No matter if fresh or fermented, if grilled, cooked or fried – Taiwanese cuisine shows a huge variety of fantastic flavors. One reason for that lies in Taiwanese history and culture with a lot of influence from immigration from China, Japanese occupation and indigenous cultures. Another one is its geographic location: Taiwan’s land and climate provide the island with a large amount of different fruits, vegetables and spices, which give the Taiwanese dishes their special flavor. The third reason for the delicious food is the significance and importance of food for Taiwanese people. It’s not for nothing that Taiwanese often ask you if you have eaten already, when saying hello to you, just as a form of asking ‘Are you doing fine?’. Also the fact that a lot of money is spent for the training of gourmet cooks shows the role of food and the gastronomic industry in Taiwan. But the best way to experience the Taiwanese food culture is to stroll over the numerous night markets, where you can see, smell and savor what dining in Taiwan really means.
In this post I will present you my personal top 20 of foods you should not miss when visiting Taiwan. Some of them belong to my favorites, some of them not. But all of them will definitely be a contribution to your culinary horizon – and that’s why they are more than worth it trying!
1. Stinky Tofu
There is only two kinds of foreigners in Taiwan: The ones who like stinky tofu and the one’s who don’t! Just kidding… But what I can tell from my personal experience is that you definitely gain some sympathy from the Taiwanese when you tell them you have tried stinky tofu (which already makes a good impression) and you even like it. The reason is fairly simple and can already be divined by its name: it stinks as hell! – At least if hell smells like an open road gully, which can be noticed from a 20 meter distance. However, this does not refer to the dish itself, but to the way it is prepared: cubed pieces of fermented tofu are deep-fried. This makes the smell and is the reason why it can only be prepared on the street. It is served with cabbage and the Taiwanese love it. And therefore, night markets are not to imagine without stinky tofu. My personal conclusion: It tastes better than it smells. The uproar which is made about it is reasonable enough for me to be my personal number one in the list. Try it and form your own opinion!
2. Beef Noodle Soup
It is simple, it is present everywhere, it is delicious! Beef noodle soup is one of the mostly found and most popular dishes in Taiwan. Tasty beef with noodles with some vegetables like green onions and soybean sprouts in a rich soup. The simple ingredients make it not only tasty, but also very cheap. It tastes best when seasoned with some spicy chili and soy bean sauce.
Dumplings are probably the most pleasant meal for a foreigner just arriving to Taiwan, as they have some equivalents in the western world. Just as ravioli for example, they are made with dough and a stuffing which can be chosen at one’s pleasure. There are plenty of dumpling restaurants and the very good ones are full of people at lunch time. They offer a large variety of dumplings, among them steamed, fried and cooked dumplings, each with many kinds of stuffing. The best recommendation which can be given is to try them all and not to forget the spicy soy sauce with a lot of garlic.
4. Fried Noodles
Another standard of Taiwanese cuisine are fried noodles. They are not as special as other dishes and quite similar to the fried noodles you get in Chinese restaurants in western countries, but after eating noodle soups several times a week you’re gonna be happy to get a huge plate of dry noodles.
5. Eel and Squid Noodle Soup
Being more unique than dry noodles or a simple noodle soup this eel noodle soup especially makes seafood fans happy. This one was found in Tainan, the Mekka of Taiwanese food and was finished at a record time.
6. “Buffet” / Biandang
One of the cheapest and fastest ways to still your hunger is a Taiwanese “buffet” place. Usually you cannot eat as much as you want, but you choose between several meals from a buffet and the rice bowl which accompanies the meal can often be refilled. If you come with your own lunchbox to get your food to take away it is called biandang. Some people go to the same buffet place nearly every day and do not get bored, because the meals always change and offer a wide range of food including many fruits and vegetables. Not only delicious, but also healthy!
7. Hot Pot
Hot Pot can be found in many Asian countries and therefore has a big importance also in Taiwan (here you see a Japanese version of it). You get a pot with boiling water in which you cook the raw meat and vegetables you get. As they get done you pick them out, enjoy them with rice and just refill the pot with new stuff. Usually you get a lot of ingredients, so this meal will definitely make you full. For friends of spicy food there are spicy hot pots.
