Friday, March 18, 2011

The Best Sweets and Desserts in Taipei

Ah, the Pacific Rim. So much about the food here is unparalleled - and yet it can be really hard to find decent sweets (and baked goods - no, I do not want my bread bun covered in mayonnaise). Local sweets can be "good enough" - I'm OK with Japanese chocolate, those caramel candies that come in different flavors, coffee, tea, mango and rose candies from Japan or Indonesia and maybe, just maybe, the "Italian" chocolate mousse cake from Cafe 85 (the only good thing they make, and it's not stupendous). On a hot day I love a good mango shaved snowflake ice, and on a cold day hot ginger dou hua (tofu pudding in sweetish broth) can be lovely.

But, let's face it, the sweets we all keep coming back to hail from the West. Asia may be neck-in-neck (if not ahead) with us when it comes to first-rate food, but we rule the roost in sweets. Not so in India, where I was amazed to lose weight considering the sheer volume of milksweets, samiya payasam, kheer, halwa and gulab jamun I ingested, but definitely so in East Asia. (There was one sweetmaker in Madurai who made these round Indian milksweets reminiscent of maple candy that would melt in your mouth in the most delightful way - if I ever find him again I'll import him to Taiwan).

There are places in Taipei to get your sweet on, however. Lots of them. This is a fairly small list of all that's available - just naming some of my favorites. I've put the two places to get fantastic high-end European-style noms at the top, with more common - but just as delicious - options below.

1.) Caffe Libero
#1 Lane 243 Jinhua Street, Da'an Dist. Taipei (near Yongkang St).

They close at 6 on Sundays (for shame!) and have good, but not mindbendingly tasty, coffee. In the back, however, through some darkly-lit rooms, there is a small French-style patisserie that makes some of the most delectable goodies in Taipei. We're talking the real deal, high-end Paris cafe goodies. The care and quality of the choices reminds me of when I was actually in Paris (for four days, with my parents, not some exciting and wild trip) and we stopped in a little pastry shop to try a few things - we did that a lot: we stopped the next day in a famous chocolate shop and bought chocolates, too. I picked out a little tart, glistening with apricot glaze, ringed by a crumbly, buttery crust and bursting at the top with plump strawberries in that ripe shade of red that screams "eat me", pushed down gently into a soft, forgiving custard.

I've never forgotten that tart, and though I didn't order the tart at Caffe Libero, the taste and quality of the dainties we did order brought back the memory. I especially recommend the blackcurrant-pistachio sweet - in alluring shades of of deep pink and soft green, it's unforgettably good.

#125 Zhongyang Road, Xindian (MRT Xiaobitan, Exit 2, turn right)

Go for the great Italian food, and stay for dessert. We had a plate of three - an Italian cheesecake, a brownie and a tiramisu. All three were over-the-moon delicious - I especially recommend the brownie. It was velvety on the inside, chock full of chocolate but not too sweet, with a slightly crisp crust that gives a delightful mouthfeel. We had them with grappa but you might prefer them with coffee.

Wenzhou St. just south of Xinhai Rd., Taipei

While not haute cuisine like the two listings above, this is undoubtedly the best hot chocolate in Taipei (the waffles are good enough, but the hot chocolate is truly memorable). It's as though they took six months' worth of a normal person's chocolate consumption and concentrated it into one mug. I'm not sure how they do it - with real chocolate or just lots of good quality cocoa powder and cream - but someone there has a magic recipe. They offer it in several flavors - try the Wild Aztecah, which features a hit of spice along with some alcohol.

#3 Lane 93 Shi-da Road, Taipei

I know that Hungry Girl didn't care for the place, but I still go there as my main source of American-style baked goods (I go to Cafe Goethe, below, if I want more German-style sweets). The cakes are just the sort of sugar frenzies you'd want at a good birthday party, and are always soft and moist. They do a great apple pie with Grandma-style crust (sweet, a bit crunchy, puffed up from cooking) and a delicious, homemade filling dotted with raisins like sweet little jewels. Very good with espresso.

5.) Beard Papa - creampuffs
Breeze Taipei Main

This Japanese brand makes the best cream puffs I've tried outside Europe (and I've eaten a lot of cream puffs in Europe - no, I don't call them profiteroles). They're big and chock full of flavorful vanilla cream with a crust that is just the right balance of soft and crispy: almost so big as to be sinful. When my uncle was married (the first time) in England, they had a croquembouche as their wedding cake - the profiteroles stacked to create it were passed around with strings of spun sugar still attached and chocolate sauce for dipping, and it was divine. The puffs themselves, though delicious, were rather small - not a bad thing, but contrasting that to the giant Beard Papa creampuff you're eating might make you feel as though you are making a glutton of yourself with more than your fair share of the world's goodness.

