Taiwan is a veritable culinary playground. Street food, night markets, Taiwanese restaurants and cuisine from around the world are found in abundance and are almost always delicious. During our two months in Taiwan we came to realize one of the fundamentals of Taiwan culture is Taiwanese food. Sure, most countries find strong cultural roots in their food and the dishes unique to their homeland, but Taiwan seems to be a country that revolves around food, more than anything.
After that first traditional meal in Taiwan, where we had stinky tofu soup and chicken bums, we tried a whole host of different and new dishes and foods. Sure, we had our ‘go-to’ chain restaurants in Taiwan for when we got too hungry to think, but for the most part we were looking for new places to go and new food to try, like always.
Although we learned how to say and read some of the essential food words – beef, rice, noodles, chicken, pork, fish, etc – there were times we were unable to decipher a sign at a small restaurant we had our sights on, but we would sit down, make the gesture for ‘2’ and begin a fervent prayer that whatever was about to be placed in front of us was not one of the rare things we do not eat. The food was always good and they were always so happy to serve us. Sometimes, we even got a free special side dish that the cook wanted us to try.
Our culinary tour of Taiwan took us around the coast and with each new city we visited, a new local dish or treat was discovered. While there are a large number of Taiwanese dishes and foods to be covered, we’ve given a summary of most of those we tried, although there are quite a few, especially in those restaurants where no English was spoken, for which we have no name and have therefore not included.
Taiwanese Food, Nothing Short
Of A Culinary Playground
Beef Noodle Soup
One of the first Taiwanese dishes we tried, beef noodle soup is hearty, flavourful and very satisfying. The portions are usually large enough to constitute an entire meal and made with stewed or braised beef, beef broth, noodles and sometimes vegetables. Oftentimes, you’ll have the choice of beef soup without noodles, with noodles or the noodles and broth with no meat, at varying price points.
Taiwanese Beef rolls
Taiwanese beef rolls are one of our favourites and while we usually go for beef, you can also find pork rolls. Flaky, green onion (Taiwanese) pancakes are wrapped around tender pieces of braised beef, green onion and usually a savory sauce. You can see our later description of other ways of eating the Taiwanese pancakes. We first tried these in Tainan and they became a regular dish for us when we found them. Match this up with some millet congee, described below, and you’ll see a very happy smile on Carolann’s face.
Braised or Minced Pork with Rice – Lu Rou Fan
Typically, pork belly is used for this common dish in which the pork is minced or braised, marinated and served over rice. We tried it several times while in Taiwan and while the flavours did vary, the meat was always tender and it was a hearty and filling dish.
We talked about our love of bubble tea in our post on our ‘go-to’ chains in Taiwan. For us, drinking bubble tea was pretty close to a daily event. After walking for hours, exploring the city or town we were visiting, we would grab a bubble tea as a reward and continue on. It was also a filling drink that would keep us, when we were starving, until we could find someplace to eat. While we prefer bubble milk tea, there are a wide variety of flavours (e.g. melon, oolong, etc) and there is usually the option of jellies and/or tapioca pearls (bubbles).
Pan fried, boiled, steamed, pot-stickers. If you’re really hungry and want to have a really cheap, but delicious, meal, dumplings would be your best bet. Search on Google for ‘8 way‘, its a great dumpling house chain that we’ve already talked about in our post on chains in Taiwan. Otherwise, you’ll find random dumpling houses as you go, usually with decent prices for these delicious mouthfuls.
Taiwnaese Dessert Soup
Never have we eaten so much of such a sweet and tasty dessert and felt like we were eating healthy. Before finding this soup, we found the desserts in Taiwan to be rarely sweet. The dessert soups we found in Taiwan were absolutely delicious and we were sad we didn’t discover them until the second month we were in Taiwan. Typically, a sweetened base – clear broth or peanut soup (as Macrae would generally prefer) – is boiled along with various ingredients of your choice – beans, barley, fungi, peas, seeds, tapioca pearls, jellies, dried fruit, and the list goes on. It’s a pretty hearty dessert that satisfies the sweet tooth and lets you feel like you’re making a healthy choice….whether it’s true or not!
