Taiwan has a long and complex history. This is also reflected in the rich variety of Taiwan food.
First there were the Taiwan Aboriginals, with the crops originally available in the island, as taro and millet.
Starting from the 17th century, Chinese people from Fujian and Guangdong came to Taiwan in search of a new life. They brought with them their Southern China cuisines: Fujianese and Hakka. They brought rice too.
Much later, in 1895, the Japanese conquered Taiwan. They ruled the island for a sizeable amount of time, 50 years. They left their cuisine and the most advanced farming techniques.
When the Japanese left, after 1945, people from all the provinces of China fled to Taiwan, including many of the best cooks of that time.
The huge diversity and quality of Taiwan food comes from all these events.
To understand that, just see what the Taiwanese eat during the day, on the working days and on the (few) holidays.
And that is what we hope you’ll probably want to eat when you are in Taiwan …
Taiwan people eat breakfast at home or, very often, on the way to work or school, in breakfast shops or food-stalls. Here’s what they eat …
Many Taiwanese, modest and thrifty, for breakfast they just eat the leftovers from the day before. For the sake of the truth, after so many years I am still surprised when I see my wife eating, with evident enjoyment, pig knuckle for breakfast …
Western breakfasts are quite common, both in hotels than at home. Still, Chinese breakfasts are far more popular – and certainly our favorite way to eat breakfast …
Breakfast is an aspect of Chinese cuisine less known outside East Asia …
What is a Chinese breakfast?
The main ingredients are:
- Congee: a rice gruel, usually slightly savoury – it can be sweet too.
- You Tiao: a stick of crunchy deep fried dough – to be dipped in the congee.
- Doujiang: soy-bean milk, usually sweetened, normally is iced in summer and warm or hot in winter.
Congee itself is rather bland, so the Taiwanese add little things like:
- Xian Ya Dan: Duck eggs (also chicken) preserved in salt and then boiled before serving. They have a typical red yolk. Not to be confused with 1,000 year egg, which is a different kind of preserved egg.
- Rou song: it looks like the rock-wool once used for insulation :)). It is pork floss, shredded and roasted until dry. Besides the appearance, it is really good :))
- Peanuts, pickles, dried luobo (the radish known as daikon in Japan), vegetables and more.
Many more delights, mostly from Northern China cuisine, are offered by breakfast shops and hotels breakfast buffet, such as:
- Mantou: steamed buns.
- Baozi: steamed buns stuffed with meat or vegetables.
- Shaobing: a soft flat bread – like puff pastry – served alone or with a filling. Surprisingly good is the shaobing youtiao, wrapped around a crunchy youtiao.
- Xianbing: kind of fried pie filled with beef patty.
- Guotie: fried dumplings.
Chinese breakfast in Taiwan includes also typically local snacks, eaten not only for breakfast:
- Danbing: a pancake with egg and spring onion, rolled and sliced, served with chilli sauce.
- Luobogao: turnip cake (or radish cake), sliced and stir-fried.
- Tongzai Migao: Glutinous rice tube pudding. This is a famous local delicacy from Qingshui, in Taichung City.
Taiwan people have their lunch rather early. All the restaurants open at 11.30 AM or even earlier.
Many people eat lunch out of home, at the work place or school.
One of the most popular choices for lunch is called Biandang.
Biandang is a boxed lunch, sometimes divided into small compartments.
A biandang normally consists in steamed rice, meat, eggs or sausages, dried bean curd (Dougan), vegetables, a few slices of pickled ginger.
Biandang is of Japanese origin (where it is called Bento). The biandang provides a complete meal at an affordable price, usually from 60 to 120 NTD.
Biandang are sold in a lot of places, at food-stalls, at convenience stores, at takeaways. Often are delivered to the offices for the lunch-break.
Sometimes we wonder how the cheapest biandang can make any profit … so it would be better you don’t buy the super cheap ones.
Among the best biandang, we recommend those made with Chihshang fragrant rice.
Once they were sold at railway stations. Now you can find them, in addition to Chihshang itself, at the chain stores around Taiwan.
