Foods to Write Home About
For foreign visitors and ex-pat residents alike there are some foods which instill suspicious, fear, nausea, etc. When talking with Taiwanese locals it is not unusual to hear people ask if you "dare" to try some of the more local food items. While intrepid, seasoned, or do-it-once-so-you-can-say-you-did types are likely to have tried the following things, most Taiwanese correctly assume that foreigners wont eat most of it. For those who do, its always the kind of experience you write home about.
Stinky Tofu 臭豆腐
This is arguably the most famous contribution that Taiwan has made to food. In its common form this fried or boiled tofu is fermented before cooking. The deliciously bathroom-like smell of it cooking will fill your nose as you walk the streets, beckoning you from afar and boldly wafting deep into your long-term memory. The taste and texture is similar to strong blue cheese.
Fried stinky tofu has more tofu flavor than its boiled brother. Its served either on sticks smeared with a thick paste or cut into bits swimming in a light sauce with fermented cabbage as a garnish.
Boiled stinky tofu is served as a stand-alone dish or as part of larger meal. This often includes duck blood, pig blood cakes, rice noodles, or the myriad components of a hot pot. When served in small earthenware bowls the surrounding soup in most cases will be laden with green onions (scallions), have an oily texture, and when drunk will have a taste akin to eating too much garlic all at once.
While it should go without saying you will have stinky tofu breath, eaters should drink plenty of water or tea to help remove the stink-causing residue in your mouth and throat. Its not uncommon for someone brushing their teeth hours after eating stinky tofu to notice their toothpaste tastes funny. The same can be said of food. When asked how to remove the aftertaste, locals nearly ubiquitously reply with "drink more water". You can find stinky tofu in every night market (both boiled and fried) as well as every other area which sells food in the city.
Duck Blood 鴨血
This food is served in a congealed mass which has a similar density and slipperiness to uncooked tofu. The color is a deep brownish red akin to uncooked liver. Like most portions of a duck, the taste is actually quite sweet compared to similar products from other animals. While usually a succulent and juicy addition to a meal, eaters should be wary of burning their tongues on the blood. While the outside cools quickly the inside stays hot well after it is removed from heat.
Duck blood is usually found combined with stinky tofu or as an ingredient in a hot pot.
Pig Blood Cake 豬血糕
Unlike duck blood, pig blood is served mixed with rice and cut into square or rectangular cakes. The cake as the appearance of rice glued together with some kind of black starch. Pig blood is most easily found grilled on sticks in night markets (center below), cooked in luwei 滷味, or in hot pot. Compared to duck blood the taste is more dry and bitter than duck blood, and is like eating a sticky rice cake with a mildly sweet taste. Many vendors offer a tasty sauce for this treat, slathering it with spice before they grill it or slapping some on at the last second.
Pig Brains 豬腦
Pig brains are predominantly served as part of a soup unsurprisingly named Pig Brain Soup(豬腦湯). The soup is just a light broth designed to add a slight flavor to the brains. The biggest excuse not to eat this food is that the brains are served whole, fully cooked to a white-ish gray color. For those who don't let the obvious brain-shape stop them, the taste is fairly mild, like a very nice liver or pate. The texture is extremely soft and creamy and chewing is nearly unnecessary. Tourists in Taipei will find this soup most easily near the new Shilin Market area 士林市場 in the similarly named night market. Be forewarned that some stores use a tofu-based brain-shaped mold, versus serving up bowls of the genuine article.
Chicken Feet 雞腳
This food is a classic for people exploring Asian cuisine, and because boiled chicken feet with claws still attached can be used for so many hilarious things, they always will be. Chicken feet usually are boiled in the dark brown luwei 滷味 style and served at food carts or shops which have luwei in the name. There is no real meat to speak of, with eaters savoring the thin skin which covers the bones of the feet. Eaters with sensitive teeth should be cautious of mimicking the local eating style of just biting through the bone, stripping the skin, and spitting out the bone. Most foreign eaters find the process of removing the skin to be messy work which isn't worth the minimal return from the skin. As a note, when buying chicken feet the price will usually include more than one, but its best to be sure before buying. What do you do with those feet you choose not to eat? Perhaps a goofy photo contest is in order.