Several locations across Taipei - best ambiance at Huashan restaurant

Be careful of overcharging here (it happened to us/people I know twice and while I can excuse the confusion over one bill - which we had to correct three times - as the result of a newbie in dire need of experience, I can't help but suspect it's done on purpose when it then happens to someone else I know at the same location), but as long as you keep a wary eye on the bill, be sure to try the tiramisu.

Tiramisu at Johnny Cucina Italiana is light fare of impeccable quality and layers of flavoring - cocoa, cream, coffee, liqueur. Alley Cat tiramisu is a big, soft, messy square of deliciousness often served in tinfoil. If made well, it's soaked with alcohol and can be enjoyed just for what it is: something you don't eat delicately with a tiny gold fork but something you dig into with vigor as you finish the last of your beer.

7.) Cafe Goethe - German cakes and pies
#11 Lane 283 Roosevelt Rd. Sec 3 (near Sai Baba pita bar)

Ever been to Cakelove in Washington, DC? The owner bakes is his cakes the way your German great-grandmother might have done. They're thick, they're heavy, they've got more butter in them than you care to think about, you can pick the slices up with your hand as you eat them and they are utterly delicious (and filling).

Cafe Goethe's cakes are made on much the same principle - they're as delicious as they are stolid. Where Caffe Libero's fare is a flighty French maid flitting about in Belle Epoch buildings, Cafe Goethe's sizeable cakes are pushing plows in the field.

My husband has never cared much for citrusy sweets (lemon cookies, lime bars, orange chocolate etc.) and even he thoroughly enjoyed a slice of their orange-flavored cake. Of their Sachertorte he said - "I have one word to describe this, besides delicious." "And what would that be?" "Structural."

Go for the cakes (and pies - they sometimes have good pies on offer), stay for the coffee which often comes as a deal with the cake. If your stomach can handle the onslaught, try some of their very good food and beer (I recommend the jagerschnitzel and the wursts sure look good).

Pick up some bread on the way out, too.

8.) Zabu - banana bread and chocolate brownie
#9-4 Pucheng Street Taipei (near Shi-da)

The desserts at this arty, indie-music supporting Japanese-style student cafe are served in Japanese portions: you don't get a lot, but what you get is high quality. The banana bread is stuffed with banana flavor, and the brownies are rich and chocolatey. The brownie comes with two choices: a brownie square a la mode, or two brownie squares (I always get the two squares).

9.) The Diner - cinnamon apple pancakes
#6 Lane 103 Dunhua S. Road Section 2 (and) Rui-an Street #145, Da'an Dist.

The Diner is often seen as the epicenter of good Western food in Taipei, and I'm not one to disagree (it's certainly better than Friday's - ugh). While they always tell me that they can't do coffee with whiskey although I know full well that they can and I have to argue with yet another new server, and while I wasn't blown away by their Eggs Benedict, I stand by their apple cinnamon pancakes as the best deal in town for sweet, syrup-drenched pancake goodness (I think it's fake syrup, though, which is sort of a crime).

10.) Taipei Snow King (台北雪王) - crazy flavored ice cream
#65 Wuchang Street, Taipei (near Ximen and Zhongshan Hall)

This place has its avid fans and its customers, unimpressed by offerings of Taiwan Beer, Kaoliang, pig's foot and chili pepper ice cream, who go away saying "meh", but I love the joint. It's small - easy to miss with no English sign and run mostly by a little old lady with a round, curly gray 'fro, and has the wildest ice cream in town (I'd say Movenpick has the "best" ice cream, but Taipei Snow King has the corner on uniqueness). Recommended: chili pepper, honey, wasabi, rose liqueur, plum wine, mint, cinnamon, ginger, carrot. If you try the Kaoliang (Gaoliang), get another scoop as a chaser. You'll need it - they use real Kaoliang in that stuff and the ice cream maker doesn't take away the potency!

11.) That German restaurant in Shinkong Mitsukoshi Xinyi: chocolate cake
Can't find the name or the address

I've never been able to find the name of this place and am too lazy to go back to Shinkong Mitsukoshi to check. It's a brewery-restaurant with decent beer (not as good as Jolly's brews), middling food (try Goethe instead) but really good chocolate cake. It's not heavy like Cafe Goethe or super sweet like My Sweetie Pie - it's just a soft, airy, chocolatey standard that you won't regret - and it goes well with dark beer.

