The Hungry Island: A Beginner’s Guide to Food Culture in Taiwan

by Vicky Lai on January 10, 2016

Taiwanese food culture 101 for the traveler who thinks about food as often as the Taiwanese do

National Palace Museum - Taipei, Taiwan
The National Palace Museum in Taiwan showcases a variety of ancient artifacts, from scrolls of calligraphy to bejewelled hairpins. Two sculptures serve as the museum’s equivalent of the Mona Lisa, showcase pieces that draw in the tour buses. One is a brilliant piece of white and green jade carved into the shape of a cabbage with a grasshopper in it. The other is a stone carved into a piece of fatty, stewed pork.

A South Korean friend, returning from his first visit to Taiwan, found this hilarious. “In Korea, we like to go drink at night. In Taiwan, you go eat dinner, eat snacks, then eat midnight snacks! Even the museum is obsessed with food!”

The Mona Lisa is intriguing for her mystique: the woman’s ability to furtively follow you with her eyes, her enigmatic smile, and the questions they raise. The statue of David in Italy is admired for its idealisation of the perfect male form, for his hero’s victory stance, for being a marble embodiment of divine creation. Enthusiasts crowd around the Rosetta Stone in the UK for its role in unlocking some of the greatest secrets of ancient Egypt, or because it looks like something out of an Indiana Jones film, or just maybe because of the way it was snatched from the clutches of the French.

The stewed pork sculpture in Taiwan is admired for its likeness to the real thing. When you walk past the exhibit, you’ll hear exclamations of, “Wah, it looks so real! I could just eat it!”

Food Market - Taipei, Taiwan
Then, should the two exhibits make you hungry for some meat or a bit of veg, out you go, with one of the world’s most snack-centric cultures at your doorstep. Go home and turn on the television, and you’ll encounter several shows, one of them probably in Japanese, on where to find the best fried tofu street stalls in Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan. Open a fashion magazine, and you’ll find a multipage spread about the best strawberry cake shops in Taipei, the national capital. Walk through the metro station, and you’ll smell freshly baked bread from the bakery next to the newspaper stand. Visit any home prepared to be stuffed to the gullet with cut-up fruit, small cookies, jellied snacks, and so on. The story of Din Tai Fung, one of the most famous dumpling chains in the world, gets its own television drama on Hakka TV1.

All of it makes complete sense. For a small island nation, the variety of tasty things on offer and the convenience with which they can be obtained in Taiwan is staggering. Glutinous and fried things covered in sauce form a common theme. Starchy items boiled in ice sugar form another. Curious combinations, like fried dough sticks inside fried bread, become breakfast essentials. The whole country munches and nibbles and chomps its way through the alleyways, the temples, the night markets, the metro and the piers.

A one-track mind is contagious. After a while, you can’t help but give into the collective obsession. After lunch, you start daydreaming about where to go for your afternoon pearl tea break. After dinner, you wonder if the shaved ice place near the National Taiwan University will be too crowded; maybe it’d be best to go for a custard puff instead. Eating your way around Taiwan is perhaps one of the best ways to get to know the country and its people. And then, if you have time, head over to the National Palace Museum. You may or may not be awed by the jade cabbage and its grasshopper, but at the very least, you won’t be hungry.

The Golden Starches – Jan 15, 2010

The chip butty, found mostly in the UK, is a sandwich of chips, a.k.a. French fries, stuffed between two slices of sturdy bread. The concept was a bit confusing at first. One cold winter morning, I pondered while munching on the ridiculously satisfying layers of deep-fried golden potatoes, ketchup, bread and mayonnaise: Why would you put fries in a sandwich? Going through all the effort of frying the potato strips, and then putting them into a sandwich anyway, you might as well eat toast with more toast in the middle, to save electricity, oil and effort.

Shao Bing You Tiao - Yonghe Doujiang Dawang - Fuxing South Road Section 2 - Taipei, Taiwan
As starches are staples, they’re not usually coupled with each other and are usually less intense in flavour – in a word, bland. It was akin to finding some bread on your rice, or mashed potatoes mixed with noodles. Yet one morning, when deciding what to have for breakfast one muggy morning in Taipei, the obvious dawned on me: This happens all the time, and in fact, my favourite breakfast item, fan tuan (rice wrapped around a fried dough stick), was also a starch within a starch. What’s more, another breakfast mainstay, shao bing you tiao (a fried dough stick tucked into biscuit-like bread) is even more extreme, placing a fried starch inside another fried starch.

