I hate to admit it, but I am not generally one to get excited about history, museums or culture. At a stretch, I suppose you could call me a philistine.
But, my time in Taiwan has improved my interest in, and my attitude toward, both history and culture. That’s a good thing, considering our next destinations and ongoing adventures. The Island of Taiwan was colonised by the Dutch in 1624, and since that time it has been ruled by the Spanish, Tungning, Qing, Formosan, Japanese and Chinese. If you’d like a little more Taiwan history, just click here.
Rather than retell their story, I’ve decided to share a couple of my Taiwanese cultural highlights, starting with the Taiwan National Palace Museum. The museum attracts historians and tourists from all over the world, especially those from mainland China, and houses a permanent collection of some 700,000 pieces of imperial artifacts and artworks, making it one of the largest in the world. Whilst the Museum houses all those treasures, it only ever displays about 8,000 pieces at any one time. The display is continually changing and the collection encompasses over 10,000 years from the Neolithic age to the late Qing Dynasty.
My favourite pieces included hand carved cherry and olive pips, an amazing solid piece of Ivory, transformed into 40 intricately carved individual moving balls, all contained inside each other, a tiny ceramic “chicken cup” worth more than $30 million, and the most popular Jade Cabbage and
Pork Meat Stone. The queue of Chinese tourists to see the Jade Cabbage and Pork Meat Stone was incredible. It extended the full width of the Museum. We asked our guide why these two pieces were the most popular…..she didn’t know why….they just are. To give you some perspective, the Jade Cabbage only stands about 30cm tall.
I commented to Anne as we departed the Museum that I usually associate the word “treasure” with paintings, precious metals and gems. After my visit to the National Palace Museum, I have expanded my definition.
Food too is an integral part of any culture, and I had never thought that a Dumpling restaurant would rate on my list as a cultural experience, but it did. Have you ever had to queue for your local restaurant? We had to take a number and wait on the street like every other patron for our table at Din Tai Fung. Din Tai Fung is a Taipei tradition, originally founded as a cooking oil retail shop in 1958. As the consumption patterns of cooking oil started to change in the early 1970’s threatening the survival of the business, Din Tai Fung was transformed into a restaurant in 1972 serving XiaoLongBao. That’s innovation!
In 1973, the New York Times rated Din Tai Fung amongst the top 10 restaurants in the world, and the only Asian restaurant on the list. Not a bad effort for a Taipei based business! Today there are nine Taiwan based Din Tai Fungs, and branches in eleven other countries. The meal and experience was well worth the wait. It was interesting to note that the dumplings were all made by hand on the premises by a small team of experienced chefs, pounding, kneading, wrapping, folding and steaming.
On the night we visited, in addition to the dumplings, Din Tai Fung offered us up a special extra……….a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. I was watching the lady at the table opposite as her eyes grew bigger and her facial expression turned to fear. I was a little slower than her in feeling the entire building gently rock, and notice the art works sway on the wall. Just as things settled down, a small after shock gave us another shake. Gladly no one was injured and no building damage resulted. We all took a deep breath and continued with our meal. Today the earth really did move for me.
Here’s a little XiaoLongBao tip that I learned at Din Tai Fung. When next you eat a dumpling, place it on your spoon and pierce the casing with your chop stick. This will allow the juice to collect in your spoon for later enjoyment, rather than running down your chin, scolding your skin and staining your best shirt :-).