12.) Taiwanese sweets: Mango Snowflake Ice and Hot Ginger Dou Hua
Mango Snowflake Ice: Sugar House @ Nanshijiao Night Market (entering the market from Nanshijiao MRT Exit 2, turn left at the T and it's on the right mid-way down) - Zhonghe, Taipei County

Hot ginger dou hua (薑汁豆花) - Sanxia Old Street, Sanxia, Taipei County (suck on that, KMT)

The Taiwanese do make a few local sweets worth mentioning. I'm not a fan of their sweet bread-based products, all the best chocolate is of course imported, the caramel candies are nice but not unforgettable, but they do a good shaved ice and dou hua.

Sugar House uses good fresh fruit (make sure to order in season though) - if you order mango or strawberry shaved ice in season you'll be in for a sweet treat. They also do good fresh smoothies.

I've always liked, but not loved, hot dou hua - the sweet broth is a bit too pallid for my taste and while the boiled peanuts, taro and sweet potato goo balls and red beans are nice additions, it doesn't bring it up to the level of true excitement. Add a little ginger juice, though, and suddenly it's one of my favorite things to eat during the gray Taipei winter. Sanxia is the best in northern Taiwan (Anping, one restaurant in particular on the old street, in an old brick house with a lion lintel, has the best all-around dou hua in Taiwan) and specializes in the ginger flavored variant.

13.) Bongo's - Sticky Toffee Pudding

The rest of the menu is at par but not really above-par, and there is better Western food to be had in Taipei (although I do enjoy their wraps). Really, go here for the used books and the toffee pudding - it's a cake-like thing, moist with soft boiled condensed milk toffee (the kind you'd find in banoffee pie) and topped with vanilla ice cream, and is generally just YUM.

14.) A bunch of places that surely exist, which I haven't tried yet

Among other places, you may have noticed that I didn't include Paul - a French bakery that actually bakes the sweets in France and flies them to Taipei. That's because I haven't been there - it's expensive as heck (more so than anything listed here) and I have heard that they bake the pastries in France and fly them in. I do think it is possible to make great sweets in Taipei and I find that flying them in from Europe is not only environmentally unfriendly, it's kind of pretentious. Why eat a pastry that's had time to go stale on a transcontinental flight when it is possible to make good pastries here? I'll stick with local and fresh, thanks.

I'm also a fan of Mom's Pies, but prefer My Sweetie Pie's apple pie and they're either back-of-a-van or delivery only. You can't go in and just have a slice of pie.

There are surely other places, as well, and I look forward to any recommendations you may have!

Reason #12 To Love Taiwan

Asian Pop Star Haircuts for Men.

That's all.

Let's Talk About Abortion in Taiwan

I intended to include this in a longer post about National Health Insurance, but that was far too big a topic to bite off in one post and I'll instead cover it in several, with a focus on women's health, but discussing the system as a whole (summary: it's a great system, certainly better than the "system" - heh - in the USA, but still needs some work and has flaws that ought to be addressed. That said, it's one of the best in the world).

I'm covering abortion first because I have more concrete information - I'm still looking into other aspects of women's health including contraception, health treatments and preventative medicine.

Anyway, abortion in Taiwan. No, not for me! I'm writing about this because it's a women's issue in Taiwan and it deserves some more recent coverage - most of the discussions and articles I found on the issue were severely dated and, honestly, didn't delve into the topic in nearly enough depth - the exception being a paper I found by David Sho-Chao Hung - a law student who may well have graduated by now - that discusses abortion law in Taiwan compared to the USA. The paper is not dated, however. Only Hung's paper discusses the moral, cultural and feminist issues surrounding the abortion issue, as well.

It is amazing how much misinformation there is among the general public in Taiwan. As I've mentioned before, my work brings me into the offices of many pharmaceutical companies, some government offices and other people whose positions could lend a general assumption that they are familiar with how abortion law works in Taiwan.

Sadly, that is not true. I've never been so shocked by public misconception of abortion in Taiwan since I started asking people about it.

The general idea seems to be that in Taiwan, abortion is "illegal", except in cases of medical danger to the mother or the child, but that it is quite common for women with healthy pregnancies to get abortions at "illegal" clinics or through legal clinics willing to engage in ethically gray practices - or through pills purchased illegally at dispensaries. One person I know described it as an "abortion wave" at the end of every summer, where young women go to clinics for abortions despite them being technically "illegal" (as I'll show later, they're not actually "illegal", just very highly regulated with a lot of workaround room, though not nearly enough), to doctors found through a social network or by distraught parents, often paid for by parents who want to make the problem go away.