Duck Hearts / Chicken Hearts 鴨心/雞心
Readers will have noticed by now that most foods are named for what they look like. Hearts are usually served as a luwei 滷味 item -occasionally with a garlic sauce - with duck hearts being a noticeable size larger than chicken hearts. They are nearly universally sold on sticks of 3-4 hearts, precooked to a very dark brown color -- ventricles and all. Generally organs are jokingly described "tastes like chicken", but that holds true here. The meat is a bit more tender, slightly chewier, and those who stomach up to eating a heart find it exceptionally delicious.
Black Egg 皮蛋
These eggs are cooked in soy sauce and tea to the point of becoming transparent/black inside and have a unique taste. They are best served with a tofu companion with some soy sauce or other light oil over the top. They are commonly served in zhou 粥 also called xifan 稀飯 or in the West it is called congee or rice porridge. Some hotels may offer them for breakfast and they sell for a considerably higher price than other eggs. The taste and texture are a departure from usual egg products but still have some egg flavor.
Bitter Melon 苦瓜
Aptly name for its bitter taste this vegetable comes in two forms. Both varieties have bumpy exterior flesh which is easily recognizable and is either dark green or pure white. The bumpy flesh is smooth on the inside and largely resembles a pepper when served. Eating bitter melon is considered to be incredibly good for your health, but the taste is considered by many to be, well, bitter. The white variety can often have the flavor and feeling of drinking over-brewed tea while eating it. Torture yourself (or savor?) with a few pieces if you get the chance.
Duck Tongue 鴨舌頭
Tongues are actually quite delicious often served in luwei 滷味 stands. The tongue is removed from the gizzard but the long tendons are left inside the tongue. Its chewy, and often served spicy, cooked in luwei, or with sauce. Enjoy the tongue meat and discard the long tendons.
Pig Ear 豬耳朵
Pig ears are a snack which can be found in a lot of Asian markets back home, but are served up as a 小吃 in most restaurants. They are generally cooked in a lu wei style and have the distinctive flavor to back it up. Because ears are mostly cartilage, ears are very chewy with strips of harder, white cartilage surrounded by a fatty skin. You can expect them to pop and crunch a bit as you chew them, and the taste is going to be a blend of luwei and animal cartilage, especially that found on chicken wings. Big turn off for this food? Because hair keeps growing after the animal is dead, you can sometimes find some genuine pig hair on these crunchy treats. Find it in restaurants or night market luwei stands.
A food most people consider a bit bizarre because its the floppy part of a roosters head, this snack is often found in stalls in night markets or in street vendors carts. Andrew Zimmern put this food on the map as far as the average tourist's understanding of it goes, and worth a try if you can find it. One of the street foods that's lost its standing in the last few years.
Like many other organs, this can be found in stands in the night market which sell luwei 滷味. This snack which is usually begotten from chickens got positive press during an appearance on the travel network, and like the other foods on this list it's definitely worth a try. It will be cooked to a brown color, and have a smooth organ like taste. Find it at lu wei stores. To save on repeating photos, you should look above at pig blood and you'll find a uterus stick right next door to the pig blood.
Animal Testicles 睾丸
As gross as it sounds, eating animal testicles is a smooth and creamy treat which is bound to boost the libido. Traditionally testicles are eaten by recently married couples or those looking for pregnancy help, but they can be eaten just about any time by anyone. The biggest turn off to this food is that when cooked its squishy in a way other organs are not. The taste is far less powerful than animal brain, and the texture is more firm but still very soft. Look for this sumptuous dish at restaurants specializing in Chinese medicine infused dishes.