Fried Chicken Cutlet
Our first experience with this deep-fried deliciousness (fried chicken cutlet) was at the Shilin Night Market. Long lines of people seemed to be growing from every vendor serving it and we decided we just had to wait for our chance as well. It was well worth it. We tried it at a few other night markets and street vendors, and while they were all good, they never seemed to match that first cutlet, with its perfect seasoning, crispy breading and tender meat.
Fried Whole Squid
One of our favourite night market foods, these whole squids are often chopped up after being deep fried and were the best tasting calamari we have ever had. Although you can find deep fried squid at most night markets, chopped or served on a stick, we found one stand in particular, at the Tonghua Night Market, and revisited when we were in the area – we may have also made an hour long walk, there and back, just to have another. Seasoned well and served with your choice of several sauces, we always picked the sweet Thai chili sauce and enjoyed every last bite.
Taiwanese Fried or Grilled Stinky Tofu
Our first encounter with stinky tofu was last summer, back home in Toronto when we attended the Asian festival. We had no idea why we kept smelling sewage. We finally discovered that it wasn’t sewage at all, but stinky tofu. At that time, we didn’t dare order it. Fast forward 6 months. We knew next to nothing about Taiwan when we arrived other than how they loved night markets. One of our first nights there,we headed out to one of these lovely markets and there was that smell again. We knew right away it was stinky tofu. “How could someone eat this?” we asked ourselves when we found out it is tofu soaked in fish brine (along with a bunch of other things) for days, weeks or even months! After making some Taiwanese friends however, we finally tried this special delicacy and learned how it was made. At first, it wasn’t our favourite but after a few times, Macrae started to love it. He says its perfect when it’s cooked right and with a dab of hot sauce. Carolann’s not so convinced.
Taiwanese love their stinky tofu a lot…and we mean a lot! We weren’t so surprised to see it (and smell it) cooked in all sorts of different ways. Fried is probably the most popular choice but coming up in a close second is grilled. Usually grilled with a sweet sauce, it’s a bit less stinky than the fried version. If you want to try stinky tofu, we would recommend the grilled one for a first timer.
Gua Bao – Taiwan burger
Carolann, being the burger aficionado she thinks she is, is always on the lookout for a good burger, so when we heard of “Taiwanese burgers” we were immediately intrigued. The typical Gua Bao is a steamed bun closed over braised pork belly and accompaniments. We happened across a restaurant advertising “Taiwanese Burgers” and found chicken, pork and fish options. They aren’t our number one choice for burger-like food but in Taiwan, where a good burger is harder to find then in Southeast Asia, we took what we could get!
Taiwanese Medicine Soup
We were introduced to this healthy soup a few times. All we know is that is consists of beans, lentils and a random assortment of other unknown items, and Taiwanese people believe it to have a great health benefit. We don’t know the actual name or precisely what is in it, but it was good for something purportedly having high medicinal value. You’ll be able to find it in many restaurants, including many dumpling houses, throughout the country.
Millet congee is possibly one of Carolann’s favourite breakfast (well, really anytime) dishes. While the first thing we thought of when we heard congee was what we recognized as the Chinese, often savory, dish of rice porridge – although there are versions of the same in Korea and Japan – there was more than just that type in Taiwan. The millet congee we were eating in Taiwan was made with thin millet grain porridge that is sweetened. We’d often find it served free at various Taiwanese restaurants, especially those dumpling houses we keep mentioning.
Mochi is a rice based treat originating in Japan, made with a glutinous rice. Called môa-chî (麻糬 or 糬) in Taiwan. Mochi is made by soaking rice overnight and then pounding the cooked rice with wooden mallets in a mortar. It takes two people, one pounding and the other turning the mochi, keeping a steady rhythm without hurting each other with the mallet. Then the mochi is formed into all different kinds of shapes, usually a rectangle and different flavors are added like green tea and peanuts. The most traditional are filled with bean paste and rolled in peanut powder.
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Peanut Snack/Taiwanese Pudding
A delicious snack involving tofu pudding in a peanut broth with peanuts. If you enjoy peanuts then you can grab one of these bad boys in any night market around.
Pigs blood rice cake
You’ll be surprised in how much you’ll enjoy pigs blood rice cakes. these are deep fried cubes of coagulated blood… but don’t let that turn you off. With a crispy outside and a chewy center, it is a delicious savory treat. Everything tastes better deep fried, doesn’t it?. Take it from us and just try it.
