Tainan's Unique Snack Food Culture Coffin Sandwich?

Text / Kurt Weidner
Photos / Tourism Bureau
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If you ask a Taiwanese to name a typical snack of Tainan, chances are he'll reply, "Coffin Sandwich." This famous snack, however, is indubitably not the only delicacy visitors should sample while visiting Tainan.

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The city of Tainan is often referred to as "Taiwan's ancient capital," for the city once was the island's political, economic, and cultural center. Just under four centuries ago, settlers from mainland China began arriving in southern Taiwan in large numbers, with Tainan used as main entry port and base for exploring and developing their new homeland. But the mainlanders were not the only new arrivals in southern Taiwan at this time. The Dutch established themselves as colonial rulers in 1624 and built Fort Zeelandia, the remains of which are now known as the Old Fort of Anping. Though the Dutch's endeavors were commercially successful, their time in Tainan/Taiwan only lasted 38 years. In 1662, they were expelled by Ming loyalist Jheng Cheng-gong, better known in the West by his honorific, Koxinga. Jheng failed in his attempt to overthrow the new Cing dynasty in mainland China, but he did make Tainan the capital of Taiwan and started to develop the surrounding areas. When the Cing rulers some twenty years later gained control over Taiwan (1683), they made the city the seat of the island's local government.

Historic Tainan

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If you are interested in history, there are many attractions in store for you at Tainan, notably old fortifications, old temples, old buildings, and old businesses. Historic sites are concentrated in two areas. In Tainan's city center are a large number of old temples and historic sites within walking distance of each other. Among the must-see sights are Chihkan Towers, Confucius Temple, Great Queen of Heaven Temple, Sacrificial Rites Martial Temple, and Temple of the Five Concubines, all of which are listed as historic sites of the first grade.

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The other major area is Anping, a short ride by bus or taxi to the west of the city center. Here you should visit the Old Fort at Anping and the Eternal Golden Castle.

Culinary Tainan

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After or during a lengthy tour of Tainan's historic sites, a refreshing snack here and there is always welcome, and the ubiquitous roadside stalls and restaurants serving up local delicacies will ensure that a visit to this city is not only educative but also culinarily stimulating. So what's on the menu, and what is the "coffin sandwich" all about?

Coffin Sandwich

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Originally this snack was known as ji gan ban (lit. "chicken liver plank"). Basically it is a thick slice of white bread that has been hollowed out, filled with a mix of ingredients like fried tripe and seafood, and then covered with a thin slice of toast. The filling now usually consists of a thick seafood chowder with assorted vegetables. While the name of the snack might lead you to think that the ingredients could be dangerous to consume, it's just the shape of the sandwich and its cover that gave the inspiration for a rather peculiar name. One of the best places to taste authentic coffin sandwiches is the "Chihkan Coffin Sandwich" restaurant, which has been in operation since the Japanese occupation period (1895-1945).

Chihkan Coffin Sandwich

Add: 180 Jhongjeng Rd.,Kangle Market

Tel: (06) 224-0014

Eel Noodles

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This noodle dish is a highly prized delicacy. The eel is first stir-fried together with scallions, black vinegar, soybean sauce, and other condiments, and the sauce is then thickened with starch. The eel is served atop plain noodles. Though it appears to be an easy-to-prepare dish, food experts claim that it takes years to master the art of getting the taste right. This dish is also available at the Chihkan Coffin Sandwich restaurant.

Danzai Noodles

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Ask for danzai noodles in Tainan and locals will send you to "Du Siao Yue Danzai Noodles" restaurant. This establishment was started at the end of the 19th century, making it easily one of the oldest eateries in Taiwan . The founder was a fisherman who tried to make ends meet during the slack season by selling noodles. His tiny street-peddler enterprise became a flourishing business and soon was frequented by people from all walks of life. FYI, " danzai " means "carry on a shoulder pole," and " du siao yue " means "passing the lean months/slack season." The main danzai noodle dish is made with "oily noodles", a specially prepared stewed-meat sauce, and a soup base prepared with shrimp. The dish is often topped with a soy sauce-flavored hard-boiled egg and a few shrimp. Other specialties of the restaurant include ground pork rice, and fishball soup.

Du Siao Yue Danzai Noodles

Add: 16 Jhongjheng Rd. , Tainan City

Tel: (06) 223-1744

Taro Cake, Shrimp Meat Dumplings

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A Tainan restaurant renowned for taro cakes and shrimp-meat dumplings is the "Hsu Family Taro Cake" restaurant, located at Dacaishih ("Big Vegetable Market"). The restaurant is a typical snack-food outlet where you can eat without getting full, allowing you to go on to another of the many snack-food establishments inside the market where the Hsu family operates. The flavor of taro wafts through the air and you might even find the Hsu family restaurant by just following your nose. This is said to be a sign that only the freshest of taros are used here. Freshness is also an important reason for the popularity of the restaurant's shrimp-meat dumplings.

Hsu Family Restaurant

Add: 8 Guohua St., Sec. 3, Tainan City

Tel: (06) 228-8897

Winter Melon Tea

On "Fortune Telling Street" between the Great Queen of Heaven Temple and Sacrificial Rites Martial Temple you'll find a long-established shop with the rather long name "Ren Ke Lai Duo Jin Lai Liang Winter Melon Tea", which can be translated as "Many Guests Come to Drink Cool Winter Melon Tea." The shop sells refreshing winter melon tea, a drink especially popular during the hot summer months for its heat-dissipating qualities.

Ren Ke Lai Duo Jin Lai Liang Winter Melon Tea

Add: 21, Lane 227, Yongfu Rd., Sec. 2, Tainan City

Tel: (06) 221-6818

Glutinous Rice Cakes

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The glutinous-rice cake is among the most popular snack-food dishes in Taiwan and can be found at almost any traditional market. In Tainan, one of the best-known restaurants for glutinous-rice cakes is "Fu Sheng Hao", located at the junction of Minsheng Road and Guohua Street. The shop is known to be very particular when it comes to maintaining traditional flavor, and many regulars claim that the rice cakes at this restaurant are the most "Q," (a Taiwan colloquialism for "chewiness") or "al dente." There is much variety in glutinous-rice cakes in Taiwan . Fu Sheng Hao specializes in the "black-rice cake" variety, which has a slightly stronger flavor than other types of rice cake.

Fu Sheng Hao

Add: 8, Lane 333, Simen Rd. , Sec. 2, Jhongsi District, Tainan City

Tel: (06) 227-4101

Peanut Soup

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While walking through the streets of Tainan , coming across shops and restaurants that have been in operation for many decades is nothing uncommon. The owner of the "Peanut Soup Shop" at the junction of Minsheng Road and Haian Road, which has been in operation for 56 years, is known for sticking to traditional methods of peanut-soup preparation. What makes this rather inconspicuous shop's soup so special is the use of locally grown peanuts, said to have a much stronger flavor than those imported from abroad. Apart from the peanuts, which seem to melt on your tongue, the soup also comes with sweetened balls of glutinous rice.

Peanut Soup Shop

Add: 86, Minsheng 2nd Rd., Tainan City