Eating and drinking in Taiwan
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Taiwan offers a huge variety of cuisines, from Chinese and Taiwanese food to Japanese and aboriginal dishes. Choices range from super-cheap night markets and street stalls, to wallet-draining restaurants featuring some of Asia’s best chefs. In the major cities there’s also plenty of Western food, from smart Italian cafés to all the familiar fast-food chains.
Taiwanese cuisine is difficult to define, and best thought of as an umbrella term for a huge variety of dishes and styles, most of which can be summarized as xiǎochī, or “little eats”. Though these are primarily served in simple canteens or night markets, there are also plenty of restaurants specializing in Taiwanese food. Although Taiwanese cuisine is rooted in Fujianese cooking (from southern China), since 1949 many dishes have evolved from specialities originating in other parts of China. In addition, much of what’s considered Taiwanese food, particularly cakes and desserts, was influenced by the Japanese during the occupation period. Being an island, Taiwan is particularly renowned for its seafood: shellfish, squid and crab are extremely popular, with milkfish a favourite in the south.
One of the classic dishes found all over Taiwan is known as sānbēi, “three cups”, a sumptuous blend of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil, seasoned with various spices, added to meat or tofu and usually served in a clay pot. Other national staples are lŭròufàn (braised pork rice) and oyster omelette (é a jiān). Shaved ice (“tsuà bīng” in Taiwanese) stalls are another national institution; mounds of ice topped with fruits or traditional sweets such as red bean and sweet taro.
Every region, town and even village in Taiwan seems to have a speciality, eagerly dished out by local vendors. Tainan’s signature dish is dānzǎi mián, a mixture of pork, noodles and usually egg or shrimp. Fish balls (yúwán) are most associated with Danshui, Kaohsiung (marlin), Tainan (milkfish) and Nanfangao (mahi-mahi). Rice noodles (mǐfěn) are noted in Hsinchu, while Sichuan beef noodles (niúròu mián) is a dish primarily associated with Taipei. Steamed or deep-fried meatballs (gòngwán) are best in Changhua and Hsinchu. Turkey rice (huǒ jīròufàn) is a Chiayi innovation while Shenkeng is Taiwan’s tofu capital. The most infamous tofu dish is chòu dòufǔ, or stinky tofu, the smell of which sickens most foreigners but tastes delicious (it’s actually just tofu cubes deep-fried in pig fat). In fact Taiwan offers plenty of dishes most Westerners find revolting: good examples are pig intestines and lǔ wèi, a mix of tofu and various internal organs of cows or pigs, simmered in a tasty broth, and often eaten cold. Try them and you’re bound to win the respect of the incredulous Taiwanese sitting next to you.
Hakka food, a type of Chinese cuisine associated with the Hakka people, has become very popular in Taiwan, with restaurants dishing up classic favourites in all the major cities. Hakka cuisine is noted for its strong, rich flavours and salty, fatty ingredients, particularly pork, traditionally designed to fill hungry agricultural labourers. Favourites include bǎntiáo (fried noodles), bamboo shoots, braised stuffed tofu, kèjiā máshŭ (glutinous rice cakes rolled in peanuts) and fried pork intestines with ginger – this tastes a lot better than it sounds. One of the major culinary draws at Hakka tourist spots across the island is léichá (cereal tea), a tasty, thick blend of nuts and tea leaves, best experienced in Beipu.
Aboriginal food differs slightly between tribes, but the main ingredients tend to be the same. Ginger is a frequent ingredient in soups and tea, while the most celebrated dish is undoubtedly “mountain pig” (shānzhū) or wild boar, which is usually roasted. Millet wine (xiǎo mǐjiŭ) is mildly alcoholic and served at all times of the day, and freshwater fish is also a regular feature of aboriginal meals, served with mountain vegetables such as sweet potato. Bamboo rice (zhútǒng fàn), or rice cooked in bamboo tubes, is tasty but not really traditional food – rice arrived with Chinese immigrants in the seventeenth century.