Also, the “official” Taiwan High Speed Railway lunch boxes, sold at the stations, are very good.
Zizhu Canting (Self Service Eatery)
Self Services are often a convenient choice. Many self-services are vegetarians – in this case they show a swastika (that, in this part of the world, is just a Buddhist symbol).
Grab your tray and fill it, you will pay by weight – if in doubt what to do, just follow what the others do!
Business lunch are quite common. Often restaurants offer very convenient set menus for lunch. More, some 5 stars hotel provide “afternoon teas” (from 2.30 to 4.30 PM) which include huge buffet for a very convenient price.
For instance we recall Prince Howard Hotel and Windsor Hotel in Taichung offer an afternoon tea for 400~500 NTD with buffet “all-you-can-eat”. An interesting solution if you are on the move …
At the end of the day families, often separated during the day, reunite.
So they have dinner at home but, especially on weekends, Taiwanese enjoy eating out in night markets and restaurants.
Restaurants open early for supper, at 5.30 PM or even earlier. They close early, even at 9 PM. People here work a lot … and go to bed early!
Anyway, the Taiwanese prefer to eat several hours before bedtime in order to keep a healthier body. This is what a friend told me, astonished by the Southern european habits (“So you’re all fat!”, she said).
A big part of the authentic Taiwan food is made of snacks, that in Mandarin are called xiao chi meaning “little eats”.
Virtually every city or county in Taiwan boasts its own specialities, that can be tasted in night markets and eateries scattered throughout the island.
Beside traditional snacks, in the night markets you can find the real Taiwanese fast food, such as the local sausages.
Also there is some strange Taiwan food, from chicken feet to the dish named seven miles fragrance, that is BBQ chicken butts.
Night markets also provide funny crap as spaghetti and mayonnaise sandwiches … certainly not all Taiwanese are gourmets, especially the younger generation ruined by fast food.
Here a list of some of the more interesting xiao chi among Taiwan food:
- Niu Rou Mian – Beef Noodles: a soup noodle with melting beef. For many Asians this is the real signature Taiwan food.
- Danzai Mian: soup noodles with stewed ground pork, egg and bean sprouts. It is a speciality from Tainan.
- Lurou Fan: steamed rice topped with braised ground pork, also from Tainan.
- Jirou Fan – Turkey Rice: steamed rice topped with minced turkey – a simple and hearty food!
- Changhua Rouyuan – Changhua Meatballs: they are actually chunks of pork, mushrooms and bamboo shoots, wrapped in a dough made with sweet potato flour, then lightly fried in warm oil. This is a Changhua signature dish.
- Oyster Omelette: the most popular among oyster dishes, very common along coastal areas.
- Chou Doufu – Stinky Doufu: stalls selling stinky doufu are recognizable from afar, especially when they are upwind. It is bean curd fermented in a mixture of vegetable and shrimps. The smell is pungent but not so strange for an European – the good one smells not so different from blue cheese.
- Tian bu la: Keelung version of Japanese Tempura. It’s a kind of fry with squid, fish balls, chicken, sweet potatoes. It is served with sauce and pickled cucumber. Unlike the original Japanese version, not all the pieces are buttered.
Huo Guo – Hot Pot
Taiwan is a semi-tropical island so the houses are not heated.
In winter, when the cold front from Mongolia comes, the temperature can drop to 10 degrees (50 F), even down to 5 (40 F) in Taipei.
Then inside the house is very cold. The Taiwanese so know that the time for hot pot has come.
Huo Guo means Fire-Pot.
Hot pot is one of the most popular Taiwan food. Hot pot was probably brought by the Mongols. It is very popular in China too, especially in Sichuan.
The hot pot is placed on the dining table, on top of a stove or a hot plate.
The hot pot contains stock and is kept simmering or boiling. Every sort of ingredients are cooked at the table in the hot pot, such as slices of meat, shrimps, eggs, mushrooms, dumplings, vegetables.
Each diner pick the food straight from the pot. The bite is dipped in a sauce, also to cool it down, before eating it with rice.
