Planning your next foodie travel destination? Well, look no further, because Taiwan is where you want to be. According to Conde Nast Traveller magazine, they have recently dubbed Taiwan as the “foodie destination of 2015”. After spending 5 days eating my way around the island that even shaped like a sweet potato (if you don’t believe me, check it out yourself), I have to agree that Taiwan is definitely the place everyone should look out for. Whilst there is a new wave of exciting dining scene that slowly makes the world turning their heads towards this island, but it is the Taiwanese’s Xiao Chi (small eats) that keeps the appetite of these some 23.4 million Taiwanese satiated. Even foodies from abroad like myself are also flocking to this country and want a piece of it.
I found the food scene in Taiwan is very similar to any other Asia countries, say Malaysia for instance. Xiao Chi, or as we know it as ‘snack food’ can be found at every corner of the streets. And why snack food are popular not just in Taiwan but also in other Asia countries because of these three simple reasons: they are inexpensive, they are convenient and they are usually in small portions so you can have a variety of snack food to make up a meal. What not to love?
I did my research on internet on where and what to eat, plus a few tips from my Taiwanese friends, I managed to explore a few foodie hotspots and devoured my way through some of the must-eat local specialties. And without further ado, here is my foodie guide on Taiwanese snack food, what you must try, and where to find it.
WHERE TO GO
1. Yong Kang Street – 永康街
So you are in Taipei city and you have just visited Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Now you are hungry and looking for a food hot spot that is within walking distance, then Yong Kang Street is where you want to head to; it is only a 10 minutes walk to the east. Dubbed as the Taiwanese cuisine’s mecca, there are restaurants dotted along Yong Kang street and also the side streets. This area is also home to the world-renowned Din Tang Fung restaurant, the flagship store is located just around the corner on Xinyi Road.
What to look for: Yong Kang beef noodle soup, Lao Zhang beef noodle soup (voted best beef noodle soup in Taipei), Tian Jin shallot pancake, mango shaved ice at Smoothie House, Din Tai Fung flagship store.
2. Ximending – 西門町
Ximending is a must visit for all the shopaholics. They called it the “Harajuku of Taipei”, it is a popular shopping district for young people. (Hello Uniqlo!) This whole area spread out like a spider web, it is the largest pedestrian-only area in Taiwan. There are lots of food vendors parked outside the shops selling all kinds of snack food which you can just grab and go. You can seriously can shop and eat till you drop here.
What to look for: Stinky Tofu…if you dare (you can smell it from miles away), shaved peanut toffee with taro ice cream crepe roll, grilled Taiwanese sausages, deep fried quail eggs, dumplings.
3. Ningxia Night Market – 寧夏夜市
One must do is of course visit at least one of the many night markets here in Taiwan and eat to your heart’s content. There are over fifty night markets all over Taiwan (check out the list of night markets in Taiwan) that operate every night regardless rain, hail or shine. The Shilin Night Market is one of the largest and most popular in Taipei where you can find all kinds of merchandise, knick knacks and also snack food. However, it is 20 mins away from city by taxi or take the MRT to Jiantan Station.
If you are looking for a night market that is closer to the city and also sell nothing but only food, then I would suggest NingXia Night Market. At night, the whole Ningxia road turns into pedestrian-only walkway with food stalls parked right next to each other on both sides of the streets makes food browsing an ease. There are also a few restaurants along the street that are very popular for fried oyster omelette and usually packed with customers. NingXia night market is more famous for traditional Taiwanese cuisine so it is a great spot for first timer who wants to try as many local specialties as possible, all in one spot.
What to look for: E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G! In all seriousness, try to look forfried oyster omelette, gua bao (Taiwanese burger), stinky tofu (again?!), traditional rice ball, weird food and novelty food (more details below).
4. Xichang Street – 西昌街
Again, you’ve done more sightseeing and just stepped out from the Longshan Temple, you’ve been eating all the heaty fried food at night market the night before, you are thirsty and now looking for a drink to sooth the throat and to detoxify the liver and the body. Just turn around a corner from Longshan Temple and you will find yourself in Xichang Street, the well known “herb lane”. It is a popular lane where you can find all sorts of Chinese medicinal herbs. Many of the herbal shops have been trading here for over 100 years. Whilst the locals come here to buy herbs in bulk and brew it at home, tourists like us can save the hassle of slow-cooking and just enjoy the herbal drinks at any of the drink stalls set up outside the shops. Different herbal drink offers different health benefits, and trust what my mother says, “The more bitter the herbal drink is, the better for you.” She is absolutely right.
Note – At night, Xichang Street also turns into a night market.
What to look for: Refreshing aloe vera drink good for skin, a fish-flavoured grass drink to detoxify the body, grass tea drink for cooling after all the rich food.
5. Fengjia Night Market – 逢甲夜市 (in Taichung)
If size does matter to you, then you will have to go to Taichung. Fengjia Night Market in Taichung is claimed to be the largest night market in Taiwan. It is a shopping heaven, there are food stands, restaurants and shops along Wen-hua road then expanding to Fengjia Road, Fuxing Road and Xi’an Street. It is an important night market in Taiwan as many food entrepreneurs come to this market with their new food invention to test out the market before expanding the business to other night markets. It means sometimes you will find snack food here that are not available anywhere else.
What to look for: Small sausage wrapped in big sausage, stinky tofu (might as well try at least once and get over with), traditional hand made pearl milk tea, there are endless of food to try.
Now you know where to look for tasty food, it’s time to find out what you should shove your face with! Let’s eat!
