“When you go there, you absolutely must try (insert local delicacy)” is a phrase that every foreign resident in Taipei must have heard countless times. A few years back the Taiwan government came up with a new idea for promoting travel within the island. As such, each county promoted a snack for which it is famous for – a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to the government promotion. Nowadays, whenever I mention to a Taiwanese co-worker that I am going away for the weekend, they will insist that I try out these famous snacks. I usually scoff at the idea (mostly because similar products are available everywhere) but perhaps I have underestimated the power of food! On this particular weekend I was heading for a long awaited trip to Taiwan’s former capital, Tainan, and the snack I was searching for – the less-than-enticingly named Coffin Bread.
Basically, coffin bread is a very thick slice of bread that is coated with egg and then deep-fried. Then the coffin-like case is cut open and filled with a kind of seafood chowder. Tempted?
We arrived in Tainan around lunchtime and the intensity of the sun was relentless so we decided the best course of action would be to take cover in an air-conditioned restaurant and try out a coffin bread. We figured that if everyone who visits Tainan must try coffin bread, then heading to the tourist spots would be our best bet for finding them. That plan went out the window about twenty exhausting minutes after arriving at the Chikan Towers. After walking around a few of the alleys nearby searching for a sign with the Chinese words “棺材板” we just couldn’t take the heat anymore and dove into a small restaurant selling another Tainan snack – Duck ‘geng’ – a kind of ricey soup. Feeling better for the brief burst of air con we decided to check out Chikan Tower.
Chikan Tower or Fort Provintia was built by the Dutch in 1653 and is one of the oldest buildings on the island (it has been renovated several times, but still retains it’s original look). It is an interesting place to look around and the architecture is really different to almost everything else that I have seen on the island.
The complex also houses a Temple of literature, which was built a couple of centuries after the original fort. Today, being early summer and just before exam period, the temple was teeming with students. A few of whom were kind enough to explain to us that they were going to the temple to pray for good test results and showed us some of the writings they had made for this.
After consulting our tourist map that we picked up at the train station along with some frank advice about hotels – “This one bad. This one OK!” – we walked for a few minutes towards the nearby Confucius Temple. The temple was built in 1665 and is much plainer and less ornate than the typical temples you will see on the island. The temple was empty of people and we wandered around freely for a while before deciding it was time to catch a bus and head out towards the coast and the area on Tainan that was originally an island just off the coast but has now joined to the mainland – Anping.
We had no problems catching a bus and it was only a short time before we were arriving in the newly renovated area of Anping. The harbor area is now very picturesque and I can imagine that on a slightly cooler day would be a really pleasant place to spend a summer afternoon walking around. We soon found ourselves at Fort Zeelandia, the main highlight of Anping. The fort was built in 1624, making it the first Western built building on the island. Sadly though, during the Japanese Occupation Era almost the entire fort was destroyed and rebuilt. There are still a few remains of the original wall left, but the main building that you see is the replacement that was built in the nineteenth century.
As we continued looking around Anping we stumbled upon the Anping Tree House. It is an old warehouse, believed to have been built around the end of the nineteenth century and then taken over by the Taiwan Salt Corporation later. After a while it fell into disuse and pagoda trees began to grow in and around the old warehouse. During the recent restoration of the harbor area the warehouse has been turned into a living art gallery and everyday tourists pour inside to take photos among the spindly winding branches.
We were pleased with our afternoon’s findings but were still on the hunt for the coffin bread. Surely such a seafood snack would be a regular feature on a food street in a harbor town? Surely not it seemed and despite a few close encounters we couldn’t find it again and hopped on a bus back into the city.
By this point it was getting pretty late and we were pretty hungry so we stepped into a little Hong Kong style dim-sum place near our hotel. It was delicious, but it wasn’t THE Tainan snack! Sheepishly I asked the laoban on the way out if there was anywhere nearby that sold coffin bread. She looked at me with that look of disgust that locals seem to give tourists all around the world when they ask a really touristy question. “I don’t know. Try going to Chikan Tower or those tourist places” she snarled. Glad I asked her after we ate dinner there.
Despite the late hour and our tired legs, we made one final walk back to Chikan Towers to complete our search. When we got there, it felt like we had come to a totally different place than the one we visited at lunch time. The whole complex was lit in an orange glow and shone out brightly across the skyline. Thoughts of food went to the back of our minds and we marched inside to take some pictures.
After a quick photo session, we were back to the hunt. Too tired to look around, we stopped the first person we saw and asked if they knew anywhere. “Oh, yeah, just down the road…but they closed ten minutes ago…” So we headed back to our hotels demoralized and with our stomachs still growling ready to get some shut eye before our early train home.
When I met my co-worker on Monday morning, she ran over asking me if I tried the coffin breads. I told the whole story and then she turned around, smiled and said “Never mind, you can get one from the night market just down the road!”