When I booked a tour to Shifen and Jiufen during a Taiwan trip a couple of years ago, and told my family about it, no one appeared excited until I mentioned that Jiufen is, reputedly, the place that inspired Spirited Away, the 2001 Japanese animated fantasy film that both our girls love. The mention of Spirited Away suddenly made the visit to Jiufen a big deal.
After watching Spirited Away, I started reading about it. I learned that it is critically acclaimed, that it’s the highest-grossing film in Japanese history and that there’s a Disney adaptation. And, for proper appreciation of the thematic content, I read about Shinto too.
But the real surprise was finding out that, despite the hype, Jiufen has nothing to do with Spirited Away. In fact, the film’s director has denied that Jiufen was the inspiration for Spirited Away.
The denial is documented yet apparently underplayed if not ignored. Tour organizers in Taiwan market the place aggressively based on that non-existent connection. And it’s not so hard to do given the physical resemblance of the village to the setting of Spirited Away. Maybe it’s the proliferation of red lanterns. Perhaps it’s the fact that Jiufen does have a Japanese feel about it — which shouldn’t be surprising given the history of the place.
In Jiufen, we had to climb stairs with 240 steps to get to Amei Tea House. Well, just two-thirds of the 240 steps, actually. But it was crowded and I felt claustrophobic. I dragged my feet. Every step was torture. Excruciating. But the thought of what awaited us up there, the tea cakes and the view, kept me going.
The view and the service at Amei Tea House did not disappoint. The food? We liked some but not all. The lovely mochi (top plate) tasted like sticky coffee rolled in roasted peanuts. The preserved cherries (bottom plate), I found too tart. The sesame seed crackers… well, I’ve had better in Japan.
But the matcha bean cakes were stupendous. Boldly flavored, light but not terribly crumbly.
Moon cake molds were used to form those lovely matcha bean cakes. And those were what we used to make the sweet potato tea cakes. They are available online in various shapes and sizes.
Sweet potato tea cakes
- 3 sweet potatoes
- 4 to 6 tablespoons rice flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- powdered sugar to taste (optional)
- 2 tablespoons melted butter cooled
- Rinse and scrub the sweet potatoes well.
- Place the cleaned sweet potatoes in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer for about 20 minutes or until a knife inserted at the center goes through without resistance.
- Cool the sweet potatoes.
- While the sweet potatoes cool, toast the rice flour in an oil-free pan until lightly browned. Cool.
- Peel the sweet potatoes and mash. You will need two cups of mashed sweet potatoes.
- Add the salt and rice flour to the sweet potatoes. Mix lightly but thoroughly. Overmixing will make the mixture sticky and lumpy.
- Taste the sweet potato mixture. If you want to sweeten it some more, add sifted powdered sugar, no more than a tablespoon at a time.
- Form the sweet potato mixture into small balls.
- Press each ball into the mold then use the handle to release.
- Serve the sweet potato tea cakes with hot tea.