Tainan: The Historical and Cultural Heart of Taiwan

Historical Tainan is the former capital of Taiwan, the island’s oldest city, and the heart of traditional Taiwanese culture. The city is home to several of the island’s oldest and most famous temples—most notably the Confucius Temple—and is the destination of frequent pilgrimages. Tainan is also known for its deep-rooted food culture. There visitors will find some of the most traditional Taiwanese dishes, which can’t be found anywhere else.

Highlights
During a recent trip to Taiwan, my husband, who is English, asked me why the Taiwanese--unlike Americans--don’t seem to suffer high rates of peanut allergies. The question came up as I was scarfing down peanut brittle. Good point. Peanut is a ubiquitous ingredient on the island. Whole boiled peanuts are eaten as snack, as are salted, roasted ones. Ground peanuts are showered on gua bao, the Taiwanese taco of braised pork belly made famous by culinary bad boy Eddie Huang. Sweetened peanut paste makes its way into mochi, which are then rolled in peanut dust. Peanut soup is sold in cans at 7-Eleven. My grandfather’s favorite popsicle? Peanut, of course. We stumbled on this little shop near the old Dutch Fort in Tainan. The manager gamely showed me how they take peanut brittle and grind it up to make peanut roll--a local treat that’s basically like somewhat sandier peanut butter. We walked away with a bag of peanut brittle, peanut roll, and sesame-pumpkin seed brittle--so fresh that the salesgirl told me that each had an individual expiration date. Not too hard nor too sweet, they were gone within 48 hours.
704, Taiwan, Tainan City, North District, 台南市北區
Night markets are a quintessential Taiwan experience. Young couples, families, retirees, and swarms of teenagers descend upon these markets to graze, gossip, flirt, play, and graze some more. Lately, the ones in Taipei have been over-run by camera-toting tourists. For a real local experience, head to the charming town of Tainan. Generally laid-back and filled with colonial relics left behind by the Dutch and Japanese, Tainan also has one of the liveliest--and most local--night markets I’ve been to in recent years. Plunge into the food stall section and try specialties like oyster omelets, hand-made mochi filled with peanut or black sesame, and sausages made with sticky rice. Then head over to the cacophonous games section and watch punters try their luck for an enormous stuffed animal. (The kiddie ping-pong version of pachinko is particularly amusing/perturbing.) Had enough? Push you way back through the crowds and if you’re in luck, you’ll find the vendor selling the most exquisite pink guava mixed with sour plum powder.
732, Taiwan, Tainan City, Baihe District, 關仔嶺風景區
The flames on top of this pool of water are said to have been burning for more than 300 years, and were started by and earthquake that opened a fissure in the earth releasing natural gas into the bottom of the pool. The phenomenon is definitely worth stopping by, especially if you are interested in visiting the nearby Guanziling Hot Springs -- another of the area’s natural wonders.
More From AFAR