Savoring 'miaokou' snacks in sleepless Keelung
Words and photos by Cecilia Chang
Translated by Ann Lee
It may not be written up in a Michelin Guide, but the unrivalled dining culture of Keelung's "miaokou" area, together with its tasty array of snacks, night market and ancient main street are well-known among locals and visitors alike. Both would probably agree that a first-time visit to miaokou is an unprecedented experience, offering not only generous helpings of rich local culture, but also a feast for the eyes as one takes in the colorful Keelung street scenes.
Located just outside the famous Tienchi Temple in downtown Keelung are a number of eateries that attract visitors in the same manner of other temple-area, or "miaokou", establishments in places like Dadaocheng Tzu-Sheng Temple in Taipei, Ji Shun Temple in Shenkeng Township, Cheng Huang Temple in Hsinchu, Cihyun Temple in Miaoli, Tzuchi Temple in Fongyuan, Chenglan Temple in Dajia, and Beigang's Chaotien Temple. These historically and religiously significant places attract visitors from all over Taiwan, traveling each year to savor the best of Taiwan's unique local "snack culture", featuring the famous edibles that these temple eateries are known for offering.
Of all the miaokou eateries in Taiwan, one of the best-known hubs is the one located in Taiwan's northern harbor city of Keelung. Year-round, it offers foods including rice and noodle dishes, bean-based snacks, seafood, poultry dishes, desserts and sweet icy treats. Consequently, the Keelung miaokou has been voted by food critics as the place with "greatest diversity in food choices in Taiwan"--no small feat on this food-crazy island. In this edition of Taiwan Fun, we take readers and food connoisseurs on a tour of this hotspot for an enjoyable, sleepless night out in Keelung!
Introduction to the history of Keelung (aka "Rooster Cage")
Local residents have long called this city the "rooster cage". However, the origins of its name are controversial. While some believe that the name Keelung was derived from a local mountain shaped like a rooster cage, it is more probable that this moniker arose from the shape of Hoping Island (or Peace Island), located just outside Keelung Port, which looks like a chicken cage. Yet another story has it that "Keelung" is actually derived from the region's first inhabitants--Ketagalan Taiwanese Aborigines. Early Han Chinese settlers may have approximated "Ketagalan" with "Ke-lang".
In the mid-Qing dynasty period, gold was found in the Keelung River, making mining an important Keelung industry. In 1875, the characters of its Chinese name were changed to the more auspicious 「基隆」, which also means "rich and prosperous land". In 1945, when Japan renounced its claim to Taiwan, the Keelung city government and Keelung Harbor Bureau cooperated to rebuild the city. Due to northern Taiwan's very large population, industries of all sorts sprouted up at this time, which also boosted the shipping business at this major port city. Harbor facilities and surrounding areas continued to develop and, at its 1984 peak, Keelung was the seventh-busiest seaport in the world. However, due to its long and narrow geography and the growth of other large-scale harbors, Keelung lost its competitive position and begain focusing development on tourism, which has helped make its miaokou rich gourmet culture so well-known today.
Surrounded by a century of Tienchi Temple culture: Keelung miaokou's famed food culture
Taiwan is full of local snacks and delicacies with historical significance. Most of these can be tasted at night markets and eateries around temples, referred to as "miaokou" eateries. In Keelung, "miaokou" refers to the food places outside Tienchi Temple, located in downtown Keelung and one of the most popular temples in the area. Established during the 12th year of the Qing dynasty's Tungchih reign, the temple today still draws visitors with its hundred-year-old historic sculptures, paintings and unique architectural styles. In Tienchi Temple, people mainly come to worship General Chen Yuan-guang, known as the "Sacred Prince". There are additional temple gods, as the temple was built to commemorate early pioneering ancestors. Each year, a huge number of worshipers come here to show their devotion to the gods. At the same time, the Tienchi miaokou eateries have left a deep impression among visitors with a good variety of delicious food.
No written records indicate exactly when these eateries were established in front of the temple. However, one can imagine that, in earlier days when people came to the temple to pray, there sometimes would be live puppet shows and local street artists showing off their talents in front of the temple, which would lead to the establishment of food and drink vendors here, too. According to a senior Keelung resident, this all goes back to the late Japanese colonial era, when there were already two regular booths set up at houses on both sides of the temple. Temporary canopy-covered stands were also created outside the center of the temple, and today are the movable booths on RenSan Road.
Back in those days, there were about 50,000 to 60,000 residents in the Keelung area, and the miaokou area was certainly the town's business hub. This was often packed and, as Keelung became a fast-developing post-war city, ever-growing numbers of people and businesses decided to locate here. Regular food and drink vendors started lining up all the way down on RenSan Road and, soon after, late-afternoon vendors started setting up their mobile booths on AiSih Road, creating an even bigger food extravaganza.