A problem that could be greatly ameliorated if there was better sex ed in Taiwan in the first place. The solution to the "abortion wave" at the end of every summer is not to make abortions easier to get (even though I do support the freedom of choice) but to educate tweens and teens about safe sexual practices...I'd like to see the abortion rate go down to zero, but not at the expense of women's rights - but I digress.

This shocking misconception can be somewhat explained by different interpretations of the law, although that doesn't entirely excuse it.

The law in Taiwan is, in summary, that abortions are legal for:

1.) medical reasons - danger to the mother or fetus including deformities and defects - this includes psychological trauma to the mother
2.) rape or incest (which must, apparently, be "proven")
3.) "seduction" - meant to cover statutory rape but can technically be used as a reason by a woman of any age
4.) mental/psychological issues of the parent(s) that could be passed on to the child

...but are not a guaranteed right for all women, are not constitutionally protected, and are meant to be performed only in the extreme cases above.

That's where the misinterpretation may come in: women seeking abortions quickly learn that they are available - if you're single, it's fairly easy to claim "seduction" (it was meant to cover statutory rape but there is nothing stopping a grown woman from claiming it) or "psychological stress" due to inability to properly care for or raise the baby, or even claim an onset of depression (which is very morally gray).

It's harder for married women, even though there might be ways to slither around the provision.

I could see how someone who is not seeking an abortion and will never (or may never) seek an abortion (such as a man, or woman beyond childbearing age or a woman who would carry an unexpected pregnancy to term rather than terminate it) might interpret the above is "it's illegal unless it's a medical issue or rape/incest issue" - it wouldn't necessarily occur to them to claim "psychological stress" or "seduction" because they're not in that position, and so their view is more literal. I could see how making such claims could be interpreted as "illegal" under the spirit, though not the letter, of the law (I'd argue that the spirit of the law is sexist and wrong, so it's OK).

I'd go so far as to say that there is nothing wrong with claiming "psychological stress": I do trust that any woman making the drastic decision to have an abortion is a mature person - even if she may have been forced to become mature very quickly - who has agonized and considered every aspect of this decision before making her final choice. Abortion is serious business, and I do believe that any woman considering it knows this. Therefore, if she decides in the end to terminate her pregnancy, then she would know better than anyone that carrying it to term would cause her undue psychological stress.

Single women can get an abortion for any of the above reasons, mentally handicapped women need the consent of a guardian, an underage girl needs the consent of her parents and - most disturbingly - a married woman needs (or needed) the consent of her husband.

I say "needs or needed" because it's unclear: Mr. Hung's paper and other discussions online have mentioned that a married woman needs to obtain her husband's consent, and yet this Taipei Times article from 2006 mentions specifically that a husband's consent is not required (though he must be informed).

And yet in this 2009 article, it states that spousal consent is, in fact, required and that the age after which a young woman doesn't need parental consent is 20 (20!! Really! So we're all adults at 18, except for women, who are still children at 20).

That's almost - but not quite - worse. It's not even clear from a few hours' worth of Internet research whether or not a married woman can seek an abortion independently. How could that NOT be readily available information? What kind of oversight is that?

The information - at least in English - doesn't appear to be available, and yet it is something that every woman in Taiwan has a right to know.

If it is true, then argh. I don't know how it could get more sexist, patriarchal and paternalistic than that. You are free to disagree with me, and I respect that people have different views, but that's my opinion. It's of paramount importance to protect the autonomy and rights of a woman over her own body.

The possibility that - as mentioned in the Forumosa discussion linked above and below - any man could show up and sign a consent paper and nobody will check to see if it's truly the husband/assumed father doesn't really make it better. It does provide married women in abusive marriages with an option. By the way, I count any marriage in which the woman's autonomy is compromised and controlled by a "head of the household" as abusive. That doesn't include women who enter freely and purposely into marriages in which their husband takes charge, because presumably if she had a problem later on and the marriage were healthy, she would still have autonomy to deal with it. That said, the fact that the signature of a man - potentially any random man (I have no idea if the Forumosa discussion is based in truth or not) - is more important than the decision of the pregnant woman is unconscionable. I...I just....I 受不了!NO! NOT OK. How is that NOT sexist?

There are so many reasons for my views on this (I'm tempted to say it's not even my views, it's just true whether you like it or not) which are very well-addressed in Mr. Hung's paper - if I were to elaborate, I'd be basically parroting his excellent reasoning.

If it is not true, then the government has done a shockingly poor job of disseminating valuable information on women's rights. Also NOT ACCEPTABLE.

