Hsinchu City God Temple 新竹城隍廟 is one of the most celebrated Taoist temples in Taiwan. Built in the 1740s in the center of the walled city of Hsinchu in northern Taiwan, it was once named by a Qing Emperor as the highest-ranking City God Temple on the entire island for its deity's superior spiritual power in protecting the city.
Today, the Windy City's beautiful stone walls are long gone, destroyed by the Japanese during their occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, and only one of the four fortress gates that once guarded the city remains.
But the tradition of worshipping the City God never ceased, and to feed all the hungry worshippers a vivid market with dozens of snack stalls has flourished in front of the City God Temple.
I was introduced to the Hsinchu City God Temple Market when I was a toddler. Since then the market has been transformed from a crowded, uncomfortable and sometimes unsanitary gathering of vendors to what is now a clean, orderly and still crowded haven for worshipping some of the best Hakka delicacies.
The offerings at the market haven't changed much over the years and neither have my favorites. Here's a list of the dishes that I would never leave the Hsinchu Temple without tasting.
Ba-wan meatballs 紅糟肉圓
This famous snack is found all over Taiwan and can be served steamed or fried. The Hsinchu version differs in its filling - ground pork mixed with a Hakka ingredient called the "Red Ferment" which consists of glutinous rice, red yeast rice and rice wine.
Squid & Pork Nugget Soup 魷魚羹肉羹
There are a few stalls that sell nugget soup at the Temple. My favorite is the Lin's Squid Nugget Soup, where you can get the squid or pork nugget-only version, or the combination bowl which comes with a generous portion of pork nuggets, squid nuggets and fish cracker clusters in silky, clouded soup. The texture contrast is extremely pleasing, and I find it hard to stop at just one bowl.
Rice Vermicelli 新竹米粉
When most people talk about Taiwanese rice vermicelli, they mean the Hsinchu rice vermicelli - traditionally stir-fried with pork, dried shrimp and vegetables and served dry.
Spring Rolls 郭家潤餅
These are not your typical spring rolls. These ones are dusted with yummy ground peanuts, and at Kuo's Spring Roll, they stuff theirs so big that you'd need two hands to hold them steady. The stall is strategically located outside of one of the temple's entrances, so if you plan to try out a few snacks at the market, share the roll with someone or you won't have room for more.
Steamed Cake 水蒸蛋糕
A Hsinchu specialty that's often imitated, and the best can be found at the Yuan-Ming Pastry Shop (淵明餅舖) right across the street from the City God Temple. The steamed cake is made fresh hourly using only flour, eggs and sugar and available with taro, red bean or ground pork filling.
Since it's made without using oil or preservatives, the cake needs to be consumed on the day of purchase for the softest texture and freshest flavor.