Crash Course for Understanding Taiwanese Food

Taipei and Taiwan offer some amazingly delicious, unique, and engaging foods. There are tons of foods new to a first time visitor from the west, and flavors get combined in new and innovative ways on otherwise classic foods. Being open minded and trying whatever looks interesting is a great way to have some new and memorable food experiences. Health standards in Taiwan are actually quite high so you shouldn't write off street food just because it's being sold from a cart. If you're very picky or have doubts, choose busy places with high food turn over.

Introduction and Overview

As a general rule food is served hot unless there is some indication in its name that it will be cold. This includes the scorching hot summer months. For a reason the authors can't figure out is that food is always served scalding hot, and you should always assume food is molten hot when it arrives at your table. Soups can be especially punishing on the tongue or palate, as well as tofu, duck blood, and overcooked cabbage.

Food is generally served twice during the day: lunch (usually 11 - 230) and again at dinner (from around 5 to
8 or 9). It is not unusual for many restaurants to be closed from 230 to 5 for an afternoon rest. Later at night there are a new set of restaurants and stalls which open around the city serving snacks and noodles, and of course there are night markets. Unlike cities like Bangkok however, there are not an unlimited number of food vendors at night, and some areas are entirely quiet after the restaurants close. The best advice for travelers is eat early and eat often.

Noodles and rice are the two main staple foods. Dumplings and bread serve as secondary staples offering more variety. Locals will often ask each other if they want to eat rice or noodles in a way which connotes them as separate food groups. While preferences vary it is common for people to avoid eating the same staple twice in the same day.

Many traditional restaurants have a small 
refrigerator or counter dedicated to serving small "appetizer" type foods. Customers walk up and pick the one(s) they want, take it back to their seat and eat. At the end of the meal, the person collecting the money will charge you for each of the small plates you took. These 小吃 (xiaochi) have a seemingly endless variety of food offerings, and Taiwanese living abroad often say they miss having these snacks on the table when they go out to eat.

Soup at every meal?

Most foreigners find the Taiwanese soup bland. Unlike American or European soups which are hearty and fattening with a solid helping of milk, butter, flour, and cheese, soup in Taiwan is essentially water, flavor (usually boiled chicken bones or seaweed), and a touch of oil. Soup is usually consumed at every meal except for breakfast, even on the hottest of summer days. Despite western aversion to the practice, it rapidly re-hydrates the body compared to cold drinks since it is already body-use temperature. It also contains many of the salts which need to be replaced if you are sweating regularly. Avoid getting a bowl of oil by dipping deep into the pot and pumping the ladle up and down. Once a hole forms in the slick top layer quickly haul up a ladle of less oily broth.

Do not be surprised if people make a drinking motion while pointing to soup. The Chinese use
喝湯 or "drink soup" the same way they 喝啤酒 to "drink beer". There is plenty of room for debate about foods influence on language and vice versa: which came first - watery soup or the notion of drinking (not eating) it.

The notable exceptions to the watery soup rule are Suan
la tang 酸辣湯 the Chinese forebear to the orange sweet and sour soup served at American take away joints, and yumi tang 玉米湯 or corn chowder, a flour/cheese soup with corn pieces. Suanla Tang contains vegetables, meat, and tofu as well as a sour and pepper-based spiciness. The corn chowder has a creamy texture, and often has a garlic after taste.

Meat, its what's usually for dinner

Meat is somewhat more diverse in its daily offerings than in America, and similar with Europe and the UK. Beef, chicken, pork, and lamb are the primary meats, while duck, goose, snake, rabbit, and so on make up secondary offerings. While some areas of Asia offer such delicacies as dog, or rat, they don't make an regular appearance in Taiwan. Meat is generally served with more fat and rough bits than in the west.

When “meat” is on the menu you should assume its going to be pork. Pork is sold in highly variable qualities at highly variable prices, and local eaters say that some pork foods - specifically louroufan 魯肉飯 - can be of dubiously low quality. As a result, places which sell good meat are more popular, although not necessarily more expensive. When in doubt, go where its busy.

There are tons of amazing meat choices in Taiwan, and if you're on a short visit you should be sure to get as many experiences as possible. As a crossroads of numerous food cultures, you'll be able to find familiar favorites from China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand, as well as a few things unique to Taiwan alone. If you want to load up on protein, head to an all you can eat hot pot or BBQ. Looking for some roast duck or insanely crispy pork like you'd get in Hong Kong? Stop into a lunch box stand which will have a window full of hanging roast meat to get your fix. Japanese teppanyaki is everywhere, and the night markets have grilled, fried, and roast meat a la carte.