Don't even get me started on the fact that you have to "prove" rape or incest (pregnancy by anyone with whom marriage would be deemed illegal - which basically means incest) in order to get an abortion on those grounds. How traumatic! How heartless! How completely soulless and sick! Forcing a woman to produce evidence (what evidence, exactly, is what I'd like to know) of such a thing is like taking the trauma sticking in her heart like a poisonous arrow and plunging it deeper. It completely de-humanizes the woman and displays an unacceptable lack of empathy for women in such a situation. It makes my blood boil and my hands shake.

Taiwanese society has changed a lot since the law was enacted in 1985. There is still a lot of sexism and there are still patriarchal attitudes in the culture, but things have evened out considerably, to the point where I'd say that Taiwan is the most female and feminism friendly country in Asia. It's the most egalitarian regarding gender issues and is ages ahead of Korea, Japan, China or really any other country in Asia. A lot of the attitudes about husbands making decisions that impact their wives in such a cutting manner have been eradicated, and women are generally accorded respect, rights and a general assumption that they can make their own decisions and run a household as well as a man (at least in urban areas - the countryside is surely different). This is a generalization, of course, and there are certainly still lawmakers and citizens of urban Taiwan who still cling to outdated beliefs about a woman's place, but I'm conjuring the generalization because it is generally true.

There is, as a result, no reason for this law to continue in the manner in which it has. Attitudes are changing and the societal notions that helped frame the legalization of abortion in 1985 are no longer quite so valid. The law, therefore, needs to change alongside these cultural sea changes.

And yet, problems continue - as late as 2006, lawmakers wanted to add waiting periods and mandatory counseling to the abortion law for any woman seeking an abortion (I found a lot of news regarding the proposal and none regarding whether or not it was passed - if someone has info on that please let me know but I can hopefully assume that the proposal did not pass).

Give women in Taiwan true freedom of choice - allow them to seek an abortion without having to put up a weak claim to a medical reason, and clarify, publicly, whether married women require spousal consent. If they do, change the law - give them the ability to choose for themselves.

I do realize that abortion is not the hot topic of debate in Taiwan that it is in the USA. The deep conservative/liberal divide we have back home doesn't exist as such here. That said, it surprises me, as well, that more women's groups haven't been taking up this issue - the public misconceptions, the lack of accurate information and the ridiculous strictness of the law are all begging to be fought tooth-and-nail by feminists and women's rights advocates in this country.

Oh yes, and abortions are not covered under National Health Insurance, as far as I could find (again, the information is not clear

Here are some links for you, organized into one place from the spatter of linkings above:


I want to finish by saying that yes, I am pro-choice, and I have many reasons for that, which I don't feel I need to justify as that's not the point. I do respect that other people have other views and am not trying to force my opinion on them - someone who is pro-life is just as able to fight for his/her beliefs as I am for mine. As someone who believes that there are more gray areas in the moral and ethical realm than black-and-whites (though there are some of those, too), I do realize that my opinion is not the only one. I welcome your comments and civil debate.

Note: More thoughts in the comments section.

Ye Old English Guangdong Drinkware: Made in China edition

I am writing a post now about where to find good sweets in Taipei, but got temporarily distracted by this.

"The Fairytale Romantic Union of All the Centuries"

See? Prince William and his lady bride-to-be. No no no, don't argue with me, that's totally Prince William. Guandong Enterprises even says so on their website.

I borrowed the picture from Regretsy, linked below - that site makes me laugh every day but as a one-time resident of China, it made me especially crack up today.

You can read about it here or visit the company website.

(I urge you to visit both).

I won't tell you whether I bought one or not.

Even if it is a hoax, which it may be, it's a pretty funny one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Super Healthy Veggie Packed Fried Rice

I made this tasty, vegetable-packed dish today as a different take on the usual greasy, starchy fried rice. It's still got oil (olive) and rice (brown, whole grain) but with this many veggies, healthier fats and grains, flaxseed and optional protein, it's a tasty and colorful alternative to the usual stick-to-your-butt-no-matter-how-often-you-bike options in restaurants in Taipei.

It turned out fantastic - both flavor-wise and appearance-wise, with a lot of colorful veggies including pumpkin, red and yellow bell pepper, carrot and purple and green beetroot leaves. It was like a harvest-time reinterpretation of the fried rice genre!

