Ask a traveler about his or her experience visiting Taiwan and invariably they will rave about the local cuisine. Taiwanese food is quickly helping Taiwan climb the ranks as one of the best culinary destinations in the world.
You might assume Taiwanese food is just Chinese food, but this tiny island’s cuisine is influenced by more than just mainland China. Although they make up a very small portion of the local population today, Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes definitely contributed to the food culture, along with the Japanese who occupied Taiwan for a period of time.
Mainland Chinese influences are wide and varied, but many people associate Taiwanese food most closely with the mid to southern provinces of China, especially Fujian. Hakka cuisine, originating in Guangdong and Fujian is very prevalent in Taiwan, especially as you venture out of the larger cities.
The most common ingredients found in Taiwanese food include pork, chicken, seafood, soy, and rice. Beef is present, but far less common given the strong Buddhist culture and longstanding beliefs surrounding the importance of cows in agriculture.
Due to a portion of Taiwan lying in the sub-tropical zone, the island is blessed with a wide variety of local fruits and produce. Look for papayas, mangoes, starfruit, melons and citrus fruits. Other agricultural products found in Taiwan include tea, rice, corn, pork, beef, fish, and poultry – especially in Yilan, which is known for its prized duck.
Sauces and spices play an integral role in Taiwanese food. Items like soy sauce, Chinese rice wine, fermented black beans, pickled mustard greens, and chili peppers factor in heavily in most dishes. Taiwanese palates are more used to milder foods so look for spicy dishes, especially those from the Sichuan province, to be more mild than you would find in mainland China.
Each region of Taiwan has notable specialties, especially as you venture south on the island towards spots like Tainan, considered the birthplace to several of Taiwan’s most notable dishes. While available in other parts of the country, be sure to seek out Dan zai noodles, shrimp and meat dumplings, and “oily rice” if you visit Tainan.
Visitors to Taiwan can easily sample a number of Taiwanese foods just by visiting one of the country’s many night markets. Especially in cities like Taipei, night markets are an essential part of Taiwanese culture. People work long hours and/or have school all day long so the night market is not only convenient, it’s an opportunity for socializing. Night markets include countless food stalls, shopping outlets, and are sometimes situated around entertainment or other shopping districts.
At night markets, there are an endless number of foods to sample, and each night market has its own signature dishes. Some of the most popular dishes include stinky tofu, oyster omelet, oyster vermicelli, blood pudding, sausages, various meat and organs on a stick, giant fried chicken patties, scallion pancakes, fried buns, shaved ice and more.
Several important elements of Taiwanese food are important to note individually, including beef noodle soup, hot pot, and bubble tea.
Beef noodle soup is one of the most popular dishes in Taiwan, to the point of having a whole festival dedicated to its honor. This is often served as a whole meal and many shops offer cold dishes on the side. Look for beef noodle shops all over Taipei and in some night markets.
Hot pot is more than just a dish, it’s an integral part of Taiwanese culture. Hot pot shops are all over and often command long waits, especially late at night or on weekends. It is also called Shabu Shabu due to the Japanese influence. Hot pot is like a stew and features a metal pot where various ingredients are kept simmering. Common dishes include thinly sliced meats, mushrooms, leafy vegetables, seafood, and dumplings.
Bubble tea is also called boba milk tea or pearl milk tea and originated in Taiwan, but is now found in many other spots around the world. It was invented in Taichung tea shops during the 1980’s and consists of a tea base mixed with milk and small chewy tapioca balls, called pearls or boba. While traditionally it was black tea, today you are apt to see variations of tea types, fruit additions, larger tapioca balls, and jelly cubes.