8. Guangdong Congee – Kinmen’s specialty
It is actually more like a soup than a congee, but what matters is that it is really tasty. Made of rice, with either beef, pork or seafood it is eaten as a breakfast, but actually you can eat it any time. Although it can be found in many places, this dish is a specialty on Kinmen Island, where fish and seafood – and above all oysters – are abundant and amazing.
9. Shui Jian Bao
It can be sweet or salty, with meat or vegetarian: Shui jian bao is a dough ball stuffed with various ingredients. It is fried and steamed at the same time. A similar dish to shui jian bao is baozi, which is only steamed. Many Taiwanese eat both of them for breakfast, but they are also a perfect snack for anytime.
10. Grilled Squid
It is very simple, but delicious. Usually you get grilled squid at one of the food stands on night markets. Then it is served on a stick and ready to be eaten right away. This version was served in a restaurant, but does not look less appealing.
11. Sweet Tofu
Just as if Taiwanese would not eat enough tofu already, they also find a place for it in their desert. It is often served with syrup, peanuts, red beans, chocolate, cereals and other toppings. This makes them the perfect far eastern equivalent for yogurt or pudding in the west.
12. Fried Rice
Although many people would probably see fried rice much higher in the list, it is my number 12 as it is very simple. It is probably just another standard dish like fried noodles, noodle soup or dumplings, but it is very popular. You can eat it with different meats, seafood or vegetarian and some restaurants even have regional specialties. Korean restaurants for example offer bibimbap, which is a bit more fancy version of fried rice. Whatever decision you make, fried rice will never be a mistake.
13. Egg Plant
It is rather a side dish than a full meal, but I had it wherever it was offered. The egg plant is boiled and stir-fried, with garlic and chili added. An also very popular meal is egg plant with spicy minced pork accompanied with rice. Both are delicious!
14. Run Bing – a Taiwanese Wrap
Run bing is a traditional meal which is eaten during the quing ming festival, also called the tomb sweeping festival. As ancestors are holy in Chinese and Taiwanese religion and culture, this is an important festival and bank holiday, where the whole family cleans the graves of their ancestors. Run bing is the corresponding food for that. Being prepared and eaten like a wrap it contains soybean sprouts, egg, meat, tofu, cabbage, carrots, other vegetables and peanut powder. If not at a sweeping day celebration, you find run bing on most night markets.
15. Omelette Rice
This meal – also called omu rice – comes originally from Japan. It is fried rice with vegetables and pork, surrounded by an omelette. It comes with tomato sauce on top and is very tasty.
16. Fried Fish Roll
It doesn’t matter if with fish or crap or shrimp. This is a perfect snack on night markets. The best seafood snacks can be found on the markets of cities at the coast, of course. The Liu He Night Market in the center of Kaohsiung for example might be a bit small, but has a huge amount of incredibly tasty and fresh seafood waiting for you.
17. Hóngdòu Bǐng – Filled Pancake
Another desert or sweet snack is the filled pancake, hóngdòu bǐng. There are different flavors, such as chocolate, vanilla or red beans. Latter ones are by the way mostly always used for sweet food, which is not too usual for western taste, but definitely not too bad either.
18. Ice Cream
Yes of course, some might say ice cream is offered in every country and probably there are countries with much better ice cream than Taiwan. Might be, but: There are some very good ice cream stores with a huge range of flavors, of which many are quite exotic… and delicious. The many different types of tea ice cream are only one example. However, the real reason for eating the ice cream in such special stores is the topping: biscuits, cheese cake, fruits and many others make it very nicely decorated. You always eat with your eyes first!
19. International dishes
As already mentioned, Taiwan offers a culinary mix of many different countries, cultures and cuisines. Travelling the country you will not only find delicious Chinese food, but also a lot of Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai or even western restaurants and meals – always in a special Taiwanese style. Just as this yummy Japanese fish for example. I’ve heard people say they liked some foreign dishes more in Taiwan than in their countries of origin!
20. Taiwanese Fruit
Last but not least, it has to be mentioned that in Taiwan you can find a large number of different fruits. Once again the subtropical climate of the island provides the country with delicious flavors of best agricultural products. Dragon fruits, lychees, wax apples, durian and mangos are some examples – many others you may not even know. Let me finally give you one last advice: In case you ever get invited to a dinner, hold yourself back at the beginning! Taiwanese dinners are huge and after you are full there are still some dishes coming to the table. But one signal will give you hope: When the fruit comes you know that the end is reached.