1 cup brown rice
olive oil - need not be extra virgin or fancy (the flavor of extra virgin would get lost in cooking)
a pat of butter (optional)
1 whole bell pepper (or 1/2 each of two different colors of bell pepper)
2 cups of beetroot leaves (they're the ones in the market that are purple on one side and dark green on the other)
1/2 large carrot
1/2 small pumpkin (the gourd-like ones sold in Taiwanese day markets)
1/2 small sweet onion
To taste (optional): Thai fried shallots, black bean sauce, Lao Gan Ma, huajiao "flower pepper", salt, black pepper, fresh red chilis, sesame oil, soy sauce, paprika, vinegar, lemon juice, de-stemmed chopped cilantro, chopped fresh garlic, pulverized fresh ginger

three tbsp ground flaxseed (optional but really good for you)
a small amount of extra virgin olive oil and sesame oil to taste (optional)

Begin the long process to cook brown rice (it takes quite a while), adding a bit of salt, pepper and paprika to the water. Remember that brown rice requires more water (about 50% more), more heat, more steam and more time than white rice.

Set some water to boil to cook the pumpkin (if you want to be super-cool, cook the pumpkin chunks, including peeled skin, first, take out the skin and throw it away, set the cooked pumpkin aside and use the water to cook the rice to give it more nutrients and more flavor).

Wash and chop the onion and bell pepper, set aside
Wash, de-stem and chop beetroot leaves, set aside
Wash and grate or julienne carrot, including skin, add to beetroot leaves, set aside
Use a peeler to de-skin the small pumpkin, scoop out seeds, cut into chunks and boil until just cooked.

Wipe down a wok with just enough olive oil to comfortably cook, add chopped and powdered spices/salt to taste (no liquids yet, but you can add black bean paste, Lao Gan Ma etc). Cook on low/medium until it smells good. Immediately add bell peppers and onions and stir in thoroughly. Add soy sauce, vinegar, lemon juice to taste. Raise to medium heat.

When that is almost but not quite cooked, add beetroot leaves and grated carrot and cook until the leaves go a bit soft (not too soft). Add pumpkin. Mix well on medium (adding a bit of water if it gets a bit dry and threatens to burn).

Add cooked brown rice (ideally you prepared the rice well in advance as brown rice takes forever). Mix well and add flaxseed, stir in.

Add pat of butter and/or any flavoring oils at the end and stir well until it melts evenly into the mix.

The pumpkin should disintegrate somewhat and provide some consistency to the fried rice, but if you like the kind of rice that can be shaped into a dome, mix in one egg and mix well until thoroughly cooked in.

You can also add 1/3 cup cooked yellow lentils and/or walnuts, almonds or cashews if you want some protein (you can also add meat for that matter)!

Note: you can substitute or add vegetables - mushrooms would be great, as would small chunks of cauliflower or sweet potato leaves in lieu of beetroot. You could add tomatoes, bok choi, corn...really whatever you want.

Serve hot.

Already Campaigning

Tsai Ying-wen is already starting her campaign for the 2012 presidency, even though we're still not entirely sure who else is running.

This poster appears at the intersection of Nanjing and Dihua Streets in Dadaocheng, which is one of the stronger support bases that the DPP has in Taipei. Around her are several people I've never heard of, one of them appearing on a poster with Chen Chu, and DPP campaigners are already coming through Dihua Street regularly waving banners and making noise - as one does, of course.

I'm amused by the pink lettering, the cute font used on "2012" (looks better than the London Olympics logo anyway) and the self-reference as "Little Ying".

Aww. 好可愛呵!

The Best Coffee in Taipei

Everyone who reads this blog even remotely regularly knows about my semi-fanatical obsession with two foodstuffs: 1.) sea urchins and 2.) coffee. With coffee, I'm sort of like this.

I've written extensively about coffee before, but haven't really come out with a post that clarifies where good coffee - the best coffee - can be found in Taipei. This is that post.

You can get coffee anywhere in Taipei, from 7-11 to one of the myriad Starbucks, Dante Coffees or Ikari chains, as well as in department stores and other smaller chains (such as Artco and Is) and independent operators. It can be as cheap as a 40NT 7-11 latte (which is not your worst choice, I have to say) or as expensive as a 500NT cup of Kopi Luwak or overpriced but still substandard coffee at a lot of chi-chi cafes (Bastille, I'm looking at you).

Unfortunately, most options, as in the USA, are mediocre at best, and Charbucks is Charbucks everywhere, with their over-roasted jet fuel.

The key to a good coffee is a light hand with the roaster (even medium dark roast is fine, but many dark roasts - not all mind you - are just bitter and charred), even grinding and scrupulous preparation, although I'm the first to admit that I use a regular old coffee machine at home. The best coffee comes from a siphon brew, but it is possible to get good espresso and non-siphon coffee.

I'm not interested in listing out the millions of places in Taipei where you can get a brain-smack of caffeine - I'm talking about genuinely good coffee that one can savor, that wafts down the street with its strong scent and turns heads when you carry it away in a to-go cup. Yes, you can find it in Taipei.

