Taiwan: a secret foodie wonderland
Right now, in-the-know foodies from across Asia are descending on an island in the East China Sea to gobble steaming plates of dumplings and nibble stinking sticks of tofu.
Taiwan’s food scene is exploding and now is the time to go - Taiwanese chefs are winning awards, the country heaves with night markets and Taipei is full of up-and-coming hot spots serving haute cuisine to rival Tokyo, Hong Kong and even Singapore.
Pungent tofu kebabs on a street-side grill in Taiwan. Image by Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet.
The word ‘fusion’ gets thrown around a lot in culinary circles - whenever someone combines a donut with a croissant it’s dubbed fusion - but the Taiwanese really know what it’s all about. The Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese have all landed here at one point or another, and their foods combined with local flavours to create a true hybrid cuisine. As a result, many of Taiwan’s dishes will be faintly familiar to anyone who’s eaten a Chinese dumpling or scarfed down some sushi.
The natural environment of this small, crowded island is reflected at mealtimes, too: fresh seafood, forest greens, wild fruits and native animals like wild boar are staples. Likewise, experimental eaters will find Taiwan full of freaky foodstuffs.
- Xiaolongbao: Originally from Shanghai, these delicate pork dumplings are filled with soup broth and steamed. Beware the scalding soup squirt upon first bite.
- Niu rou mian: Taipei’s staple dish consists of braised beef brisket and bok choy over egg noodles in clear, delicious broth. A superb jetlag cure.
- Danzai noodles: Steaming noodles with pork and an egg in a clear shrimp broth.
- Cong zhua bing: Flaky scallion pancakes seasoned with salt and pepper.
- Gua bao: Succulent pork belly sandwiches, with pickles, peanut powder and cilantro served on a steamed white bun.
- Chou dofu: There’s a reason this snack is called ‘stinky tofu’ - you can smell the unpleasant aroma of fermented and deep-fried tofu from streets away.
- Squid, squid, squid: Local and ubiquitous snack, served either deep-fried and spiced with salt and pepper, or coal-roasted.
- Fried sandworms: Found in coastal areas, especially in the Kinmen archipelago, these sand-dwelling earthworms are usually served stir-fried with bean sprouts and needle mushrooms.
- Pig intestines: Whether stir-fried with pickles, steeped in vermicelli soup or deep-fried, the Taiwanese love a bit of pork offal.
- Century eggs: Preserved eggs take on a mould-coloured yoke and amber-like white when preserved in ash, clay, lime and salt. And the sharp flavour and aroma are just as unexpected.
- Oyster omelette: A Taiwanese staple that takes the Western omelette to extremes by cooking it in pork lard and adding oysters and savoury sauce thickened with potato starch.
Drink your heart out
- Pearl milk tea: A wonderfully strange Taiwanese invention, consisting of oolong tea, condensed milk and tapioca balls, which are sucked up through a large straw. Strangely addictive.
- Oolong tea: Taiwan’s tea cultivation began in the 18th century and today its most prized varietal is oolong from the island’s high mountains, such as Ali Shan.
- Coffee: A surprising coffee culture abounds in Taiwan, with many street-side coffee vendors open late into the night, as well as specialist cafes printing pictures on latte foam.
- Taiwanese beer: The island’s most ubiquitous brew is the light Taiwan Beer, a lager matched best with salty street food. Taipei is also home to a burgeoning craft beer scene - beer nerds should head to Jollys (jollys.tw/html/front/bin/home.phtml), a local microbrewery.
Choose your Taiwan table
From plastic stools on a bustling evening street to steamy noodle diners to fine dining in high-end restaurants, Taiwan’s food scene doesn’t skimp on atmosphere. Traditionally, much of Taiwan’s best food is to be found in small, local restaurants where dishes are heaped on to clanging glass turntables for group consumption. Night markets are also a mainstay of Taiwan’s exceedingly snacky culture and still form the crux of nightlife here. Cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung are home to a growing culinary scene, from traditional gourmet restaurants like Dintaifung and Golden Dragon to groovy neighbourhood joints serving up new takes on old classics, such as James Kitchen on Yongkang Street in Taipei. Or, if you’re in the mood for something really different, themed restaurants offer a playful ambience - think cat cakes at Hello Kitty Sweets or curry eaten from a squatter at Modern Toilet.
Know your street eats
Though its reputation flies under the radar, Taiwan has perhaps the finest night market scene in the world. Local governments encourage street cooking and the lack of restrictions means you can pretty much plant your bum on a plastic stool in every one of Taiwan’s cities and towns. Several markets often sprawl together, vying for hungry patrons with delicious smells wafting from sizzling cookers. And if you’re headed to a festival in Taiwan, you can be almost sure there’ll be a row of stalls selling salt-and-pepper squid and stinky tofu.
A street stall vendor at a Taiwanese night market. Image by Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet.
Market food is generally designed to be eaten on the go from boxes, sticks and bags, though stalls selling soup and other tough-to-carry foods will sometimes have small tables where you can sit and eat. The more touristy markets, such as the maze-like Shilin Market in Taipei, get extremely crowded and are less of a culinary experience and more of a thronged attraction, so choosing a smaller, local market is often better if you’re really there for the food.
Taiwanese night markets also often have shopping sections where you can buy anything from a new handbag to monster socks, making this an easy stop on any trip for dinner, entertainment and a few souvenirs. The best plan is no plan: get lost in the market, eat when you’re hungry and pop your head into shops and stalls that look enticing.
Ready to chow down? Tuck into our collection of ‘Great street eats in Taiwan’.
Megan travelled to Taiwan with support from the Taiwan Ministry for Foreign Affairs. When Lonely Planet contributors receive assistance from travel providers such as tourist boards, airlines, and so on to conduct first-hand research, we retain our editorial independence at all times, and never accept anything in return for positive coverage.