What to eat in Taiwan
Generally speaking, the foods of Taiwan are derived from mainland Chinese cuisines. It is possible to find Szechuan food, Hunan food, Beifang food, Cantonese food and almost every other Chinese cuisine on the island. The Taiwanese are also passionately in love with eggs and seafood, as you will discover during your stay on the island. Fruits are another famous part of Taiwanese food. A wide range of fruits can be found at local fruit shops and stations. The subtropical climate allows different fruits to grow nicely. In fact, you can find almost every kind of fruit you can think of in Taiwan.
Taiwan also has many of its own local specialties. A few found island wide include:
- Taiwanese beef noodle soup
- Beef noodles, noodle soup with chunks of extremely tender stewed beef and a dash of pickles
- Oyster omelet – this is the Taiwanese name, as its Chinese name only exists in characters, but not in oral Mandarin), made from eggs, oysters and the leaves of a local chrysanthemum, topped with sweet red sauce.
- Lemon aiyu jelly
- Aiyu jelly, made from the seeds of a local fig and usually served on ice — sweet, cool and refreshing on a hot day
- Taiwan Sausage, usually made from pork, it is a modified version of the Cantonese laap cheong which has been emulsified and is much sweeter in taste. Unlike laap cheong, which is almost always eaten with rice, Taiwanese xiangchang is usually eaten on its own with some garlic.
- Taiwanese Orange is a type of citrus fruit which is similar to usual oranges, except that the skin and flesh tend to look more yellowish like lemon. Unlike lemon, it is usually quite sweet.
- Taiwanese Porridge is rice porridge cooked with sweet potato. It is usually eaten with several different dishes.
Most cities and towns in Taiwan are famous for special foods because of the Taiwanese passion for food and influences from many different countries.
- Ilan is famous for its Tongue Cake, a biscuit shaped like the Ox tongue.
- Hualiaen for its mochi, a sticky rice snack often flavored with sesame, peanuts or other flavorings.
- Yonghe, a suburb of Taipei, is famous for its freshly made soy milk and breakfast foods.
- Taichung for its sun cakes, a kind of sweet stuffed pastry
- Chiayi, for its square cookies, also called cubic pastry, crispy layered cookies cut into squares and sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds.
- Tainan is particularly famous among the Taiwanese for its abundance of good food and should be a stop for all gourmands.
The most famous dish is arguably the coffin bread. Virtually every city has its own famous specialties; many Taiwanese tourists will visit other cities on the island simply to try the local foods and then return home.
Undoubtedly the most infamous Taiwanese delicacy, stinky tofu is fermented tofu with a strong odor often likened to rotting garbage. It’s usually sold only by outdoor stalls, as the smell would overwhelm most restaurants, but if you can hold your nose long enough to eat it, the taste is quite mild — but with distinct earthy overtones that many visitors find off-putting. It’s most commonly eaten fried, but for extra Fear Factor points, find some mala hotpot with stinky tofu and gelatinized duck blood.
Taiwanese cuisine is by essence Taiwanese, but also influenced by Japanese and its own tribal heritage. Most local food is made of local animals’ meat. Thai food is also popular because of its exotic taste, and the fact you can eat it with spoon and fork.
Taiwan also has remarkably good bakery items. Most specialize in sweet Taiwanese pastries or Western pastries adjusted to local tastes, whole wheat loaves, sour breads and ciabatta.
Vegetarians are better catered for in restaurants and variety than in most other countries.
Places to eat
If you’re on a budget, the cheapest food can be found in back-alley noodle shops and night market stalls.
The Taiwanese love to snack and even many restaurants advertise xiaochi, literally “small eats”, the Taiwanese equivalent of Cantonese dim sum. There are also the standard fast food places such as McDonalds, KFC and MOS Burger. In addition there are large numbers of convenience stores (such as 7-11) that sell things like tea eggs, sandwiches, bento boxes and drinks.
Night markets are also a good place to try some delicious local Taiwanese fare at attractive prices. Examples would be the Shilin Night Market in Taipei and the Liouho Night Market in Kaohsiung, each of which has its own special dishes not to be missed.
All Mahayana Buddhists, which account for the majority of adherents in Taiwan, aspire to be pure vegetarian in deference to the Buddha’s teaching of non-violence and compassion. So, vegetarian restaurants can be found in abundance all over the island, and they run from cheap buffet style to gourmet and organic. Buffet styled restaurants are common in almost every neighborhood in large cities, and unlike the ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffets, the cost is estimated by the weight of the food on your plate. Rice (there is usually a choice of brown or white) is charged separately, but soup or cold tea is free and you can refill as many times as you like.
However, if you cannot find a veggie restaurant, don’t fret. Taiwanese people are very flexible and most restaurants will be happy to cook you up something to suit your requirements.
Taiwanese vegetarianism isn’t simply vegetarianism, for there is a notion of “plainness” to it. In most cases it excludes items such onion, ginger, and garlic. Buddhists and Taoists consider these items “un-plain” because they potentially cause physical excitement, which could hinder the meditative process. Thus, when offering food to a strict vegetarian, be aware that they may not eat food containing onion, ginger, and garlic.
Although vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan do not adhere to vegan principles, due to the fact that Taiwanese do not have a tradition of eating dairy products, almost all non-dessert dishes at Taiwanese style veggie restaurants will actually be vegan.