Get your cup of awesome beans (the kind that hipsters and yuppies would say have a "great flavor profile") at:

Xinsheng S. Road Section 3 Lane 76 #1 (the entrance is on Xinsheng Road, not the lane)
I've praised this place to the moon and back, as you can read in the link above.

2.) The Best Roasted Coffee (TBRC)
Taipei, Shilin District - Jingshan Road #18: near the Wenhua University bus stop heading up Yangmingshan, and not far from the top of Tianmu Old Trail
This place is fantastic - you can buy a pound of coffee for NT500, and their home blend (a medium-to-dark roast) is only NT100 per cup, which is a steal. It's really tasty and goes down smoothly, so you don't need to drink it with milk (which is good, because the owner really will lecture you if you ask for milk or sugar). You can also buy cheesecake, cookies and other light fare here - the cheesecake is tangy and homemade without being too sweet.

Jinhua Street #247 - closest bus stop on a major route is Xinsheng/Jinhua along Da'an Park, also walkable from Yongkang Street

This place offers coffee that packs a flavorful punch - they take it very seriously, allowing you to smell the grounds several times to highlight different smells and potential flavors, and then serve it to you both in a standard coffee cup, which brings out darker, earthier flavors as well as in a small stemmed cordial glass, which brings out more syrupy, flowery liqueur-like flavors in the coffee. Not cheap, but totally worth it.

They also have branches in Taizhong and Tainan.

Guangzhou and Huanhe Rd. intersection near Longshan Temple
Try the "Ma Gao" coffee (馬告) at the booth selling Taiwanese local coffee here for NT90: the cup is small but it packs a strong punch of flavor, and best of all it's grown in Taiwan an (according to the vendor) is grown on aborigine-run farms, so you're doing good for the local economy and you get to try a Taiwanese local product not often found in stores.

#405 Sec. 1 Neihu Road Taipei (02)2799-4966
#123 Songde Road Taipei (02)2726-6085
#336 Jinhu Road Taipei (02) 2634-8803
#7 Lane 243 Jinhua Street Taipei (02) 2322-3830
B1 #14 Nanjing West Road Taipei (02) 2522-1681
This place is my new favorite find that you absolutely have to try. They're your best source of Kopi Luwak, if you've ever wanted to try it, and they'll brew it to perfection for you (I haven't tried it yet, but I will). I had a cup of coffee from Nicaraguan beans (can't remember which type) at their Songde Road location and I was blown away by the depth and spirit of the earthy, slightly smoky, addictive flavor. They siphon brew their good beans (lattes and other coffee types are also available) and there's a large choice of global beans, with a lot coming from Central America.

They also keep Jameson on hand, at least at Songde Road, which means they know how to make good coffee with whiskey.

Call ahead if you want a cup of Kopi Luwak - they'll make sure they have the most, ahem, fragrant beans for you to try.

Seriously - I love my Drop Coffee but this place is really just amazing, too. It's probably going to tie for 1st place in my list of favorite coffee shops, along with Drop.

6.) Black Bean Coffee
Zhongshan Road in Shilin, just south of the Zhongzheng Road intersection past Skylark and some other businesses
This place makes a good brew, if a little on the dark roasted side for my taste. A cup costs an average of NT150 - I strongly recommend the earthy but soft Monsoon Malabar coffee from India. They also sell handmade cookies.

I'm not sure if this place still exists - I haven't been there in years - but will check back soon to see if they're still around.

7.) Shake House (listed second in the post, after Red House)
Wenzhou Street / Lane 86 corner, across from Bastille, Gongguan
I usually praise this place for its homey, studenty feel and good selection of Belgian beers, but haven't mentioned how good their coffee is. They do not-too-bitter lattes, Americano and espresso, they make ice coffee in batches in a giant machine similar to a siphon, and their specialized beans are packed with flavor (try the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe or the Guatemala Huehuetenango). They can alcohol-ify any coffee order (just ask for it on request - I usually get a latte with a shot of alcohol added - I am fine with alcohol added to espresso drinks but would never add it to a good brew of quality medium-roast beans.

You can also buy the amazing Monsoon Malabar coffee here to brew at home.

#3 Lane 93 Shi-da Road, Taipei
I normally don't go for espresso, opting instead for larger servings of more expensive siphon coffee, but My Sweetie Pie makes a not-too-bitter espresso that I can really get behind. It's still darker and more bitter than I normally prefer, but it cuts through the sweetness of their delicious cakes so well that I can forgive the extra roasting time!

