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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Jiufen Old Street 九份老街 @ Taiwan (updated August 2018)

One of the highlights of my Taiwan trip is Jiufen (Jioufen/Chiufen). But first, here's a quick, yet informative introduction which I hoped will not bore you:

Originally housed with only nine families in the 1800s, the villagers would purchase nine pieces of the same item in one reservation (hence the name, meaning nine parts/pieces) as roads were not built yet and materials were brought in mainly by ships. Located only minutes away from Jin Gua Shi (金瓜石), it was not long before someone struck gold at this rural village. Words leaked out and the village was soon swarmed with thousands of prospectors hoping to strike rich. The gold mines eventually exhausted and like its faded counterpart, Jiufen suffered the same fate.
Time passes and today, Jiufen is one of the most popular tourist attraction visited by travellers from all over the world to experience its former glory and well, its current glory of being a prosperous old street which offers nostalgic teahouses and the best Taiwanese cuisine, such as popular yam dishes, glutinous rice balls (粉圆), beef noodles, fish balls, herbal eggs, sun cakes (太陽餅) and the list goes on infinitely.

Directions to Jiufen Old Street:
1. From Taipei Main Station, take a train (eastward bound) to Rueifang Station. There's an option for an express train which skips some stations. Upon reaching Rueifang Station, Take a bus heading towards Keelung at the police post near Rueifang Station (updated on Aug 2018). The uphill ride should take approximately 15 minutes.
2. From Zhongxiao Fuxing Station, take a bus heading towards Keelung at Exit 1 and alight at Jiufen Old Street.
3. Travellers can also opt to take a cab just outside Rueifang Station. The last time I checked, the taxi fare to Jiufen is NT$180 (Uber is about NT$165).

Jiufen Old Street isn't difficult to locate at all with its constant stream of tour buses and large crowds. Keep your belongings tight and be prepared to be squeezed, even on a boring weekday. But again, Jiufen has nearly zero non-peak opening hours.
One of the first few shops you would encounter if you enter from the main entrance is a fishball shop that boasts a long history of fishball making (and pretty workers).
One good tip when you're travelling in Taiwan is: Never ever eat too full. Save your stomach space and calories for something else later on. Hence, we ordered their bestseller - Dried Tang Hoon (glass noodles) (NT$50) topped with a generous portion of condiments and of course, a bowl of fishballs.

The uncut glass noodles were VERY springy and took more than a few bites to chew them. Nothing extraordinary until you popped the fishball which delivers a juicy punch in your mouth. It was springy, and bouncy and juicy that I could use it as a ping-pong ball substitute, except that I would regret later on for wasting such a treasure.
Another shop that you wouldn't miss is this two-stories dessert store, which serves (imo) the best glutinous rice balls (粉圆) I had in Taiwan. Prices vary on the various toppings you choose.

For us, we chose two types of glutinous rice balls (made with yam) alongside with aiyu jelly and grass jelly, and if I remember correctly, it costs NT$55 which is almost equivalent to 50% of Singapore's and 200% of the awesomeness.
There is a few more desserts stall in Jiufen Old Street, like the one below which offers different flavours such as green tea and black sesame, but nothing beats the one above.
Grilled Sea snails (螺) is an exotic food for the more adventurous. Slightly different from their cousins - escargots, it is seemingly less flavourful and slimier. These snails (NT$100 for 4 -5) are usually washed in warm water and seasoned with five-spices sauce just before serving.
I don't know what's the English name for this, but I will make do with "Peanut Ice Cream Burrito" (NT$40) - 2 scoops of ice cream topped with peanut brittle shavings and coriander (/Chinese parsley), wrapped in a paper-like skin (or known as "popiah" skin).
The what-seems-to-be a weird combination produced an indescribable, surprising flavour that you got to truly experience it yourself. But what I would say is that the coriander leaves complement ice cream damn well, so good that I have started eating my desserts with coriander. Just kidding.
Freshly grilled squids anyone? We had the "squid roll" (the one that looks similar to orange sheets) for NT$100. Not exactly impressive, but at least you know that it is made fresh. The shop also sells a wide array of squid products.
If you are looking for sun cakes (太陽餅) or pineapple cakes (鳳梨酥), I recommend 李仪饼店 (Li Yi Bing Dian) which is located outside the old street. There is also another branch in Taipei Main Station for better convenience.
Unlike the usual teeth-breaking nougats, Misty sells a softer and chewier form of its counterpart. It also comes in different flavours, such as almonds, chocolate and sesame. A large pack which consists about 20+ nougats, costs approximately NT$250.
This bakery sells fresh biscuits and crackers made in an old-fashioned way. I recommend getting the almond biscuits (NT$500 for 3 packs) which brings along a strong, crispy nutty flavour and a whiff of almond aroma.
Besides all the street food, Jiufen Old Street is also lined with several inns that offer a comfortable resting haven from the hectic crowds. Feeling a need to recharge and rest, we decided to head for one of the first teahouses in Jiufen - Jioufen Teahouse. Although on the heftier side (costs NT$800 for two persons), this place is a really pleasant experience. We had a basic course about Chinese tea-brewing and sipped on tea in a nice, cooling antique ambience.
After being to Jiufen for four times now, it proves that Jiufen still has its charm after all these years. If you're heading to Taiwan, why not include this lovely town into your itinerary?