Traditional breakfasts in Taiwan, particularly in the north and in the cities, follow a modified northern-Chinese style, with common items including dòujiāng (soybean milk), yóutiáo (foot-long dough fritters), dànbǐng (egg pancake), mántóu (steamed bread) and a variety of steamed buns (bāozi). You can usually find small hole-in-the-wall-type places or stalls serving these snacks in every neighbourhood, and while the formica tables and greasy-spoon atmosphere might be off-putting, the food is well worth a try. In south Taiwan, particularly in smaller towns, rice-based dishes are more common, and in Tainan it’s not unusual to see people eat large meals of seafood and milkfish to start the day.
Starbucks has a major presence in Taiwan, and has spawned a large number of local coffeeshop chains such as Dante and IS Coffee, though for many Taiwanese a “Western” breakfast comprises fried egg sandwiches loaded with mayonnaise and spam, sold at an increasing number of cheap roadside stalls.
China’s regional cuisine is well represented in restaurants all over Taiwan. The most respected northern school is Beijing, with its emphasis on bread, noodles, dumplings and Beijing duck, its most famous dish. It’s rare to find places specializing in other northern styles: the handful of Shaanxi and Xinjiang restaurants are not very authentic, though Mongolian barbecues, where you roast your own meat and vegetables on griddles placed in the middle of the table, are deservedly popular.
Eastern-style cuisine such as Shanghainese food is best known for xiǎolóngbāo or pork dumplings, and is big business in Taiwan; the craze for 1930s-style Shanghai restaurants and food has also made its way to the island, with favourites including eel, freshwater fish with corn and pine nuts (sōngrén yùmǐ), yellow croaker (huángyú) and drunken chicken (zuìjī). Cuisine based on Zhejiang and Jiangsu specialities, including Huangzhou food, which also features delicately flavoured freshwater fish, is fairly easy to find.
Southern cuisine is best epitomized by Cantonese food, a global favourite with colourful and varied ingredients, but fewer spices than other schools. Often associated with lavish banquet food such as shark’s fin soup, dim sum (diǎnxīn) and the ubiquitous roast meat stalls provide a more affordable option. Fujianese food is closely related to Taiwanese; “Buddha Jumps over the Wall” is probably its most lauded (and expensive) dish, a rich stew of rare seafood and meats, but the most authentic seafood dishes are found on Matsu and Kinmen.
Sichuanese food is part of the Western school, the spiciest of all Chinese cuisines, with fiery chilli and black peppercorns added to dishes such as mápó dòufù (a spicy meat and tofu stew), and chicken with peanuts (gōnğbǎo jīdīng). Two Taiwanese obsessions are derivatives of Sichuan dishes: beef noodles (niúròu miàn) and hotpot (huǒguō). The latter has blossomed into a major obsession on the island, with Japanese, Cantonese, Mongolian and spicy hotpot variations; the main difference is the sauces and stock used to flavour the water. Once you’ve chosen the sauce, you select your raw ingredients and boil them in a gas-fired cauldron. Hunan food, as spicy as Sichuan food but more oily and featuring dishes such as honey ham and minced pork, is not so common and found primarily in the capital.
Japanese food is extremely common in Taiwan, ranging from traditional, highly expensive restaurants in hotels, to cheap, local derivatives with a decidedly Taiwanese flavour – you’ll also see plenty of Japanese snacks such as onigiri (sticky rice wrapped in seaweed) in local convenience stores. Japanese food traditionally revolved around rice, but today is associated with richer fare, usually involving seafood: the best-known is sashimi or raw fish, typically served on rice to create sushi, which in Taiwan can be very affordable and also sold in most supermarkets. Numerous restaurants specialize in shabu shabu (hotpot), curry rice, ramen, soba or udon noodles, yakitori (chicken kebabs), tempura (battered and deep-fried seafood and vegetables) and teppanyaki (stir-fried meat and vegetables).