9.) Fong Da
#42 Chengdu Road (near Ximending)
This place is wildly popular with both coffee enthusiasts and people who love old Taipei institutions. They still use vintage equipment and have a 1950s vibe going, and lots of different beans to choose from. I have to say that I find their brews a bit overpowering (not like the deeply but not jarringly flavored siphon brews I normally go for), but hey, that doesn't mean it's not good stuff! The brew at Fong Da acts like jet fuel to the brain and still gets my vote!

10.) Update: Rufous Coffee
Fuxing S. Road Sec 2 #333 / 復興南路2段333號

I was tipped off about this place by another expat, and realized it's basically just down the road from where I work. Fuxing S. Road south of Heping and north of Xinhai boasts three coffeeshops and a tea shop. The first is Tiamore, which has good (but not the best) coffee, is a bit down-at-heel and boasts a bevy of semi-friendly cats - or at least they did, it seems the owners don't keep cats there anymore since my last visit. The final one is called Mono, and I haven't actually gotten coffee there yet, but they serve it in glasses, not cups, and there's a shy but sweet cat there. Their mint and pomelo tea is great and they do a good brownie with ice cream.

Update: read below re: Rufous's siphon brews, but really what you want to be getting at this place is an espresso drink. For a very mildly flavored coffee, try the honey and cinnamon latte. For a luxurious experience, try the Irish coffee (with real sweet foamed milk, not whipped cream, to cut the bitterness of the whiskey-flavored coffee below). For a hot or stressful (or hot and stressful) day, get the iced dark chocolate banana latte. Their cold brewed iced coffee is also fabulous.

Only just today I continued on to Rufous at this person's recommendation, and the coffee was pretty excellent (I had a syphon-brewed coffee from Panama). The atmosphere is completely different from Tiamore, where I go for a friendly, very 台neighborhood feel - Rufous is smaller, more upmarket, more expensive. No cats, but the coffee is better. I did find the Panama to be lacking some of the depth of the coffees I've tried at Shake House (see above) and Drop (also above) - especially both shops' Sumatra coffee, and the Kona at Drop, as well as the Nicaraguan coffee at Coffee Family Roaster. The Panama coffee - ordered because I don't see beans from Panama on menus very often - was roasted a bit darker than I like it, as well.  However, it was quite good, and I intend to go back and try not only the house blend but also ask them to make me a light roast coffee, and see what they can come up with.

11.) Gold Diamond Coffee (金鑽咖啡)
Zhonghe, Xinbei City, Liansheng Road #41

About a 15 minute walk from MRT Jing'an (walk up Jinping Road and turn at Liansheng) and near the 262, 275 and various other bus routes, this place is a good bet if you're stuck in the wilds of Zhonghe. A good place to rest after a hike to Yuantong Temple or if you are otherwise in the area.

This tiny coffeeshop nestled among a huge slightly higher end apartment complex (but not inside it) on a quiet side street was a surprise find for me: I happen to know a family who lives in the complex - I play with their kids in English once a week (I'd be hard-pressed to call it a class as it's very non-traditional) and have gotten coffee here. The lattes are strong and flavorful, with lots of bold character, but the thing to get here is light roast drip coffee. I was blown away by what the guy made for me, and they have many choices of bean.

12.) Cafe Booday
Nanjing W. Road Lane 25 #18, 2nd floor above the shop (very close to MRT Zhongshan)

While the food at Booday didn't blow me away - the desserts were good, though - the one cup of Monsoon Malabar I had there was pretty delish. They have a selection of high-end coffees including this favorite of mine for approximately NT140 per cup. On the high end but not impossible, and your best choice among all the cafes in this area for a good cup of something comforting, caffeinated and well-made.

13.) Other places I haven't tried yet

There are a ton of places I haven't had the good fortune to drink coffee at, but are probably on par with the places listed above. There's an especially large number of cafes in the lanes around Yongkang Street, and some of my favorite places to drink beer also make pretty good coffee (not included here because I wanted to highlight the best of the best, but that doesn't mean they're not also good).

If you have a favorite stop for high-quality coffee - the kind you savor, not gulp - leave it in the comments!

You can also buy great beans to brew your own coffee at home at most of the places above, as well as at:

- 里仁: organic food store in Gongguan (go to Roosevelt Rd. Sec. 3 Lane 283, and it's just down the lane from So Free pizza) - you can buy organic coffee beans from southern Taiwan here - very flavorful!

If you want to brew South Indian or Thai/Vietnamese-style coffee (that is, coffee with chicory, and add condensed milk for Thai or Vietnamese or just tons of sugar and milk to make it Indian) go to Trinity Superstores and pick up a bag of "Bru". It's not "good" coffee in the yuppie sense but it is the real thing.