Fan Tuan - Yonghe Doujiang Dawang - Fuxing South Road Section 2 - Taipei, Taiwan
The thing is, neither of these is bland at all. Frying adds a savoury touch to the shao bing you tiao, and you can add soy sauce if you want your daily dose of sodium in one go. Fan tuan comes in both sweet and savoury varieties. The latter are delicious, crumbly dried pork and pickled vegetable making for a dry and portable form of breakfast porridge, but it’s the sweet variety that I like the most. Sweet fan tuan is simpler, with nothing added to the rice and fried dough but sugar. Generous amounts, too. The whole warm mixture, just-starting-to-fall-apart glutinous rice blanketing the crispy dough, is just the thing to go with a bowl of warm soy milk (which is also preferably saturated with sugar).

Yonghe Doujiang Dawang - Fuxing South Road Section 2 - Taipei, Taiwan
This particular cafe I ended up at that morning, Yonghe Doujiang Dawang, had an open storefront, and the muggy air coming in from the street was blown back by electric fans. Colour-wise, everything inside was a varying shade of fluorescent-lit white or brown, but for some reason the morning here felt anything but drab. The lady who makes the food bustled out front, a television carrying daily scandal blared in the back, and from the basics came the best sort of comfort breakfast you can get. Fan tuan should be made to order, so the dough remains crunchy and the rice warm and soft. Shao bing you tiao is not assembled until the last minute, so the oil doesn’t settle into a soggy mess. There were several branches of this place throughout Taipei, but the setting here, cosy to the core, gave no hint of this.

I suppose starch within a starch isn’t really that crazy after all. It’s like having a meat inside another meat, as in bacon-wrapped sausage or turducken. It’s good stuff, and – who knows – maybe the next step will be potato sushi.

I will keep my eyes peeled.

Taipei to a Tea – Dec 4, 2009

The basic purpose of food is to provide sustenance; the body needs it to function. Today, food serves many other purposes: social activity, hobby, art. Innovation with regards to food has been stupendous, as the variety of techniques used to render raw materials into a meal have expanded to add textures, bring out flavour combinations and create an experience that we wouldn’t otherwise have if our civilisations were still hunting and gathering.

The basic purpose of drink is to hydrate. Today, drink serves many other purposes: social lubricant, buzz provider, warm comfort. Some drinks – Irish coffee, for example – can serve more purposes than one. The variety of techniques used to render drinks, though, is limited. True, one can argue for hours how to make a great cup of coffee or hot chocolate. And, of course, tomes and tomes and tomes (even by Playboy) have been written on how to mix a perfect cocktail.

But, comparatively speaking, texture and flavour combinations in most beverages, especially the non-alcoholic variety, are not given nearly as much attention as is paid to food. For example, one infamous cutting-edge restaurant in Spain, El Bulli, uses flavoured foams to create complementary and sometimes mad flavours on the plate. Innovation in drink technique, on the other hand, rarely goes beyond finding a new way to steam milk – in fact, the craziest thing to come out of the beverage field in the past century may have been the addition of fizz to sugared water.

Perhaps that’s why pearl milk tea (also known as bubble tea, or more colourfully as “boba”) is such a novelty to people who try it at first. To newbies, it doesn’t make sense to chew something when you’re trying to drink it. In Taiwan, however, these beverages are taken rather seriously. In an American convenience store, I think the most shelf space is given to potato chips. Step into a 7-11 in Taipei, and you’ll find that the whole back row is filled with drinks: teas, milk teas, juices, canned coffees, and so on, in addition to the usual sodas.

50 Lan - HuaiNing St. - Taipei, Taiwan
Pearl milk tea is just the beginning, a tease of the potential experience to be had in a beverage. At 50 Lan, a beverage chain with stands throughout Taipei, the possibilities are staggering. The menu of teetotaller-friendly drinks includes freshly-brewed teas – oolong, green, jasmine, and so on – that can be combined with a variety of different flavours, including fresh milk, almond milk, ginger, coffee, grapefruit juice, yoghurt, and so on. On top of that, you can ask for your exact preference of sugar and ice levels.

But the most interesting aspect of drinks at serious Taiwanese tea shops is their texture. You can choose from quite a few solid or semi-solid items to mix into your customised liquid base, such as small pearls (made of starch), grass jelly (a black jello), or pudding. Then, the guy behind the counter will put the drink into a machine that will shake it vigorously or slowly, depending on the level of froth that is desired on the drink. Finally, the whole concoction is poured into a plastic cup and vacuum sealed by another robotic device.

Assorted teas - 50 Lan - HuaiNing St. - Taipei, Taiwan
It’s refreshing and addicting stuff. The texture of the different jellos in the drinks makes it more fulfilling and adds flavours to the drink without blending things in directly. Lemon jelly complements the more acidic teas (such as passionfruit), grass jelly goes rather well with the milky teas, and pearls taste good with everything. What’s more, it’s an everyday habit. Youngish guys hop off their motorbike to pick up a kumquat lemon jello drink before hopping back on and weaving back into the city traffic. Maybe they stop to smoke a cigarette while drinking the fruity concoction. Moms dragging their children to test prep class pick up a yoghurt green tea with some pearls to sweeten the long trip there.

