I sniff the air and nearly gag at the ripe smell of old socks. Slowly the conga line of locals waiting to buy their stinky tofu at Shi Lin, one of Taiwan’s largest night markets, shuffles forward. I’m prepared to wait in line, but as a foreigner I’m ushered to the front. “It is part of our culture to believe that you gain in status if you help others,” says stall owner Lily, handing me the oil-fried tofu smothered in tangy Kimchee sauce.
Fermented in milk and fish brine, the smell of the deep fried tofu is so intense it makes my eyes water. “The smellier it is, the better it is..." Lily tells me. The flavour is surprisingly mild and slightly sweet, however, like eating blue cheese dipped in fish paste. My taste buds are now tuned for the task ahead: at the next stall I sample slithery '100-year eggs' preserved in a blend of salt, lime and tea, which taste, to me, like blobs of salty, chlorine-flavoured jelly.
Food stalls and restaurants in Taiwan
‘Chi bao le ma?’ Or ‘Have you eaten?’ is a standard way to greet someone in Taiwan, where food is a central part of social life. Home to 22 million people, but less than half the size of Ireland, Taiwan was occupied successively by the Dutch, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese, and the country’s food is a rich blend of all these influences. From seaweed and raw fish to noodles and jellyfish, the ingredients are often as surprising as the cultures that inspired them. Armed with an unbridled appetite and immense culinary curiosity, I’m here on ‘the beautiful island’ to dig my fork into as many of the island’s unique food specialties as I can in one weekend.
Lu Rou Fan, or sweet-braised pork belly, is one of Taiwan's classic dishes © Slawomir Fajer/Shutterstock
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Taiwan's signature dishes
As any Taiwanese person based overseas will tell you, Lu Rou Fan, sweet-braised pork belly served with lashings of rice, is not only one of the country’s most popular dishes, it’s also the ultimate comfort food. At Jin Feng restaurant in Taipei they serve what is considered to be the definitive version of this delicious dish. It’s so good that I (surreptitiously) lick my chopsticks cleaner than a cat could, before heading for Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings.
This elegantly tiered skyscraper is home to a Dian Tai Fung, Taiwan’s celebrated chain of xiaolongbao dumpling restaurants. The light filled space centres on a glass-walled preparation room where a dozen chefs knead acres of dimpled, pale white dumpling dough. The hot dumplings are served to my table and I’m taught the correct way to eat them: “Pierce the dough,” the waitress orders, jabbing at one of the dumplings with a chopstick to let the hot broth seep out. She indicates the deflated dumpling. “Now it's not too hot – now you can drink the broth and juicy meat inside,” she says.
More-ish dumplings at Dian Tai Fung in Taipei © Heidi Fuller-Love
After a few hours' digestion time in Lungshan, an ancient temple smoky with incense where locals divine their future with crescent-shaped red counters, I head for Silks Palace.
A gourmet restaurant inside the National Palace Museum, Silks Palace is renowned for its local cuisine. I’m like a kid in a sweetshop faced with the menu full of unknown food. From a list of delicacies ranging from sautéed lily bulb, to Jadeite cabbage with insects, I order jellyfish, which I expect to be rubbery but is crunchy like radish and flavoured with spicy ginger sauce, followed by marinated pork knuckles (tender and sticky sweet) and juicy oyster omelettes speckled with chrysanthemum leaves, which are the best I’m to taste during my trip.
A chef preparing local dishes at Silks Palace © Heidi Fuller-Love
Sampling street food
An hour’s train ride the following day takes me to Shifen. Leaving Taipei’s narrow alleys and tall skyscrapers far behind, we’re soon surrounded by flooded rice paddies lapping at the skirts of low roofed houses. Shifen itself is tiny: a one-horse town that grew up either side of the rail tracks when people started coming here to buy sky lanterns some thirty years ago.
To get to the shops either side, you have to cross the rail tracks in front of patiently waiting trains. Apart from sky lanterns, Shifen is well known for its street food – a treat for any visitor exploring Taiwan's food scene. I spend several hours snacking on crispy-fried cuttlefish sticks, tamagoyaki omelette and velvety-sweet sticks of deep fried milk.
A street food vendor in Shifen © Heidi Fuller-Love
The home of bubble tea
Hopping on another train I head to Chun Shui Tang, the Taichung tea house where Bubble Tea was invented in the 1980s. Coached by one of the tea house’s well-trained staff, I learn how to mix Assam black tea with powdered milk and sugar syrup, then blend it with ice in a specially designed cocktail shaker, before pouring it over cooked black tapioca beads to produce this satisfyingly chewy drink.
Making bubble tea at Chun Shui Tang, one of the most famous tea house restaurants in Taiwan © Heidi Fuller-Love
A trip to one of Taiwan's themed restaurants
Back in Taipei for my final night, I make a beeline for The Modern Toilet, one of the most notorious restaurants in Taiwan. An hour later I’m seated on a toilet bowl scooping up ice cream that’s shaped to look like something you’d find inside. Apart from the scatological styling, the food here is pretty average and yet the restaurant is packed to the rafters. “Here in Taiwan we like crazy things,” the waiter tells me.
I didn’t like to tell him that compared to stinky tofu and jellyfish, poo-shaped chocolate ice cream seemed pretty tame to me.