We left Pingtung early in the afternoon. The train first travels a bit further south passing past the aquaculture ponds that raise milkfish (虱目魚 shī mù yú), used for such things as milkfish congee). Before heading east, traveling through the tail end of the mountain range on the way to the East Coast. Traveling though quite a number of tunnels on the way, I don’t remember how many, I counted once but that was long ago. Some tunnels last just a few seconds others stretch on for some long minutes underground. Then the train pops out heading north along a beautiful coastline as it heads north for Taitung 台東 (tái dōng).
Taitung is our second home. We lived there for some time years ago and have revisited it many times since. However, it has been three years since we had been back and hearing that there were a lot of changes we were anxious to see for ourselves.
We disembarked from the train and took the local bus (鼎東 dǐng dōng is the name of the bus company) into town. Getting off the bus we headed directly to a homestay (民宿 mín sù) we have stayed at in the past. Finding that the owner now runs three or four homestays and this one is only used in the summer. A short scooter ride from the staff (there weren’t any staff before) later and we were at his new, main homestay. We tossed our bags in the room and with much more desire to see the town than to settle in, we were back out the door.
There is a fair bit of new development in town. A few new big hotels for all the tourists that come down on the new faster train from Taipei and all the Chinese tourists that now flood the island (there were none when we lived there). A new theater that seemed a bit expensive for Taitung and it looks like they knocked down a bunch of old Japanese era houses to start building a tourist center. Bollocks, sure they were uninhabited, dilapidated eyesores, but still I’m sure this wont be an improvement. There also seems to be new homestays everywhere I look.
Well we needed sustenance and the hardest part of that was deciding which place we want to go to first (assuming they are still there). We decided on the Seaweed (海草健康輕食館 hǎi cǎo jiàn kāng qīng shí guǎn) a popular and sorta famous noodle and dumpling shop at 205 Zhongshan Rd (中山路205 號).
Seaweed is a healthy noodle and dumpling shop (hence the 健康 jiàn kāng in the full name, it means “healthy”) and so there dishes have a cleaner, fresher flavor. But they are not bland and they are a really, really good. Which is why they are often packed.
We had their beef noodle soup (牛肉麵 niúròu miàn) and sesame noodles (麻醬麵 majiàng miàn). The beef noodle soup is probably the lightest and freshest tasting I’ve come across on the island. The noodles are perfect, having a bit of chew and the thin sliced meat is flavorful and tender. A side note on beef noodle soup, the dish is nationally popular and many varieties now exist. However, it was unheard of on the island before 1949, in fact eating beef was sort of taboo. Then Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT losing the civil war with the communists fled from China to Taiwan. Bringing with them different food cultures from around China and in this case Sichuan Province .
The sesame noodles are excellent. Perfect noodles, a bit of crunch from the bean sprouts and a flavorful sauce. Sesame noodles may be one of the cheapest noodle dishes on the island, but it is still a favorite for its flavor. If you have never had Taiwanese style sesame noodles they are a bit different than some other styles. They are served warm and the sauce is thinner and a bit more complex than a few other versions I’ve had. Ok that probably is not fair, Sichuan sesame noodles are good and complex. Just the Taiwanese don’t have the same level of heat.
After eating we continued to roam around taking in the town and noting the changes. But mostly just enjoying the laid back atmosphere of Taitung. And remembering, a lot of remembering.
We were happy to see that the little red bean cake (紅豆餅 hóng dòu bǐng) stand on Zhengqi Rd (正氣路) between Nanjing Rd (南京路) and Hangzhuo St (杭州街) is still there. Red bean cakes are popular and ubiquitous in Taiwan. They are made by pouring batter in a special pan then one side gets red bean filling and the other side is flipped over onto the first melding together. Forming a hockey puck shaped cake filled with sweet goodness. They are also Japanese in origin, where they go by many names including imagawayaki.
Though called red bean cakes they actually come in a couple fillings including vanilla custard (奶油 nǎi yóu) and peanut (花生 huā shēng). This stand also sells a pickled vegetable (鹹菜脯 xián cài pú) filled version, the only place I’ve seen that. It is different, not bad, but different. If you get the pickled vegetable one, do yourself a favor and eat it first.
It was getting late and we had a long day so we made a pass by the old train station and headed back to our room.