With a culinary heritage from its Chinese, Japanese, and aboriginal ancestry, Taiwan boasts an extraordinary food culture that every world traveler must experience. From smoky barbecue squid to steamed taro cakes, gooey oyster omelets and broth with pork liver, from deep-fried sea creatures and crispy chicken to candied strawberries on a stick, the variation and creativity of Taiwanese cuisine demonstrates the wide gastronomical scope of this small island off the coast of China.
During my month-long tour of the Taichung City District with the Rotary Club, my chopsticks traversed a bountiful spread of traditional Taiwanese foods. Join me now as I reflect on my culinary adventures in Taiwan!
AROUND THE LAZY SUSAN
A traditional Taiwanese meal is designed for a family-style dining experience. Round tables and Lazy Susans help diners share the fragrant fare, a total of 12-20 different dishes at any given meal. As such, they have a saying in Taiwan that travelers would be wise to heed:
You only need three things when you come to Taiwan:
your passport, some money, and an extra stomach!
HOT POT AND SOUPS
Locals will tell you that soups play a major role on the culinary stage in Taiwan and that they wouldn’t have it any other way. It didn’t take me long to lose count of the soups that we were served: fish ball soup, acorn squash soup, shark fin soup, noodles in soup, cold seaweed soup, and the most common of them all – mystery ingredients soup. And no traditional Taiwanese meal would be complete without hot pot, a conceptually simple and beloved dining practice. At times, there were as many as three burners cooking up hearty medleys on the same table.
From gorgeous sashimi platters to a singular egg, delicately steamed and filled with truffle oil and caviar, my chopsticks brought a number of gourmet bites to my lips that I won’t forget any time soon – again, all thanks to the generosity of my hosts. Two restaurants made a lasting impression on me: The Oriental Cuisine, located on the 11th floor of The Wen Wan Resort at Sun Moon Lake, and at Las Vegas Teppanyaki, in Taichung City.
You can expect to find excellent seafood in Taiwan, the largest island sandwiched between the East China Sea, the Philippine Sea, and the South China Sea. During my tour, I hardly went a meal without seeing a presentation of shrimp/prawns on the Lazy Susan. Furthermore, I really enjoyed how often fresh fish graced the table – under a myriad of culinary costumes!
FRESH PRODUCE + FRUITY TREATS
Taiwan’s diverse landscape is home to a multitude of freshly farmed delights, such as beautiful greens and fragrant fruits. I particularly enjoyed generous helpings of sautéed morning-glory and snacking on tangy, unripe guava or juicy wax apples.
I learned that pineapple has a special place in the hearts of the Taiwanese, as it is the key ingredient to some of their beloved specialties: pineapple cakes and pineapple ice. Taiwanese pineapple and its byproducts are simply divine. But traveler, be warned: no two pineapple cakes are alike! [TIP: For the best pineapple cakes, head up Bahua Mountain and visit SunnyHills farm!]
Another popular frozen, fruity dessert I sampled was the Shaved Ice Mountain, shaved ice with fruit jam toppings. The most unusual dessert I encountered was a cup of gelatinous Aiyu jelly, also called ice jelly, which is made from fig seeds and served cold. The consistency made for a bizarre experience, but it was refreshing and I actually liked it!
Chinese tea, bubble tea, and specialty drinks are the liquid libations of choice in Taiwan. Contrary to Western culture, beverages are not an important part of the Taiwanese dining experience – until the meal is finished.
Holding out a glass of beer or whiskey (or, for non-drinkers, tea) with two hands towards a guest or business partner, the host says kanpei (pronounced “gan-bay”). The guest reciprocates the motion and then both parties empty their glasses. As you can imagine, the kanpei culture can make for a rowdy evening if anyone gets overzealous with their cheersing. Perhaps this is why restaurant glasses were typically so small…
STREET FOOD & NIGHT MARKETS
Some of the best foods in Taiwan aren’t served on a table. In fact, the island is famous for its street stalls and crowded night markets. The selection of fried, steamed, chilled, and seared goods that you can find on the streets is utterly limitless. Strolling through the markets is a must-do when in Taiwan.
DUMPLINGS AT DIN TAI FUNG
For my last meal in Taiwan, my Rotarian hosts took me to Din Tai Fung, the most popular restaurant located in Taipei 101. Famous for their handmade dumplings, the chefs at Din Tai Fung have achieved dumpling perfection by ensuring each xiao long boa has 18 folds – earning the international restaurant a MICHELIN star… and some adoring fans!
I ♥︎ TAIWAN!
If there is one thing I can tell you about the Taiwanese food culture, it’s that you won’t be hungry for long – if ever. Whether it’s grabbing a bite from a street vendor or sitting down to a round table with friends, your taste buds are sure to go on a stimulating adventure. After a month on this beautiful island, the extraordinary journey of my two chopsticks concluded with me leaving Taiwan with an extra stomach in tow! Oops!
Nín hǎo, fellow foodies! Do you consider yourself an adventurous eater? Have you ever tried authentic Taiwanese cuisine? If so, what are some of your favorite Taiwanese dishes that I didn’t feature here today?