The choice of Western food, especially in the big cities, continues to improve in Taiwan, but quality varies and many restaurants produce highly localized versions of the original cuisine. Bars and pubs often serve decent staples such as burgers, sandwiches and basic Tex-Mex favourites, while hotels offer more upmarket options. In cities like Taipei and Taichung, the choice of French, Italian and American-style food isn’t bad, with plenty of expat chefs and talented locals opening restaurants all the time – prices tend to be higher than local food however. Korean food is gaining popularity on the island, and tends to be a lot more authentic than southeast Asian cuisine such as Thai, which is usually adapted to local tastes and blander than what you’d get in Bangkok. South Asian and Indian food, buoyed primarily by a small but growing Pakistani and Bangladeshi expat population, is becoming more available in Taiwan, while major fast-food chains such as Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut can be found all over the country.
Night markets (yèshì) are the best places to sample local food at budget prices. They are typically NT$20–40 per dish. They are usually located along streets lined with both permanent shops and temporary stalls, though in cities such as Taipei and Tainan, a few markets have specially built premises. Some stalls open for lunch, but in general things only really get going after 5pm and start to wind down after 11pm, though many stay open till the early hours, especially at weekends. Language is not a problem – just point and get stuck in. The crowds can be suffocating at the weekends, but that’s all part of the experience and probably the reason why most night markets also feature foot massage centres. Cheap local diners and buffets (zìzhù cān) offer similar fare, the latter an especially good idea if you want to avoid having to order in Chinese. Hygiene standards are better than they seem at these places, and it’s generally safe to drink water or tea served for free on your arrival (which will have been boiled or purified).
If you fancy a stronger tipple with your food, beerhouses (píjiŭ wū) are atmospheric locations to try Taiwanese snacks such as squid, steamed peanuts with small fish, fried oysters, fresh clams and fried prawns. Teahouses also serve delicious food.
Restaurants in Taiwan, as in China, tend to be set up for groups: diners sit at large, round tables in order to share the sizeable plates of food on the menu. It’s quite acceptable to dine alone anywhere on the island, but with more people you’ll be able to try more dishes. All the major hotels operate expensive but top-notch restaurants, their lavish buffets the best value if you want to splurge. Restaurants get going early in Taiwan, opening for lunch well before midday. Most close in the afternoons and open again at 5pm for dinner – only a handful of places do a brisk trade later in the evenings, though most will stay open till 10pm. Prices vary according to the quality of the establishment, but it’s rare to pay less than NT$120 per dish, or NT$400 at smarter places.
Ordering can be difficult if there’s no English menu or English-speaking staff, but unless it’s exceptionally busy someone will usually be able to help. Often there will be an English menu somewhere on the premises if you ask for one, and at street stalls pointing is usually sufficient. Chopsticks are de rigueur in all Chinese-style restaurants, but larger places will have knives, forks and definitely spoons if you ask. Most restaurants will serve filtered or bottled water for no extra charge (other places will serve tea). Tap water is treated in Taiwan and nominally safe to drink.
Taiwan produces some of the world’s finest tea, and as a result is a good place to drink and buy various strains, particularly oolong (wūlóng chá, semi-fermented tea). Lishan oolong, grown at heights above 2200m near the town of Lishan, and Dongding oolong, produced around the town of Lugu in the heart of the country, are often considered the best teas in Taiwan. Relatively mild, Dongding oolong is dried for a brief period over a charcoal fire, giving it a subtle smoky flavour. Taiwan’s other famous strain is Oriental Beauty (dōngfāng měirén chá or just “white oolong”), grown in Hsinchu and Miaoli counties and deriving its sweeter flavour from young leaves that have been bitten by tiny insects. This bite starts the oxidation of the leaves and adds the distinctive sweet and sour flavour. Other oolongs to look out for are Alishan “high mountain tea” (gāoshān chá), tiěguānyīn and bāozhǒng, the lightest and most floral of the strains (closest to green tea). Taiwan also produces small amounts of green tea (lǜ chá) and black tea (hóng chá), especially around Sun Moon Lake.
