Taiwan is known for ‘street food’, but ‘snack food’ is a better description for what is found throughout all of Taiwan.
Taiwanese cuisine is most obviously Chinese cuisine, but influenced by the Japanese, who ‘ruled’ Taiwan for 50 years from 1895 to 1945.
Japan constructed and organised much of Taiwan’s civic infrastructure and has greatly influenced public behaviour in general – something that is still much in evidence in (orderly and efficient) Taiwan today.
Koxinga, the 17th Century Chinese Ming Dynasty national hero of Taiwan, who ousted the Dutch from Tainan, his mother was Japanese.
Japanese Ramen, in authentic Japanese style, is not hard to find in Taiwan.
Dig a little deeper into Taiwanese food variations and there are traits of aboriginal Taiwanese and Hakka ‘wild mountain’ ingredients and of course nearby Fujian, Hokkien Chinese and Zheijiang cuisine.
(Indigenous or aboriginal Taiwanese food, they say, is easier to find in provincial Taiwan, outside of the big cities.)
Another visible example of food from nearby mainland China across the strait, is the Fuzhou Pepper Pork bun (Hujiao bing) – something that is baked and sold by street and market vendors with small mobile, tandoori-style, ovens. The end product is a hot, crispy baked bun, filled with juicy marinated pork (or beef), pepper, scallions.
Early Spanish and Dutch colonial influences are more difficult to detect. One could argue that the recently ubiquitous Taiwanese bakeries and pastries have some historic European origin, but that might be a stretch.
Night markets are justifiably famous in Taiwan and every city boasts several. Many are touristy, quality varies but they seem to be popular with locals too.
The island of Taiwan (previously known as Formosa – Portuguese for ‘beautiful’) of course has much seafood to offer – fish, oysters, prawns, cuttlefish, shellfish. Also freshwater eel.
However, if like me, you were searching for the quintessential Oyster Omelette, the commonly-served version at night markets is drenched with a ‘gooey’ starch mix and served with a sweet sauce – rather unexpected and not so appealing.
Stinky Tofu (fermented tofu) is something that will frequently enter your nostrils in Taiwan food markets. Non-Asians especially, will usually be repelled by this pungent aroma.
Beef Noodles (Niu Ruo Mian) is regarded as a Taiwanese national dish. Quite a few variations – eg. with Braised Beef, Beef Tripe, Beef Tendon or Beef Shank. There are a number of reputable and busy Beef Noodle restaurants in Taipei. Although not necessarily the best, Niu Dian (‘Beef Shop’) is located in the historic and hipster-fashionable Ximending district and has the distinction of appearing in the Michelin Guide.
Not really snack food, but for those who relish Duck or Goose, Taiwan will not disappoint.
‘A Cheng Goose’ is a well-known institution to Taipei locals. Busy as it always is, a comfortable covered waiting area is provided out front.
(A Cheng’s special steamed white rice is goose-oil flavoured!)
Whilst Taipei is the capital and very much the largest city, Tainan in the south is known to all Taiwanese as the ‘food capital’ of Taiwan. Tainan is where you find some of the oldest traditions and unpretentious good food.
The Pineapple Cake became popular in Taiwan in the 1930s during the Japanese era and are now a commonly-given gift, a symbol of prosperity.
‘Wheel Cakes’ are another (originally Japanese) dessert snack that is frequently seen in Taiwan. Small cakes, made in a type of multiple-mould waffle pan, with various sweet (and sometimes savoury) fillings.
Another food originally from a Japanese tradition, is the ‘mochi’ rice-cake.
In Taiwan, mochi and Chinese glutinous rice balls, are often found dusted and/or filled with such things as black sesame paste, red bean paste and ground peanut.
Taiwanese Oolong Tea, from the high-mountain regions, is well-known world-wide.
This Kumquat Tea was an unexpectedly pleasant surprise find, at the Xianjufu Café within the National Palace Museum in Taipei. A sweet and sour ‘fruit tea’ mix of kumquats, limes, preserved salty sour plum. Very intense flavour, very invigorating.
Bubble Tea’ is also now known worldwide. A milk tea with tapioca ‘pearls’, is a recent (1980s) Taiwanese concoction!
Dessert ‘parlours’ are a popular theme in Taiwan. Ice Cream has a long tradition and they say that the oldest Ice Cream store is the still-operating ‘Yongfu Icecream’ parlour in Taipei….
A related Taiwan dessert favourite is ‘bean jelly’ (below) – a cold version of Chinese Tofu Jelly (soy bean curd jelly), to which the Taiwanese add such things as tapioca and glutinous rice balls, black ‘grass jelly’, various beans, barley, peanuts, sweet potato and taro balls Sometimes with various syrups, ‘milk’ or shaved ice. Nourishing and refreshing, especially during hot weather.
Modern fast food:
The (Japanese-originated) MOS Burger chain was featuring these nice Cuttlefish Rice Burgers with quinoa and wasabe option (basement mall, Banqiao Station, New Taipei)….
Nearby, TKK Fried Chicken (another fast food chain) includes this curiosity on their menu – ‘Kwa Kwa Bao’. deep-fried chicken skin wrapped sticky rice with pork and shiitake mushroom. (Glutinous rice is common in indigenous Taiwanese & Hakka cusine.)
You may also discover a branch of the Minder Vegetarian buffet café chain, which offers a large selection of pay-by-weight vegetarian fare such as below. Some of the more interesting selections – sea asparagus (samphire), okra, bitter melon, lotus root, egg-plant, wood fungus, water chestnuts, sweet potato, tofu variations and faux-meats.
Finally, for inter-city travellers, Taiwan Railways provides a frequent and efficient service. For example, the Taiwan High Speed Rail (HSR) trains cover the 350km (215 mls) from Taipei to the southern-most city of Kaohsiung, in only 1.5 to 2 hours.
(Kaohsiung, formerly a major shipbuilding and industrial centre, is now enjoying people and bicycle-friendly river and port-side beautification and tourism growth.)
Excellent ‘meal boxes’ like this, seemingly modelled on Japan again, are available from Taiwan Railways….