p>Taichung is a food paradise. It is known for the mind-boggling variety of street food at Fengjia Night Market, said to be the country's biggest sundown bazaar and where vendors test out new snacks before taking them to the rest of Taiwan. It is also the birthplace of bubble tea, which took Singapore by storm at one point (for a taste of the original beverage, head to teahouse Chun Shui Tang; chunshuitang.com.tw).
Make no mistake about it, Taiwan's third-largest city - after Taipei and Kaohsiung - is also one filled with whimsy. And my family and I were on a mission to discover that facet of the city.
Our search led us to the most famous outlet of confectionery Dawn Cake (dawncake.com.tw) at the Miyahara Eye Hospital, located near the Taichung train station. Instead of cakes, we were surrounded by wooden bookshelves bearing hardcovers that will make a bibliophile's heart beat faster.
Jumping out at us were titles like Love Never Ends, The Gift and A Sweet Book Named Nougat. Wait, what?
Oh, it turned out that A Sweet Book Named Nougat was really the wacky but super creative packaging for nougat sold by Dawn Cake. (Love Never Ends concealed walnut red-date paste pastries, while The Gift held tea leaves.)
Besides treats bound in books, CD and DVD case-lookalikes concealed edible treasures.
Whichever crazy marketing genius thought of this deserves applause for upping the fun factor of traditional cakes and pastries.
So too, for the person who thought of situating Dawn Cake at the hospital, a former ophthalmology clinic built during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, which lasted from 1895 to 1945.
Unlike the dreariness suggested by the place's history, the lovingly restored building is all lightness and joy. Visit during the day and sunshine floods into the foyer through a three-storey-high skylight, lighting up the sweeping wooden staircase, the ornate columns that reach the ceiling, a full-height mirror lining a wall and apothecary-style cabinets displaying stacks of fudge.
There is also a standing-only ice cream bar whose flavours come in three unofficial categories: interesting, in which you get flavours like Earl Grey tea, Alishan Oolong tea, dragonfruit; mystery flavours like Tomorrow Will Be Better, Between Dreams And Life; and Be Still My Heart, a selection of 18 varieties of chocolate alone, differentiated by their cocoa content.
And when you think things can't get decadent enough, you move on to the toppings counter. Rum and raisins or longan honey? Sounds good. An entire banana, unpeeled? Generous. Cheesecake or pineapple cake? Now we're talking.
Dawn Cake has a new outlet where bank Fourth Credit Union used to be, within walking distance of the hospital. This outlet bears a more industrial feel, with imposing glass doors and a dim interior of marble and concrete. On the counters are replicas of international banknotes bearing images of world leaders who inform you, through speech bubbles, of the ice cream flavours here. Also seen are electronic boards bearing currency exchange rates commonly seen at money changers - except these boards display prices of the sweets sold here.
Talk about rich desserts.
Our search for the quirky in Taichung also led us to Robot Station (No. 106 Xiangshang North Road, West District), a droid-themed cafe in the centre of town. But it is not all grey steel and clanky parts. Instead, the standalone eatery is decked out with charming cartoon-style robots, from adult-height metal ones and thumb-size plastic ones to cute retro ones and bouncy inflatable ones.
Take a table in its cosy glass-encased seating area, go through its menu with the names of dishes charmingly translated into English, and decide whether you want "Strange Animals Pocket Baked Sandwich", "late milk" (latte, served with an image of a robot drawn on the foam) or "Indian milk tea" (teh tarik).
The service here is leisurely, so sit back, take in the atmosphere and browse the small retail section where you could find yourself shelling out for robot stationery, wind-up toys and other robot-y items. The food here is decent but the charm factor? Off the charts.
FANTASY STORY GROUP OF LIFESTYLE STORES
The trail of quirk then led us to another offbeat place to shell out money - Fantasy Story, a collection of lifestyle stores that exemplify what happens when hip collides with chic and kooky.
The biggest cluster of shops is in Zhongxing First Lane, a 10-minute walk from Robot Station. This cluster is housed in a block of old houses with exposed bricks and the occasional tree growing out of a wall, but walk beyond the crumbling facade and you will find glass-walled cafes and shops selling unusual items like bespoke umbrellas, lifestyle accessories, bonsai in sleek planters, home decor bric-a-brac and fashion items that hint of ethnic touches.
Other shops in the Fantasy Story group can be found a few minutes' walk away, in Xiangshang North Road, Zhongxing Street and Meicun Road Lane 117. Do note that many of the shops are closed on Monday.
CMP BLOCK MUSEUM OF ARTS
The last stop on our tour was the CMP Block Museum of Arts (www.cmppj.org.tw, admission free, closed on Monday), next to the Fantasy Story stores in Meicun Road.
The museum is an open-air repository of idiosyncratic installation pieces like two life-size cars, half-buried in the ground and covered with greenery, and a larger-than-life pencil resting on a giant eraser. Nearby, smaller sculptures are scattered across the lawn, interspersed with a changing line-up of exhibits.
While walking in the area around the museum, you may be attracted by the tantalising fragrance of fresh-from-the-oven cheesecake. Follow your nose, but do not feel befuddled if you wind up in what appears to be a furniture and lifestyle shop.
Even though Kou Cheesecake's (koucheese.com) business is food, its main area is decked out with designer-ish sofas, shelves holding household knick-knacks, and a coffee table and magazine racks stuffed with periodicals. There is also a platform area with beanbags, and a selection of books for loan from the shelves under the steps.
What about the cakes? You buy them at an unobtrusive counter flush against a wall.
We ended our day there with cheesecake, a fitting way to conclude our search for the quirky in a city known for its food.
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