Teahouses are an important part of contemporary Taiwanese culture, ranging from the traditional to the ultra chic, and Taiwan is regarded as a global leader in tea innovation: its modern teashops were responsible for world-wide favourites such as bubble tea (pàomò hóngchá), and its upscale establishments have added modern twists to ancient tea ceremonies.
At traditional-style teahouses, after choosing your tea type, you’ll be given a teapot, a flask or kettle of hot water, several smaller pots and a bag of dried tea leaves, enough for several rounds. When it comes to making tea the traditional way, Taiwan is far less rigid than Japan, but although methods do vary around the country the basic principles remain the same. The first brew washes the leaves and is poured away, while the second is drunk after a few seconds, the tea poured out of the pot into a separate container before being served into small drinking cups (get your waiter to help if you get confused). These days you can order a wide range of meals and snacks with the tea – tea-flavoured ice cream, cakes, buns and dumplings brewed in tea are often available.
Taiwan’s tipple of choice is beer (píjiŭ), and the number one bestseller by far is Taiwan Beer, the brand produced by state-owned Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp. The Taiwanese are immensely proud of the brew (though it’s fairly average by international standards) and you’ll gain much kudos by drinking it, especially in rural areas. It’s sold in cheap cans and bottles in convenience stores and at food stalls, though it’s rarely served in bars in the cities (especially in Taipei). Western mass-produced brands such as Budweiser, Carlsberg, San Miguel and Heineken are available in most bars and stores (along with all major Japanese brews) but a more diverse range of Irish, German, Belgian or British beers and ales is limited to a few pubs in the big cities.
Taiwan’s national spirit is gāoliáng jiŭ, made from sorghum. Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor is its most celebrated incarnation, available at 38 or 58 percent proof. Tunnel 88 is a slightly cheaper version (38 to 42 percent proof) made in Matsu. Rice wines, such as the Shaoxing variety made in Puli, tend to be too sour or sweet for Western tastes, and grape wines are slowly becoming more popular, particularly in Taipei, where the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau has become an important event for the fashion-conscious. It’s expensive, thanks to heavy taxation, and you’ll only get a good selection in the larger or Western-oriented supermarkets and specialty stores – Australian wines are best value in regular supermarkets.
Canned juices are sold throughout the island, and there are numerous fresh-fruit stalls. Be warned, however, that it’s common to add milk, syrup and often sugar to juice drinks in Taiwan, so check before you order. Freshly pressed sugar cane juice is a delicious, sweet drink served by street vendors all over the country, while papaya milk is especially associated with Kaohsiung. Most supermarkets and convenience stores stock all the usual soft drinks, as well as fresh milk and a bewildering range of soy and yoghurt drinks; low-fat (or skimmed) and non-sugar versions of all of these are slowly becoming available.
Tap water in Taiwan is a potential cause of minor stomach ailments, especially for first-time visitors. Though tap water is considered potable in most places, it’s not a good idea for travellers to drink it unless it has first been boiled – many hotels provide an electric kettle for this purpose.
Vegetarian food has a long history in Chinese culture and, as in China, vegetarianism in Taiwan is primarily associated with Buddhism. At the cheaper end of the scale, vegetarians will find plenty of food at night markets: roast corn-on-the-cob and sweet potatoes, tofu, and a huge range of fruits and nuts. Almost every city and town will have cheap vegetarian buffets where you can pile as many vegetables on your plate as you like – the price is calculated by weight but is rarely more than NT$100 for a large serving. The larger, more formal restaurants tend to be Buddhist inspired (identified by images of Buddha, Guanyin or lotus flowers on the walls). Chinese vegetarian food ranges from simple, fresh dishes of green vegetables to more elaborate combinations of herbs, roots and even flowers. One aspect of this might confuse foreign vegetarians however: tofu and gluten are often cooked to reproduce the textures and flavours of meat (like roast pork). Taiwanese vegetarians, including many Buddhist monks, applaud these culinary skills – eating food that tastes like meat is perfectly acceptable if it doesn’t involve killing animals. It can be hard to find decent non-meat options in rural areas, where rice and local vegetables will have to suffice: note that many sauces, even on vegetables, contain shrimp or fish.