One thing we’ve discovered while travelling is that the CouchSurfing website is an amazing way to meet people who, well, just want to meet people! Regardless of whether you are staying at their house, many in the CouchSurfing community are open to getting together for a meal or for showing you the sights around their hometown.
It’s an amazing way to make friends, learn about a city and a country and hopefully provide a good friend in return and often, an opportunity for practicing English. So far we’ve made several friends through CouchSurfing, even though we’ve only been guests at a few houses thus far.
Our first week in Taipei had us meeting with a Taiwan native, Ken, and a couple of his friends. After meeting up for coffee we all decided to grab something to eat. The three of them were determined to take us for some traditional Taiwanese food. We settled on a popular and quite busy restaurant with absolutely no visible English.
We let them choose the dishes and order, although they did consult us before ordering a few of the dishes to make sure we could eat certain foods. We generally have no reservations when it comes to trying food so we told them to order away!
We were incredibly excited to be shown Taiwanese cuisine from those who would know best and thus, we had our first official introduction to traditional Taiwanese food. After the meal, we spent the next few months in food heaven trying what we could in an attempt to make our way through as many Taiwanese food options as possible. We even put together a list of the food we tried as a guide to Taiwanese food!
1. Fried Chicken Bums
Don’t be surprised if you hear them called chicken asses as it appears to be the translation used most often. Since that night, we’ve read and heard some comments about it being an odd thing to eat. To be honest, we didn’t really think too much of it. We eat most parts of the chicken in North America and the butt is really just the extension of the thigh on the chicken but it does take a lot to make either one of us to consider a food disgusting, or inedible, before we’ve tried it.
Having said that, even one of our Taiwanese friends thought the dish to be unappetizing. It is a common food to find at night markets and food vendors around Taiwan. Ours were fried and seasoned nicely and served with green beans. It was one of our favourite dishes of the night and definitely something we look forward to having again.
2. Stinky Tofu Spicy Soup
You can smell it from quite a distance and once you have, the smell won’t soon leave you. It has a way of clinging to your olfactory receptors and holding on for dear life despite how desperately you work to rid yourself of it. A combination of rotting, cooking garbage, body odour and soured milk, it’s putrid scent becomes easily recognizable as you walk by a stall amongst the markets and vendors of Taiwan. That, in a nut shell, is the reason why it is called stinky tofu, or Chou Doufu.
You can easily find fried stinky tofu at any night market as well as many street stalls and restaurants.. The stinky tofu spicy soup is something we first saw at the restaurant that night but have since seen around town, albeit less frequently than it’s fried counterpart. As we mentioned, both of us generally save our criticism of food until after we’ve tried it, no matter the description or type of food we are eating. Stinky tofu, though, had us both pausing.
We were told that traditionally, this dish is made by soaking the tofu pieces in a brine made from fermented milk, vegetables, such as cabbage, and meat. It can also include shrimp, fish, herbs and pretty much whatever else the cook decides to use. The brine is left to the fermentaton process for days, weeks or as long as several months, which explains both the smell, and our hesitation to eat it.
Our Taiwanese friends tried it first and told us that we would be fine as it “wasn’t stinky enough”. Apparently, the stronger the smell, the better the taste. It ended up being different than we expected, probably in large part because of the spicy soup that downplayed the, ‘not-so-stinky’ tofu pieces. Since, we’ve grown pretty accustomed to the smell and it has become far less offensive to us. We’ve even ordered eaten stinky tofu on several additional occasions, in various different ways, and enjoyed it!
3. Pig Intestine
Fried pig intestine, or chitterlings, is actually a common dish in many countries throughout Europe and Asia but was not something we had previously tried. We were served narrow pieces of fried pig intestine, sliced down the middle. The casing was crispy while the inside was tender and although seasoned, it was not included with any additional sauces as is often the case (or in a soup as it can be served as well). Carolann felt the taste to be strong and overpowering and left this dish for the others in favour of the chicken butts but Macrae enjoyed the dish and helped the others finish it off.
4. 3-cup Chicken – San Bei Ji
3-cup chicken is a popular Taiwanese dish that gets it’s name through the recipe which involves mixing a cup each of three different sauces: soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. Tender chunks of chicken (typically bone-in) and veggies filled this dish that was savory but with a touch of sweet. You could definitely pick out the flavour of the garlic also used to complement the sauces. We ate this over cooked rice and it was absolutely delicious and one of our favourite dishes of the evening!
5. Water Spinach/Morning Glory – Kong Xin Cai
We ate a lot of morning glory in Thailand and thoroughly enjoy the vegetable, so we were pleasantly surprised when it showed up on the table as one of our vegetable dishes. The Taiwanese version was quite similar to what we had tasted in the past but had slightly more flavour to it and definitely more chunks of garlic. It was great and apparently a common veggie here in Taiwan.
6. Radish Omelette – Cai Fu Dan
We’ve discovered a common ingredient used here in Taiwan – radish. Although the radish omelette was our first encounter with it in the country, we’ve since eaten our fair share of radish-containing meals and enjoyed every one. This omelette was delicious and is actually a quite simple traditional recipe – basically it is exactly what it’s name would suggest an omelette made with dried radish (and also green onions) – and this one was quite flavourful with garlic and other seasoning added.
Since that first meal, we’ve tasted an ever-increasing number of Taiwanese dishes and foods and have had an amazing culinary experience. Stay tuned for a follow-up on Taiwanese food and traditional meals we’ve had while touring around the country and its many night markets… you won’t want to miss hearing about some of these seemingly bizarre foods!!
Disclaimer: We tried our best to write down, ask and record the names, in Mandarin, of the dishes we ate. Should we have misspelled or misnamed any of the dishes, please let us know so we can make the corrections. We hope to get some complex dish names down before we leave Taiwan but so far we’ve just got the essential food names down!