The exact location of the Keelung miaokou eateries is along both sides of RenSan Road (between AiSan and AiSih roads), where all sorts of food and drink vendors can be found. This area has been renovated in recent years, and now the entire RenSan Road has a well-managed, attractive appearance. Vendors' signs are clearly noted, and visitors can easily ascertain the type of food they are selling. Apart from RenSan Road, there's AiSih Road, which forms an "L" shape with RenSan Road. Together, this runs a total of 500 meters and includes up to 300 booths, each with its unique items attracting customers. Through word of mouth, this area has become very popular and is now considered the best-known miaokou locale in Taiwan after Hsinchu's Cheng Huang Temple. Here, not only will you find a diverse display of local delicacies, but also other local souvenirs for sale in this tourist-packed area.
More beautiful by night: Top snack choices in Keelung's miaokou
A sampling of just a few popular snack choices in Keelung's miaokou area starts with the Combination Noodle Strips (Ding Bian Cuo), healthy sandwiches, butter crabs, Bean Sprout Thick Soup, Stewed Eel Thick Soup, frothy ice, Taiwanese-Style Pig Knuckles, chicken rolls and fresh seafood dishes. Some of the more popular local delicacies include charcoal-grilled squid feet, sugarcoated pears on a stick, wine-soaked horn snails, cold sweet jello and marinated sweet guavas, all of which will conjure up childhood memories for Taiwanese customers.
Taiwan's rich and abundant dining culture started with Fujian and Guangdong immigrants, and later was influenced by Aborigines, the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese. On top of that, there are all kinds of mainland Chinese delicacies that were brought over to Taiwan after Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949. As the island became more prosperous, this was joined by international cuisine, and resulting East-meets-West flavor fusions. Whatever ethnic food you are looking for, it can be found here at Keelung's miaokou eateries.
Food critics have recommended a number of booths in this neighborhood (vendors are assigned an official number, so it's really easy to find what you are looking for) as follows: No. 2 Large Pork Intestines, No.16 Tien Ji Tempura, No. 22 Shrimp with Thick Soup & Stew Pig Knuckles, No. 26 Bean Sprout Thick Soup, No. 27-3 Xing-Ji Ding Bian Cuo, No. 27-2 Wu-Ji Ding Bian Cuo, No. 38 Chinese Vermicelli, No. 31 Tian-Yi Thick Soup with Poultry, No. 37 Shen's Frothy Ice, No. 41 Chen-Ji Frothy Ice, No. 43 Shi-Sheng Sausage, No. 45 Keelung Miaokou Ai Yu Jelly, No. 48 Ke-Ji Shaved Ice, No. 49 Four God's Soup & Meat Bun, No. 50 Lin-Jin Assorted Shaved Ice, No. 58 Healthy Sandwich, No. 60 Combo Spring Roll, No. 62 Jin-Xing Sweet Fried Dough Cookie, and No. 66 Deep-fried Rice Cake & Steamed Taro Cake. There are some booths that don't open until 4:30 p.m., generally vendors located on Aisih Road: No. 26 Xie-He Three Brothers' Sweet Bean Jelly, the Stew Eel Thick Soup booth in front of No. 30, the Ba Bao Green Bean Noodles in front of No. 15, Ji-Jia Pig Knuckles in front of No. 29, The Old Soldier's Butter Crabs in front of No. 36, and, finally, the sticky rice ball soup in front of booth No.52 are all worth trying out.
These food and drink vendors run nonstop, 24 hours a day, with some exceptions as noted above. During Keelung's sleepless nights, you can savor the true flavors of Taiwan's local culture, reflecting a heritage passed down for hundreds of years. Don't forget to arrive at Keelung's miaokou area on an empty stomach, so that you can enjoy this experience to your fullest.
@Getting to Keelung Miaokou
By car: Exit National Freeway No.1 at Keelung and take JhongSih Road to RenWu Road and then to AiSan Road until you reach the end of RenSan Road, the distance from when you get off the highway to the end is a total of about 500 meters.
Parking available at: East side of miaokou parking lot, underground parking lot inside Ren-Ai Market, and another parking lot on XinErh Road.
Public transportation: Take the Taiwan Rail or a highway bus and get off at Keelung station. Walk along on ZhongYi Road for about 100 meters and turn right onto AiSih Road.
-Keelung Official Tourist Information Website: http://tour.klcg.gov.tw/index2.asp
-Books: 'The Beauty of Taiwanese Snacks: Temple-Entrance Snacks in Keelung', published by Linking Books, Ltd. (ISBN 9789570832945).