Granted, these texture innovations were not invented by the store, but by street vendors who mixed snack ingredients with popular beverages. Still, you could say that these drinks vendors in Taipei beat out the cocktail kings in the big city New York bars in terms of creativity, as they’ve found a way to combine flavours without mixing them, a not-so-easy feat in the liquid medium. With that kind of imagination, who knows how far realm of beverage making will go? Those looking to push the boundary might do well to stop by a tea stand in Taipei.

Shucks to Romance – Apr 16, 2010

I’ve never really understood the point of aphrodisiacs. Oysters are included in this group of food items that allegedly stimulate sexual desire. Sure, there are certain foods that really do suggest a bit of romance more than others – strawberries or chocolate, for example. Perhaps a healthy quantity of champagne would do the trick. Oysters actually seem to counteract amorous urges. In eating one raw, the eater has to noisily slurp the grey, squishy body of a bivalve mollusc, fingers smelling of sea and mollusk juice.

At any rate, Taiwan, being an island nation, is blessed with plentiful and cheap seafood. Oysters are found everywhere in Taiwanese cooking, especially in oyster pancakes and oyster vermicelli.

Taiwanese Oyster Vermicelli - Wan Hua Chen Ji Zuan Ye Oh-ah-mi-sua - Zhong Zheng District - Taipei, Taiwan
Oyster vermicelli may be a surprise to the newly initiated. Found in many a street stall in the evening, it is known by the Taiwanese phrase oh-ah misua. Short, light brown noodles swim in a bowl of thick, very flavourful soup. The bowl is then topped off with a few oysters and some cilantro, with vinegar available for the eater to add to taste. It’s very rich and very tasty, and will only put you back a few US dollars for a meal’s worth of noodles and oysters.

Chopped intestines are often offered as an addition to oyster vermicelli – it is at this point that I start to doubt that oysters are seen as an aphrodisiac in Taiwan. Even if they were filled with wonderful love potions conjured up by Snape himself, I doubt that anyone could pull off a romantic coup based on a meal of intestine-and-oyster soup.

Wan Hua Chen Ji Zuan Ye Oh-ah-mi-sua - Zhong Zheng District - Taipei, Taiwan
But that’s of minor consequence. Oyster vermicelli is hearty, satisfying, and lasting. I once visited a store specializing in the stuff on Nanjing West Road – part of a larger trend in Taiwan that finds very popular or famous street stalls moving into smaller, more permanent store fronts. Owners can charge higher prices and handle higher turnover. Clients have more places to sit, and can enjoy a nice air-conditioned or electric-fanned environment. The street-stall feel is preserved, as much of the preparation is done at the front of the store behind a glass screen. This shift also preserves the other nice part about eating street food: interaction with the friendly local noodle vendor.

The oysters were plump and tasty. The chopped intestines were pleasantly chewy and savoury, adding a meaty flavour to the bowl without overpowering it, almost like a fish cake. In that setting, the thought of heading to an oyster bar in a big American city seemed like an overpriced mistake. When eating there, intestines and all, at least my hands stayed clean while emptying the bowl.

Alien Satiation – Apr 2, 2010

Traditional Taiwanese desserts can be a difficult sell to the uninitiated. They usually don’t come from the oven, so they cannot rely on wafting, warm scents or soft, crumbly goodness to draw admirers. They don’t travel very easily in forms suitable for a happy memory, like those of a whimsical cupcake, pretty ice cream cone or a brightly coloured popsicle. Usually, they are soupy or icy, and thus have to be served in distinctly un-whimsical plastic bowls.

Meet Fresh - Taiwanese Dessert Bar - Taipei, Taiwan
Taiwanese desserts are an especially difficult sell because their components are, for lack of a better adjective, alien. Upon looking into a bowl of quivering black grass jelly, or slippery grey-purple taro balls, or even reddish-brown mushy beans, a newcomer’s first question is always, “What the heck is that?” followed by, “And why are you eating it?” From certain angles, one can imagine the contents were dug out of Neptune.

The answers themselves don’t sound entirely appetizing. Balls made out of sweet potato. Chewy marbles made out of a purple root. Little pearls that resemble frogs’ eggs, made of starch powder. Gelatin made out of some sort of herb? It’s often a struggle to describe what’s being served in a way that would make someone who’s never seen the lava-lamp-like gelatin want to eat it for dessert. The homely concoction doesn’t even receive the honor of being cut into dinosaur shapes. And ultimately there’s a mental block to saying, “Yum…. starch powder.”

This is all unlucky for the reputation of Taiwanese desserts, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I can’t get enough of the stuff.