Loofa 絲瓜Its easy to impress the folks back home by eating this healthy and filling vegetable which is often served thoroughly cooked in a light sauce. While highly delicious, it's name will sound confusingly the same as the exfoliating sponge in your shower, and some will wonder if you ate your toiletries. Loofa is commonly served in Southeast Asian cuisine, all you can eat hot pot, and traditional Chinese fare restaurants. Bonus points for drying one of these and doing DIY shower products.
Peanut Brittle, Cilantro, and Ice Cream wrap - 花生冰淇淋
For the majority of people, cilantro is a love it or hate it kind of herb. This dessert is considered by many intrepid ex-pats to be one of the most satisfying snacks in a night market. Two or three scoops of mild flavored ice cream is placed inside a paper thin crepe. Peanut brittle is shaved into a collecting pan and then poured on top of the ice cream. Finally, diced cilantro is added to give a little pizazz. Once wrapped, the snack is placed in a plastic bag and its time to enjoy! Unless you hate cilantro, the only reason this makes the lists of "food to write home about" is that you're going to want to tell everyone you know about this amazing snack. This treat is found in Jiu Fen (九份) and most night markets.
Snake Soup 蛇湯
This soup is becoming increasingly hard to find, even in its traditional locations around Taipei. One of the major reasons it is disappearing? It's made from snakes which are killed and prepared in front of your very eyes. The easiest place to find this in Taipei is at the LongShan Temple 龍山寺 but there are other stores around the city and outlying aras such as MaoKong 貓空. Snake is generally served in longish strips either boiled or fried and has a consistency which can be attributed to a tough fish. Its said to be good for the skin to eat snake, and it's certainly a unique experience. If you don't find a snake butcher, try the monopterus, or swamp eel, which is commonly served instead.
Oyster Omelet - 蚵仔煎
This famous food from Taiwan is one cup of oysters, one egg, some rice gluten, and a little bit of green vegetable. This is fried in a circular shape, and served covered with a sweet sauce. The ideal eating method is to use the chopsticks to cut the omelet into bite sized pieces leaving the omelette flat on the plate. Its definitely easy to have a messy plate. Some omelets are served with shrimp or other seafood combinations. On rare occasions there will be small bits of oyster shell in the omelet. This food is found at night markets and stores throughout the city. Despite its Chinese name it is ubiquitously called "eh ah jian" by Taiwanese speakers.
Tripe Noodle Soup - 麵線
This soup is actually fairly thick with a decent amount of flavor, mostly a blend between sweet tastes, black pepper, and some spice which makes for a light brown color. The soup is loaded with thin noodles which stick together, and they should be eaten in bite-size clumps off your spoon. Mixed into the noodles are garlic filled intestine pieces which are usually cut out of larger pieces right before serving. Many foreign eaters refuse to eat intestine because its chewy and "gross", but the heavy flavor of the soup masks much of the bitter organ taste of the tripe. Most people who try this soup like it because its richly flavored, fairly heavy, and offers good textures on top of flavor. Eaters should drink plenty of water after eating this soup as the spices (especially the garlic) can linger in your mouth for quite some time. Find it in every night market (there is a famous one in Xi Men 西門) as well as stores throughout the city.
Fish You Eat Whole
Little Dry Fish 小魚乾
These little fish are a delicious addition to any meal. Regularly served like an appetizer as a 小吃, pick up a plate of these little guys from the restaurant's refridgerator on your way to your seat. Usually prepared in a mildly hot sauce with a dried, salty fish flavor, they will warm your appetite for soups and water based meals. Why does a fish snack make the list? Because you eat the little fish whole.
If the 小魚乾 are too small to be worth writing home about, you can try their big brother the capelin (柳葉魚) which are served 2 to 4 inches long and are also eaten whole. You can find these fish as 小吃, dried in bags in stores, and in BBQ's, like the ones pictured below (center, next to the shrimp).