Seasoned travelers know the best part of going somewhere new is the food. What better way to bond across time and culture than over a plate of delicious local cuisine? Few things bring people together like an elegant meal. Often the biggest challenge in expanding our horizons is not knowing where to start or what to try. Here is a quick guide on some foods you definitely want to sample on your next trip to Taiwan.
Taiwan was for centuries known as Formosa, which translated as the Beautiful Island. Though the name may have changed, the underlying sentiment has not. Taiwan remains an extremely beautiful destination, filled with fascinating culture and magnificent scenery. Dense urban landscapes coexist with pristine natural parks. The myriad strands of Taiwanese culture blend in fascinating ways to create a thoroughly modern society with strong traditional roots. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Taiwanese cuisine. Let’s take a look at some exemplary dishes.
Ubiquitous on the island, been noodles are arguably the most straightforward introduction to Taiwanese cuisine. A soup broth, slightly seasoned, forms the basis for this deceptively simple meal. Add noodles and some sliced beef and you have yourself a magnificent dish that’s easy to cook, filling, and expandable in countless ways. Given no matter where you go in Taiwan you’re apt to find a restaurant or cart dishing out steaming bowls of beef noodle soup, you’d be hard pressed to find a more representative example of modern Taiwanese food.
Braised or Minced Pork Rice
Rice is a staple food across much of Asia, and Taiwan is no exception. One popular dish is braised or minced pork served over a bed of white rice. Minced, cubed, or ground fatty pork, is stewed in soy sauce and spices, then served with rice. In the braised variation, pork chunks are stewed in soy sauce and spices, before being served on rice. Either way, this dish is a common sight in Taiwan. Nearly all local eateries will have some variation on the menu.
Taiwan is intimately bound to the sea. With the vast majority of Taiwanese living near the coast, seafood is an inseparable part of the nation’s diet. The oyster omelet starts with eggs, oysters, and tapioca starch to provide a chewy consistency. When served, it tends to be topped with cilantro or Garland chrysanthemum leaves and a sweet / mildly spicy sauce. The oyster omelet is a traditional snack food, always on offer at Taiwan’s famous night markets. In the capital Taipei, the Shilin Night Market is perhaps the most well-known. Night markets feature lots of food and vendors. They are integral to Taiwanese life and offer the best chances to sample different dishes.
Some caution is in order for this next dish. Those with sensitive olfactory systems may want to steer clear. Stinky tofu is, as the name suggests, a particularly aromatic (many would say pungent) serving of fried tofu. Having gained popularity as a meal in the Qing Royal Household, stinky tofu is unmistakable when encountered in the wild. Its odor is best described as a combination of wet socks and swamp gas. Though most would recoil from eating something with this description, if you can hold your nose, you’re in for a delicious treat.
Taro Balls & Taro Cake
In Taiwan, you always want to save room for dessert. Taro Balls and Taro Cake (pictured above) are delicious treats common throughout the island. Taro is a root vegetable grown for its edible corns. When mashed and mixed with water and potato flower, it creates a doughy ball that’s served with syrup, or fried in a cake batter. Taro balls often adorn other Taiwanese desserts, which basically guarantees you will come across them at some point on your food adventure.
Ah bubble tea. Is there any better way to finish off a good meal than with a refreshing drink? Reportedly invented in the 1980s, bubble tea has become a global phenomenon. So you might as well get some from the source. If you’re strolling around the Garden Night Market in Tainan, a bubble tea is wonderfully refreshing. As with the non-bubble variety, there are many different options when it comes to this drink. Once you find one you enjoy, you will wonder where it has been all your life.
Needless to say, this short essay on Taiwanese cuisine only scratches the surface. You shouldn’t come away thinking this is all there is. Entire library shelves are devoted to the many facets and favors found around the island. It’s no stretch to say there is something for everyone. The best recommendation is to start familiar and branch out from there. Night markets are a great place to see lots of different dishes on display. Sharing a meal is the absolute best way to get to know a new culture. Once you get to know Taiwanese food, you too will be in thrall with the Beautiful Island.