As Taiwan is a subtropical island nation with the south part in the tropics, it cannot hurt to drink a lot, especially during summertime. Drink vending machines can be found virtually everywhere and are filled with all kinds of juices, tea, coffee drinks, soy milk and mineral water. There are also many convenience stores in every city in Taiwan (7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Hi-Life, OK are the four largest convenience store brands).
Drinks prepared individually (coffee, freshly squeezed juices) will often be sealed with a transparent cover. Taiwan has banned insulating styrofoam cups for their environmental impact. During humid times, the cup will be wrapped in an extra plastic bag to prevent condensation from dripping down. You might consider getting a personal, reusable cup, and some of the drink shops will offer a discount for using your own cup.
Water or ice you are served in restaurants are usually filtered tap water (mostly without extra charge for water), which is generally safe. However, it is best to drink water both filtered and boiled.
Water fountains in Taiwan always incorporate filters, and they can be found in practically every lodge, hotel, most of the museums, some of the government buildings and most of the MRT stations. You can refill and reuse your bottles at these fountains as well.
Another reason for drinking previously boiled or bottled water in Taiwan is that Taiwan is a seismic active zone. Because of a large number of earthquakes, the water delivery system (pipes) are easily damaged allowing contaminants to enter the water prior to it reaching the tap. Therefore drinking previously boiled or bottled water is probably a wise choice.
Taiwan’s legal age to consume alcohol is 18 years of age. Minors caught drinking can face fines. Traditional alcoholic drinks in Taiwan are very strong. Kaoliang is the most famous alcoholic drink. A distilled grain liquor, it can be extremely strong, usually with alcohol content of 38%-63% (76-126 proofs), and often drunk straight.
Taiwan also produces many types of Shaoxing, rice wine, which are considered by many as being some of the best in the world.
Taiwanese people enjoy beer on ice. A wide variety of imported beers are available, but the standard is Taiwan Beer, produced by a former government monopoly. It is brewed with fragrant penglai rice in addition to barley giving it a distinctive flavor. The beer is served cold and recognized as an especially suitable complement to Taiwanese and Japanese cuisine, especially seafood dishes such as sushi and sashimi. Taiwan Beer has won international awards, including the International Monde Selection in 1977 and the Brewing Industry International Awards in 2002.
Beer on tap is uncommon in Taiwan, and most places serve beer in bottles. For a special and rare treat, ask for the Taiwan Draft Beer, which comes in a plain green bottle. This has a 2-week expiration, so it can only be found at the breweries (there are a few scattered around Taiwan) or at select stores and restaurants in the vicinity.
It is legal to consume alcohol in the public areas of Taiwan. In fact, many locals and foreigners alike will go to a convenience store and just drink outside. Convenience stores generally offer very cheap prices on beer and will open any bottles for you, also some stores may also offer some seats and table for you to drink and eat.
Tea and coffee
Taiwan’s specialty teas are High Mountain Oolong – a fragrant, light tea, and Tie Guan-Yin – a dark, rich brew. Enjoying this tea, served in the traditional way using a very small teapot and tiny cups, is an experience you should not miss. This way of taking tea is called Lao Ren Cha – ‘old people’s tea’, and the name is derived from the fact that only the elderly traditionally had the luxury of time to relax and enjoy tea in this way. Check the small print when visiting a traditional tea house though: in addition to the tea itself, you may be charged a cover, literally “tea-water fee”) for the elaborate process of preparing it as well as for any nibbles served on the side.
One should also try Lei Cha a tasty and nourishing Hakka Taiwanese tea-based beverage consisting of a mix ground tea leaves and grain. Some stores specialize in this product and allow one to grind their own lei cha.
Pearl milk tea, aka “bubble tea” or “boba tea”, is milky tea with chewy balls of tapioca added, drunk through an over-sized straw. Invented in Taiwan in the early 1980s and a huge Asia-wide craze in the 1990s, it’s not quite as popular as it once was but can still be found at nearly every coffee/tea shop. Look for a shop where it is freshly made. Chatime is the first Taiwanese catering brand to receive the “Brands of the Year” at the World Branding Awards in 2014.
The cafe culture has hit Taiwan in a big way, and in addition to an abundance of privately owned cafes, all the major chains, such as Starbucks, have a multitude of branches throughout major towns and cities. Some chains, such as Cama Coffee, roast their beans on site (you can watch them do it during off-peak-hours). Hot drinks will be served in plastic cups, as styrofoam cups have been banned in Taiwan for their bad bio degradation. Iced drinks, especially at high humidity times, will come in an extra plastic bag to catch condensing moisture.
Taiwan is a great place for fresh fruit drinks. Small fruit-juice bars make them fresh on the spot and are experts at creating fruit-juice cocktails (non-alcoholic, of course). zong-he – mixed – is usually a sweet and sour combination and mu-gwa niou-nai is iced papaya milk. End of winter is strawberry season while typhoon season is the time for popular mango juices and milk shakes.
Soy milk, or doujiang, is a great treat. Try it hot or cold. Savory soy milk is a traditional Taiwanese breakfast dish. It is somewhat of an acquired taste as vinegar is added to curdle the milk. Both sweet and savory soy milk are often ordered with you-tiao, or deep fried dough crullers.
There are a lot of pseudo health drinks in Taiwanese supermarkets and convenience stores. Look out for asparagus juice and lavender milk tea for example.