Geographically sandwiched between some of the world’s most dominant cultures, there is a tiny island gem that works to outshine them. Western tourists often overlook it on their travel itinerary to Asia, but those who have the good fortune to experience it will tell you that Taiwan is a must-visit destination.
Known primarily for its majestic mountains and sugar-white beaches, the true beauty of Taiwan lies beneath the skin and can be discovered through your taste buds. That’s right. Travellers to Taiwan are often smitten by the impeccable hospitality of its people and their extraordinary culinary skills.
Taiwan has long struggled to establish itself in a region dominated by its neighbouring giants, Japan and China. Taiwanese food and culture are often confused for Chinese, and some even think that Thai food is from Taiwan simply because the names sound similar. But when it comes to authenticity, Taiwanese food is truly one of a kind — the country was recently dubbed a ‘secret foodie wonderland’ by none other than Lonely Planet.
From Keelung to Kaohsiung; from Taipei to Tainan; every city on the island offers its own unique spin on local fare. For instance Taichung, a city in central Taiwan that has many signature eats, one notable standout is its sun cake pastry. This round-shaped Taiwanese dessert, with creamy caramel inside and layered with flaky crusts, is believed to have the best thick, sweet and sticky filling from the pastry shops in Taichung. Taichung’s sun cakes are often the one must-take-home souvenirs from the island.
Another iconic pastry is the pineapple tart. Also known as the pineapple cake, this popular Taiwanese pastry is filled with fresh pineapple jam. Although every pastry shop in the country claims that they have mastered their own version, a personal favourite would have to be the ones from the Sunny Hills store in Taipei’s Songshan district on Minsheng East Road. By using some of the freshest pineapples farmed locally, the Sunny Hills pineapple cake gives you that buttery taste of the casing while the pineapple jam inside provides the tart sweetness from the fruit itself. Once you bite into one, you can’t stop. Upon arriving at the store, the beautiful ambience gives you that warm, cozy feeling that only a traditional tea house can provide. The pineapple cake is another popular souvenir for those visiting Taiwan.
Besides its delicious pastries, Taiwan is also famous for its night markets. Similar offerings boasting unique backdrops, the night markets (also known as old streets) offer a wide range of food options in small portions. These so-called street foods can appeal to budget-conscious travellers. In the same concept of a street fair in the West, but opens every night from dusk till midnight, these night markets offer everything from flaky scallion pancakes to charcoal-roasted mochis. Some may even be drawn to the more daring choices of stinky tofu and pork blood rice cakes. Sprinkled with crushed peanut powder and cilantro, the chewy rice cake is extremely popular among the locals.
Then there’s Taiwanese shaved ice and split burgers — two of the more unique and fun eats found in Taiwan. Recently introduced through trendy New York and Los Angeles food trucks and highly exposed in menus across top North American Asian-fusion eateries, these two dishes have become more familiar to foodies around the world. However, shaved ice and burgers just taste better in Taiwan.
Two more ‘must-taste’ Taiwanese foods are minced pork over rice (about $1 per bowl) and spicy beef noodle soup (around $5 to $8). These delicious dishes were recently named the top Taiwanese foods ‘we can’t live without’ by CNN Travel. The oyster omelette, one of the local favourites and a personal craving, was also high up on that list and would often appear as the most tasty local foods in reviews. Soaked in miso-infused tomato sauce, this egg omelet is pan-fried with small Pacific oysters and spinach. This is one dish you can’t miss.
Approximately two hours from Tokyo and Hong Kong by air, Taiwan is also the home to some of the world’s best restaurant chains that have achieved the highest ratings from foodie watchdogs Michelin and Zagat. Din Tai Fung, the Michelin-starred soup dumpling (xiao long bao) king founded in the Taipei district of Xinyi near the Daan subway station, is a must on any itinerary. For those who are in awe of the long wait, media outlets like CNN and the New York Times should take the blame for their constant mentions of Din Tai Fung’s delicious cooking. Although the chain is now available in a handful of other countries like South Korea, China and the United States, the locations in Taiwan remain the most popular among food lovers.
Shin Yeh is another restaurant highly praised by locals and tourists alike. Famous for its local offerings, this restaurant group has also perfected its sushi-making skills. Though its most popular location at the top of Taipei 101 (the second tallest building in the world) offers only Taiwanese delicacies, Shin Yeh’s sushi buffet (near the Zhongxiao Fuxing subway station in Taipei) has helped turn binge eating into fine dining. Reservations for all of its locations are often fully booked weeks in advance. Holiday reservations, such as on New Year’s Day or Lunar New Year’s Eve are often booked years ahead.
Bubble tea, created in the 1980s by local tea houses, remains the most famous drink to originate from Taiwan. Larger-than-normal tapioca balls (also known as boba), plus a dozen other unusual fillings such as flan and grass jelly, can be added to almost anything you drink in Taiwan. The endless choices on the menu for made-to-order hot or cold beverages can be overwhelming for first-time visitors. Just remember though, through trial and error, you will eventually create a perfect drink to fit your taste.
If baseball is America’s favourite pastime, then food is Taiwan’s. Taiwanese truly embrace their culinary excellence as part of their culture. And good news for visitors from overseas, the country has also built one of the world’s most sophisticated transit infrastructures in recent years. An extensive subway system in both Taipei and Kaohsiung, plus a high-speed rail linking all major cities, will make your food tour across the island easy and hassle-free.
And as the locals will tell you, if you don’t gain weight while visiting Taiwan, there’s gotta be something wrong!