Moon House is a rustic little complex perched up on the hillside over-looking the Huatung Rift Valley (花東縱谷) in Fenglin Township (鳳林鎮) in Hualien County. Over the years, it has acquired a reputation as a “must-visit” destination for visitors to Hualien, especially foodies, as its chicken in plum sauce (碳烤梅汁桶雞) has become something of a local classic. It was this very reputation as a tourist destination that had kept me away from Moon House, but after I did stop by for lunch, the restaurant immediately became a preferred choice for special meals.
True, there are usually too many people and the dining area can be noisy. Parking is horrendous, service is variable — ranging from quite good to quite annoyingly arrogant — and prices are a little on the high side. But the food is generally excellent, and when the weather is good, the atmosphere of its spacious courtyard and the views it affords over the valley are unparalleled.
The first impression of Moon House is that of a teahouse, designed specifically for visitors to relax and to take in the scenery in a mood of quiet contemplation. Stone seats, a comfortable balustrade against which to rest, a negligently casual arrangement around the fishpond and the occasional stray chicken wondering around all generate a mood of ease and relaxation. A small dining area directly overlooking the valley is generally booked out weeks in advance.
Photo: Ian Bartholomew, Taipei Times
Two larger dining areas branch off a central reception area. There is western-style seating as well as lower hawker stall type seating, all made of hardwood and placed on a floor of tatami matting. Remove the chairs and tables, and you could easily imagine coming to this place for a meditation retreat.
This ascetic first impression is quickly contradicted by the busy staff bringing plates of delicious-looking food to the table. The plating is not artful, but the signature dish — the chicken in plum sauce — is alluring with beads of succulent oil glistening against its slightly charred skin, and fruity and herbal aromas rising up from its plentiful gravy at the bottom of the serving bowl. This chicken comes with a pair of cotton workmen’s gloves and another pair of food service plastic gloves, both sets to be worn by the person deputed to tear this chicken apart and leave the dismembered carcass to steep momentarily in the sauce before digging in. The bird is priced according to provenance: A pure “local” chicken (土雞), often translated as free-range chicken, is NT$800, while a slightly less pure hybrid (仿土雞) is NT$550.
This chicken dish is best for a table of four or more, but such is its fame that I have seen tables of two manfully tackling it. Fortunately, Moon House has no objection to packing a doggy bag for leftovers.
Photo: Ian Bartholomew, Taipei Times
The chicken in plum sauce, while the establishment’s most famous dish, is far from being its only attraction. The food has a strong Hakka influence, and there are a number of specialties from this cuisine, including Hakka-style salted pork (客家鹹豬肉, NT$250 for a small serving) and Hakka stir fry (客家小炒, NT$220). The crunchy mountain pig skin (脆薄山豬皮, NT$200), served cold, is a good example of the labor-intensive preparation of unregarded ingredients to create something really delicious.
Even for dishes that are not part of Hakka cuisine, such as lion’s head meatballs (紅燒獅子頭, NT$380), the flavors are big and bold. In the case of these meat balls, those preferring the refined tastes of Jiangzhe cuisine might find Moon House’s version a little too rustic.
Moon House also does an outstanding selection of simple vegetable dishes, in many cases making clever use of local wild vegetables, adding an element of surprise to the flavor profile of well-known dishes. This is particularly pronounced with the soup of wild vegetables (野菜湯, NT$200), a mix of locally foraged vegetables often bitter in taste, but balanced well by a light stock and perfect for cutting through the heavy flavors of the meat dishes. Although the menu is not particularly large, it is well composed, with a good mix of the familiar and the unexpected. Even the most tediously predictable items, such as pineapple and shrimp (鳳梨蝦球, NT$200) are notable for the freshness of the ingredients and the willingness to let natural flavors shine through.
Photo: Ian Bartholomew, Taipei Times
Two set menus, perfectly suited to a table of eight to 12, are available for NT$3,500 to NT$4,000, which provide an excellent showcase of the establishment’s signature dishes.
Address: 71 Fengmin 1st Rd, Fenglin Township, Hualien County (花蓮縣鳳林鎮鳳鳴一路71號)
Telephone: (03) 876-2206
Open: 11am to 2:30pm (3pm weekends), 5pm to 9pm (weekdays)
Average meal: NT$500 per person
Details: Chinese menu only, cash only
Last week BBC updated its backgrounder on China and Taiwan, entitled “What’s behind the China-Taiwan Divide?” BBC’s backgrounders on Taiwan have been (cough, cough) very creative, and this latest iteration, while an improvement over the earlier versions, is a proud torch-bearer for that tradition. The BBC begins by observing that “Austronesian tribal people” were the first people in Taiwan. What does the use of the word “tribal” suggest about those people, compared to the Chinese? After that, the Aborigines disappear from the story. Because they have the earliest and strongest claim to Taiwan? To keep them in view would of course
Well that wasn’t a particularly auspicious start. The town of Dawu deep in southern Taitung County is not, it turns out, the gateway to Dawu Mountain (大武山) Nature Reserve. From their reaction, it seemed that nobody in this tiny collection of indigenous-styled wooden houses and its post office had ever heard of the mountain. So I headed out of town on my rented scooter and followed a road that appeared to lead into the interior. Rice fields, power stations, pretty mountain roads and birds, but no Dawu Mountain. Heading back north on Provincial Highway 9, the views of radiant blue Pacific
April 19 to April 25 Taipei’s Dalongdong Baoan Temple (大龍峒保安宮) was in a sorry state following the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) retreat to Taiwan in 1949. About 200 refugees and military dependents had taken over the 119-year-old structure and set up camp in makeshift dwellings. When writer Wu Chao-lun (吳朝綸) moved to Dalongdong in 1950, he saw “little incense burning; it was extremely crowded … and there was barely any space to sit. They washed their clothes with dirty water and hung them up still dripping. This is not only blasphemous, but unsanitary.” To save the temple, locals put together a restoration
Magic mushrooms have a long and rich history. Now scientists say they could play an important role in the future, with their active ingredient a promising treatment for depression. The results from a small, phase two clinical trial have revealed that two doses of psilocybin appears to be as effective as the common antidepressant escitalopram in treating moderate to severe major depressive disorder, at least when combined with psychological therapy. “I think it is fair to say that the results signal hope that we may be looking at a promising alternative treatment for depression,” said Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the center for