal weaving shop now called Walking Sun, but use to be called Rasinay. It is also in a very beautiful valley. So I could not pass by without revisiting it, if not for at least a little while.
We got into Nanzhuang later than we had hoped. Of course making no arrangements ahead of time we immediately set upon finding lodging. Worst case scenario we would take the bus back to Zhunan and grab a hotel if all else failed. I must say regardless of its tourist draw I am surprised that there is not at least one hotel in town. Nor does the tourist information place seem to stay open even into the early hours of evening. Well a bit discouraged we were about to head over the river to see if we could locate one of the numerous 民宿 (mín sù), or very loosly translated “home-stays” that are in the area. Though there are seemingly none in the town proper.
We had not even reached the bridge when a man pulled his car over to ask if we needed a place to stay. And of course to say that he owned a min su. Apparently foreigners wandering around such a small town with packs on stand out a bit. He explained that he would drive us up and we could decide when we had seen it. I usually bristle at such tactics, though I usually already have a place to stay as well.
So in the car we hopped and he took us across the river to his min su. A rather large one named the Metiyuan 米提園 (mǐ tí yuán), #40 Li Jin Guan Rd (里金館 lǐ jīn guǎn 40號hào). It was clean and a reasonable enough rate. So we tossed our bags in our room and accepted his offer to drive us back across the river to town to find a bite to eat.
Being that Nanzhuang is well known for the density of its Hakka (客家 kè jiā) population and me being a country bumpkin myself I really like Hakka food. So our gentleman guide took us directly to a Hakka restaurant. The 客家媳婦小吃館 Kè Jiā Xí Fù Xiǎo Chī Guǎn, or something like “The Hakka Wife’s Small Eats Shop”…though not quite. It is at #33 Zhong Zheng Rd (中正路 zhōng zhèng lù). You can’t miss it, mostly because there are only like three streets in town.
At the restaurant we proceeded to order our favorite Hakka dish 薑絲大腸 (jiāng sī dà cháng), pig intestines stir fried with ginger. Which has a wonderfully slightly salty, sour sauce with both vinegar and in this case fermented soy beans. Add to that a bit of spice from the ginger and chilies it all comes together to complement the flavor of the pig intestines very well.
For our 青菜 (qīng cài) vegetable dish, we had another favorite, listed as 野菜 (yě cài) on the board out front. Which is a slightly ambiguous term that, I believe, is more often used in Japanese meaning something like wild vegetable. In this case it referred to 過貓 (guò māo) which is an edible fern. Which is stir fried and served hot with a raw egg on top, which you quickly mix in. It has a flavor I want to say is reminiscent of asparagus.
That and a couple bowls of rice and we were set. We were advised as to not order too many dishes as that the portions were large. True enough. We cleaned out plates while our driver awaited. Afterwards he gave us a ride back to the min su. Where we had a pleasant if not slightly labored chat, due to both our ebbed mandarin and his Taiyu accent, over some scotch he so kindly provided.
The next morning we were up early, with only a faint recollection of some fireworks waking us in the middle of the night. So we decided to take walk and take in the simple and sometimes quirky pleasures of country life that I find to be one of the main draws of the town, other than the food of course. So up Li Jin Guan Road we strolled on a crisp and quiet New Years morning.
After our little stroll we returned to the min su about the same time as the owner got back from the village with the complementary breakfast. The usual buns and soy milk sort of thing. Thank God they haven’t heard of “continental breakfast” yet. After which the owner insisted that he drive us up the valley to past the village of 東河 (dōng hé) on account we wanted to try and track down an old acquaintance. He simply would not have no for an answer, so we were at the mercy of his kindness one last time.
Finding our old acquaintance the min su owner finally bid us farewell. We spent some time up the valley taking in the local Atayal and Saisiyat indigenous cultures. And generally just enjoying the valley.
After which we headed back to Nanzhuang. To possibly look around the Old Street and check out the all the floral print cloth and the dried and pickled vegetables that the Hakka are famous for. But arriving back in town we realized why the owner of the min su told us we should leave a little on the early side to avoid traffic. The place was packed with tourists. The Old Street, which the term “street” is ridiculously generous, actually the term “alley” is nearly as incredibly generous, it is barely the width of a sidewalk and was 人山人海 (rén shān rén hǎi) “people from the mountains to the sea” as my old Chinese teacher would say. Yeah, so much for getting through there. (So I am going to throw up some old photos I have just for some establishing shots.)
So beyond advising anyone to either lodge in Zhunan or make arrangements before arriving in Nanzhuang I would highly suggest not going on a major tourist wekend if you can help it. So we focused on getting the most single most important product I think Nanzhuang has to offer. A Hakka style 黑糖糕 (hēi táng gāo), a sort of steamed rice and brown sugar cake about 8 inches across and a half inch thick. It is not just “Q” but “QQ” as in very chewy, mildly sweet, and with a hint of molasses flavor. I’ve been working on replicating it, but alas, I am not there yet.
After grabbing a hei tang gao we headed over to the bus stop and see when the next bus was. Lucky for us even though the bus had already pulled out of the station by the time we got there it was having no luck getting through all the tourists so the driver allowed us to hop on down the street. A short time later the bus managed to part the pedestrian crowds of the main street and we were on our way back to Zhunan to catch a train southward.