Pineapple cake, a dessert usually made into squares with a pineapple filing. You can find boxes of these sweet cakes in stores and throughout Taiwan as well as specialty stores that only sell pineapple cakes and pineapple products. The stores always have samples out to try and it’s the best way to get the best brands. We were told that pineapple cakes are a great gift to give to someone during Chinese new years as the meaning of a pineapple in Taiwanese culture is wealth, luck and excellent fortune.
Shrimp Fritters – With Icing and Sprinkles
Yep, you read correctly. Funny enough, the icing and shrimp part wasn’t what got us thinking. It was the sprinkles. We’re not too sure why many places include sprinkles on this dish but nonetheless, colourful sprinkles generally adorn the plate. We found the dish surprisingly delicious! It’s really more of a sweet mayo/icing that’s used and it works well with the fried batter coating the shrimp.
Soup Dumplings – Xiao Long Bao
Soup dumplings (Xiaolongbao) are something you must try in Taiwan. They are dumplings but there is also a soup broth inside, which is a nice tasty touch. The most famous place around is Din Tai fung, a Michelin star restaurant that wont hurt your wallet. They even have guides on how to eat these dumplings – put them in your spoon, break a hole with your chopstick to let the soup out (it’s pretty hot in there!) add the ginger, soy, or other accompaniments, and then, enjoy!
Taiwanese Spicy Tofu soup with Duck Blood
Our first experiences with stinky tofu was in a soup. Our second? Also in a soup, but this time with duck blood. We were asked by our host, what Taiwanese food we’ve tried so far, and our answer was “not much” (which you should never tell a Taiwanese person because they will cook or buy everything that they think you should try – and usually it’ll be the strange things they think you’d never dare). By dinnertime, his father had a feast out on the table that included not only stinky tofu, but stinky tofu and duck blood soup. Coagulated duck blood to be exact. The same consistency of jello, it was surprisingly pretty good! If you can get past the fact of what is actually in the soup, you might enjoy it.
Originally from the city of Taichung, these round cakes are a flaky pastry of different flavours, including milk and honey – two flavours we tried, and loved. We saw many suncake shops all around Taichung and they always seemed to be busy with boxes of the popular pastries flowing out the doors.
It may sound like an odd dish to put on a list of Taiwanese food, especially since sweet potato is fairly common in quite a few places, but it seems like in Taiwan, sweet potatoes are a staple. Baking in convenience stores, barbecued by street vendors and served almost everywhere, we found these, yellow-centred, sweet potatoes to be sweeter and more flavourful than their counterparts back home and involved in quite a few more dishes – from breakfast to dessert.
Sweet Potato & Taro Cubes – ‘QQ’ – YuYuan
QQ describes a particular texture and, as we were told, was developed mainly as a promotional word. Basically, anything with the jelly-like chewiness of, well jellies, as well as mochi, or the like, is considered ‘QQ‘. We first heard this word when referencing colourful squares sold at the Jiufen night market (and other markets as well). These cubes of taro or sweet potato have the distinctive ‘QQ’ texture and are a tasty treat. If you’re in Taiwan, be sure to find a way to use the term ‘QQ’ when speaking to a Taiwanese person – you’ll probably make them laugh or, at the very least, give you a big smile.
Taiwanese Hot Dog
Like the Taiwanese burger, this is not what you would come to expect from a hot dog. Sure, there’s a grilled pork sausage involved, but instead of a fluffy hot dog bun, the sausage is wedged in a grilled sticky rice sausage. We can’t say we ordered this more than once, but it was worth a try and judging by the lines at most of these stalls, it’s a popular street food!
Taiwanese Savory Pancakes – Dan Bing
These savory pancakes are made with dough (rather than batter) and green onions and, when cooked, become flaky and delicious. We’ve seen them filled with a variety of different things, like the beef rolls we mentioned, but we saw many street vendors cooking them with a scallion omelette and a delicious sauce. No matter the filling, these pancakes are a must-try!
Disclaimer: We tried our best to record Mandarin names when possible.. Should we have misspelled or misnamed any of the dishes, please let us know so we can make the corrections.