The hot pot really warms and comforts the body on a cold winter evening. It is a convivial moment that Taiwanese love to share with friends or family.
They slowly cook their food, at the same time they cook their friendship and bonds with friends. If you come to Taiwan for business in winter, it’s a good idea to establish your relationship with your local partners with a hot pot.
Many restaurants offer different versions of hot pot, from Mongolian Hot pot to the spicy Sichuan Hot Pot, from the Vegetarian to the Japanese (shabu-shabu).
You can find any kind of cuisine under the sun, at least in Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung.
Of course all the different Chinese regional cuisines rule. So for the Japanese cuisine, that very often has a Taiwanese twist here.
The most common types of restaurants, the most typical dishes, are the following:
- Sichuan Cuisine – spicy
- Hot Pot: the spicy version.
- Gongbao Chicken: stir fried chicken with chili and peanuts.
- Mapo doufu: Bean curd (doufu) cooked with ground pork and, of course, chilli.
- Fujian Cuisine
- Fo tiao qiang: this wonderful soup has the funny name of Buddha Jumping Over the Wall. It is a soup of seafood, chicken, meat, mushrooms and bamboo simmered with rice wine. It is so called because is said that even a monk – vegetarian – cannot resist and has to escape from the monastery to eat the alluring dish. I ate a modern version that is, by the way, vegetarian …
- Shanghai Cuisine
- Xiaolongbao: steamed dumplings stuffed with .. pork and stock. They are the piece de resistance of the famous Dintaifung.
- Dong pu rou: Braised pork bacon, melting in the mouth …
- Northern China Cuisine – uses wheat as staple
- Peking Duck: slices of roasted duck (meat and skin) wrapped in a kind of pancake, spring onion and soy bean paste.
- Countless types of stuffed buns, dumplings and baozi.
- Barbecue and steak-houses
- Mongolian Barbecue: one of the culinary fads of the island, each table is equipped with its own built-in barbecue grill.
- Cantonese Cuisine
- Dimsum: a myriad of small dishes as spring rolls, pastries stuffed with pork, shrimp, and more.
- Hakka Cuisine – hearty
- Hakka Stirfried: with pork, squid and spring onion.
- Ban Tiao: fat thick noodles, stirfried.
- Lei Cha: a dense, creamy drink made of tea leaves pounded in a mortar with nuts and seeds.
- Aboriginal Cuisine
- Wild Boar (Shan Zhu)
- Slate grilled Barbecue
- Jhu Tong: rice steamed inside a bamboo stem, which gives its flavor to the dish.
- Japanese Cuisine: virtually all types of Japanese dining – and dishes – can be found in Taiwan.
- Vegetarian Cuisine: there are plenty of traditional religious vegetarian restaurants. There are also many new restaurants that serve their own versions of a modern and creative vegetarian cuisine, which we like very much.
Is Taiwan food the best in Asia?
This is an ongoing debate, especially among foreigners …
We are often in contact with people of different Asian nationalities.
For them, we really live in one of the food world capital – and we are talking about Singaporeans and Chinese …
In our opinion, these are the strong point of Taiwan food:
- The variety of influences: as i said, there is no other place in the world where the chinese cuisine and the japanese cuisine have together such a strong influence.
- Freshness and quality of ingredients: Taiwan farmers’ skills and techniques are among the best in the world. Besides, ingredients have to cover very short distances before being sold in the markets. Taiwan food is very fresh. The same cannot be always said about Singapore or China.
- A lot of educated customers: competition is fierce among restaurants in Taiwan and the people really know about good food. I am always amazed at such things as, for example, the quality of the coffee that is drunk in Taiwan. Coffee is not a Taiwan tradition, for sure, nevertheless their coffee is much better than in many western countries, that have much longer traditions in drinking coffee.
Night market or hole-in-the-wall food can be funny but seldom provide a lot of hygiene or visual decor – it is up to you if you like to eat there :))
In our experience is quite difficult to have a bad meal in Taiwan, provided you stay in nice looking restaurant – we normally spend from 200 to 500 NTD per person for a meal.
Enjoy your Taiwan food!