A word about bones. Western eaters view bones as a nuisance but Asian eaters, especially those who cook in a Chinese style, actually pay more for meat with bones in it. It is smart to assume there are could be bones somewhere in your meat. This caution goes double to meat which is cleaved, such as duck or goose, which will contain not only the large bones but fragments which get snapped off during cutting which are very unpleasant to swallow. Meat that ends up on top of rice in a lunch box needs extra caution to avoid bone bits getting everywhere. Check the rice for bone shards first or you'll end up spending forever fishing out a little shred of bone from a mouthful of half chewed goo.

Vegetarianism

Vegetarian food is not only commonly found throughout Taiwan but a lot of it is delicious. There are tons of vegan people on the island and even meat lovers should venture out to try some of the amazing vegetarian offerings. The meat substitutes are of amazing quality and sometimes even meat eaters are fooled, there are all you can eat vegetarian buffets, and plated gourmet vegetarian restaurants which charge the same as meat-fueled eateries. Look for places with sushi 素食 in their name or on their menus.

Non-vegetarian specific places can rarely
accommodate requests for a vegan diet, but are able to serve up basic vegetarian dishes. Most stores prepare meat (pork) or fish based sauces and soups to serve with their food, so your vegetarian request will likely involve some meat flavor or meat product contact. Even just boiled noodles will go into the boiling tub of water which has boiled meat at some point. In a crunch, its best to find stores which have noodles covered in a spicy sauce, a sesame sauce, or peanut sauce because those are (almost) always meat free.


Dumplings - the other food staple


Dumplings come in many shapes and sizes, and all are worth
a try. The most common ones are available at dumpling and noodle stores around the city, while specialty shops charge more for an arguably better product. In Taiwan dumplings are traditionally eaten with a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic but specialty stores offer a wider selection which can be mixed in a small bowl for dipping. Dumplings come boiled, steamed, fried, and even microwaved at convenience stores.

Xiaolongbao 小籠包 and other larger dumpling are made so the juices bake around the meat in a sealed pocket. There is nothing better than fresh hot meat drippings seasoned to perfection. When eating these dumplings be careful not to break the skin before eating it, and some skins are quite thin. The juice inside can be EXTREMELY hot and will splatter everywhere and burn everything if you're not careful. Try to avoid sealing your mouth over the area you are biting, which generates pressure, and instead bite only half a mouthful at once. If you're not careful you'll be wearing that dumpling deliciousness all over your shirt and cursing wildly instead of savoring each bite.





Seafood

Seafood is generally served fresh or chilled in ice, although some buffet hot pot and BBQ places will have fully frozen seafood in addition to fresh offerings. Unlike in America clams and oysters are not eaten raw but cooked until they open and then served plain or with garlic. Oysters are often eaten in an omelet with one egg and rice gluten which can be found at night markets. Shrimp and other seafood dishes are served with a natural presentation style with fish being served with skin, bones, and face still attached. Shrimp will have the shell, legs, and even the full head with his beady black eyes.




Baked Things and Desserts

Baked goods are a subject of debate among travelers and ex-pats in Taiwan. There are many great bakeries serving a wide range of baked goods, but some selections which look promising will leave the eater disappointed. Generally baked goods are a bit lighter than their western counter parts, and chocolate, cream, and frostings can at times be visually appealing while tasting bland. Many baked goods have a sweet mayonnaise like cream, and may contain corn, bacon, scallions/green onions, and other herbs. Locals often mislabel sliced bread as "toast" which comes precut in half or full loaves in white, whole wheat, red bean, cheese and ham, and other flavors. Try a bakery that is foreign owned or sports a western name if very buttery or light baked goods aren't your thing.





Ice and Drinking Water

Ice in Taiwan is made from ice machines which use filtered or boiled water and is safe. Restaurants do not serve water from the tap. The glass
es and pitchers of still water you get are totally fine to drink. Generally you shouldn't drink water from the tap, although the government has improved filtration and sanitation quality. The reason to avoid regularly drinking tap water is that the pipes are usually quite old and can add a lot of hard metals and contaminants.

Boiled/bottled water is routinely available for free in hotels, offices, and apartments, or at minimal cost at convenience stores. Drink tap water in a pinch and feel free to use it to brush your teeth, rinse your mouth, shower.
There is no fluoride added to the tap water so if you're going to live in Taiwan for a long time, consider a topical fluoride rinse.


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