Meet Fresh - Taiwanese Dessert Bar - Taipei, Taiwan
On a recent visit to Taipei, Meet Fresh, a chain that specialised in traditional Taiwanese desserts, was the perfect shop to try every imaginable type and combination of these alien components. You chose a base such as sweet tofu with ginger soup, grass jelly, or red bean. You’d then select whatever add-ons suit your mood at the moment, and whether you’d like it hot or with shaved ice. Soon after, the person behind the counter, in smooth, swift movements, would ladle your choices into a bowl, scoop some shaved ice atop, spoon on some brown sugar syrup, and whisk the sweet concoction onto your tray.

It’s usually easy to measure the quality of these places by texture. If the shop doesn’t make the taro or rice balls fresh, their consistency can be quite rubbery and their flavor tasteless. Meet Fresh would make most of its dessert components fresh and by hand — quite unusual for a franchise eatery, but it shows. The sweet tofu was silky and delicate, and the added balls the perfect amount of “Q”, which is slang for “chewiness”.

Meet Fresh - Taiwanese Dessert Bar - Taipei, Taiwan
When prepared this nicely, Taiwanese desserts offer a cool respite from the hungry island’s humid heat. These alien constructs might be a hard bargain indeed, but I’m sold.

Shave the Rainbow – Jan 29, 2010

I like the slogan, “Taste the Rainbow.” Unlike M&Ms’ “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” it’s not overly practical. “Hungry? Why Wait?” doesn’t necessarily encourage someone to eat a Snickers bar, but rather anything that’s lying around nearby, which could be a Twinkie, for all we know. And slogans like “Two for me, none for you” and “Nobody better lay a finger on my Butterfinger” are just greedy.

“Taste the rainbow” is great. Rainbows are fleeting rarities. You can’t even touch a rainbow; to taste one would be a crazy magical experience. However, Skittles, as fun as they may be, are too hard and chewy to really fit the bill.

Mango Shaved Ice - Tai Yi Milk King - Taipei, Taiwan
Taiwanese shaved ice, or chua bing, is more deserving. In the States chances are that the phrase “shaved ice” conjures up images of a snow cone with flavoured syrup, but it’s on quite a different wavelength in Asia. Asian countries offer all sorts of shaved ice: kakigori topped with green tea syrup and azuki beans in Japan, patbingsu topped with cereal and frozen yogurt in South Korea, ice kacang with corn in Singapore/Malaysia or halo halo in the Philippines.

In Taiwan there are many variations on the shaved ice theme, and mango shaved ice really deserves Skittles’ slogan. Golden cubes of fresh mango, fresh, sweet, and juicy, sit on top of a mountain of fluffy light ice, then is doused with rivers of condensed milk. The ice is more finely shaved than that of a snow cone — think of the difference between freshly fallen snow (fluffy) and snow that’s been sitting for too long on the sidewalk (not fluffy). If you go for the trinity of mango, strawberry and kiwi, you’re in for an intensely fresh treat. Unlike in other countries, the fruit on Taiwanese shaved ice is not canned (one of the benefits of being on a tropical island). Stone-cold sober, you’re confronted with a kaleidoscope of colour and intense flavours.

Tai Yi Milk King - Taipei, Taiwan - Taiwanese Shaved Ice
My preferred haunt for shaved ice in Taipei was Tai Yi Milk King, close to National Taiwan University. Because it was closer to a student population, the shaved ice here was cheaper, more generous with its fruit and very fresh because of the fast turnover. The store also offered traditional Taiwanese shaved ice, with the option of adding red bean, grass jelly, ai yu (lemon jelly) and taro balls. All of its ingredients seemed to be made on-site: the taro balls were chewy, the red bean were sweet and well cooked, and the staff was always very generous with the condensed milk.

This shop was also representative of the Taiwanese approach to service.

When living in Beijing I’d grown accustomed to not asking for changes to my order:
“Can I have pearls in my green tea?”
“But you have pearl milk tea. I can give you some more money, and you can put the pearls in the green tea?”
“Pearls are for the pearl tea. No pearls in green tea.”
“Okay.” (I slink away. The pearl tea here isn’t that great anyway.)

Shaved ice toppings - Tai Yi Milk King - Taipei, Taiwan - Taiwanese shaved ice
In contrast, the choices in Taiwan can be are dazzling, and in most shaved ice shops the employees are flexible. If you want rice balls with your kiwi ice, they’ll oblige. If you want one-half red bean, one-fourth green bean and only a bit of condensed milk, you’ll get it with no questions asked. Certain combination requests – like lemon jelly with mango cubes – will be met with a raised eyebrow, but only for a fraction of a second before the jelly and mango are scooped onto your ice mountain and pushed on the tray.

Then, off you go with your own little piece of the rainbow. Cheesy, but what’s dessert if not an extra dose of sweetness?

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