WHAT TO EAT
1. Shallot Pancake – 蔥抓餅
The Taiwanese version of shallot pancake is like a hybrid between Malaysian roti and a Japanese okonomiyaki. There are chopped shallots (or scallions) embedded in the pancake, it is pan fried then served with a light brush of sweet and salty sauce that tasted like the okonomiyaki BBQ sauce. Why stop there when you can pimp it up with egg, ham, cheese or the lot?!
We had the best one at Tian Jin Shallot Pancake at YongKang Street. Be prepared to join the queue.
2. Big sausage wraps small sausage – 大腸包小腸
Taiwanese sausage is one of the best snack food on a stick. It is a little bit like the Chinese sausage “lap cheong“, full of sweet and salty fatty goodness but not air dried, so the sausage is still bounce-off-the-teeth springy on every bite. There is sausage, and then there is SAUSAGE – so why not put a small sausage inside a big sausage? That’s exactly what they did. I got quite excited when I heard about this OTT invention but when I finally found it at Fengjia Night Market in Taichung, it was actually not as crazy as I thought it supposed to be. The small meaty sausage was indeed wrapped inside a big sausage (along with cucumber and pickled vegetables) which disappointingly turned out to be made out of sticky rice. Not that I hate sticky rice, I was just expecting some crazy meaty overload man food. Nevertheless, it is still a very delicious unconventional snack food and definitely worth a try.
You can also find it at Shilin Night Market in Taipei.
3. Pearl Milk Tea – 珍珠奶茶
Everybody knows what pearl milk tea (or bubble tea or pearl iced tea) is, this edible drink sure has taken over the world by storm and indeed it was invented here in Taiwan. When you think you can find pearl milk tea almost everywhere in Sydney, then try and multiply that by 100 here in Taiwan – they are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e! If you are going to try pearl milk tea in Taiwan, then you may as well try it at one of the Chun Shui Tang tea houses because that’s where this concoction was originated. What makes Chun Shui Tang’s pearl milk tea still one of the best in Taiwan is because everything is freshly made daily. The sugar syrup is made from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, boiled down to thick syrup with no preservative added, and the little chewy pearls (or as they called it ‘QQ’ in Taiwan) are also made from fresh tapioca starch, not the packet stuff you get at the supermarket. We’ve been told the pearls will only last for two hours once cooked before it loses its chewiness. So freshness is the key.
You can also learn how to make pearl milk tea at any of the Chun Shui Tang tea houses in Taichung. Group bookings only at 400NT (AU$16.90) per person.
4. Grandma’s Rice Ball – 古早味阿婆飯糰
We totally stumbled upon this stall at the Ningxia Night Market by accident and gosh! What a great find! There was this Grandma who has been selling her traditional rice balls for over 20 years at this market and locals are always eager to line up for it. Sadly, google tells me that Grandma is having trouble with her wrist from arthritis, so now she has helpers to sell the rice balls for her.
The double-fists size glutinous rice ball is filled with pickled vegetable, meat floss, preserved mustard green and also crushed fried yiu tiao (Chinese cruller). For merely AU$1.70 (40NT), the rice ball will fill you up nicely, it is a meal on its own. You can’t find the rice ball anywhere else except at the Ningxia Night Market.
5. Baked Pepper Pork Bun – 胡椒餅
This little gem might be a little bit difficult to track down unless you know where to find them, but it definitely worth that extra effort to hunt them down. We stumbled upon this baked pepper pork bun shop not far from Longshan Temple, at the corner of Kangding Road and Guangzhou Street. These buns are baked on the wall of a clay oven like a tandoor, the pastry is crusty and inside each bun is filled with piping hot fatty pork meat spiced with white and black pepper accompanied by chopped spring onions. For only 30NT (Au$1.30) each, what more could you want?
6. Fried Oyster Omelette – 蚵仔煎
A trip to Taiwan is not complete without trying this signature dish – fried oyster omelette, or more commonly known as “eh-wah-jian” in Hokkien dialect. I love this similar dish which can be found back home in Malaysia but the Taiwanese rendition is not too shabby either. Tiny plump oysters which can be easily found around the island are folded into an egg omelette, they also added a ladle of potato starch into the mixture for that extra chewiness. You can eat it just like that or drown it in some sweet chilli dressing, which I am not too fond of. We tried the oyster omelette at a shop (Oyster Omelette King – 蚵仔煎大王) at Ningxia Night Market, which claimed to be the best one in the area.
7. Mango shaved ice (and other flavours)
Best way to beat the summer heat in Taiwan is to grab some shaved ice cream, mango flavour tends to be the most common and popular one. There are a few different types of shaved ice in Taiwan, don’t go for the one with just flavoured syrup poured over the shaved iced, that’s boring. You want to look for the one where flavoured ice block is shaved into a long ribbon of powdery smoothness that simply melts away as soon as it touches your tongue. They also sometimes called it “Snow ice“. We found Smoothie House at YongKang Street which was overcrowded, but you can find shaved ice pretty much everywhere in Taiwan.
8. Peanut toffee and ice cream spring roll – 花生捲冰淇淋
One of my favourite Taiwanese snack food, the peanut toffee with taro ice cream spring roll. If you happen to be shopping in the Ximending area, you will find a food cart right outside Uniqlo shop selling this awesome ice cream. It was mesmerising to watch the vendor shaving the big block of peanut toffee using a carpenter wood shaver. The shavings were sprinkled over the crepe before topping it with two scoops of taro ice cream then rolled it up like a spring roll. It was incredible delicious with the combo of crunchy peanut toffee and the icy taro ice cream. You will also be asked whether you want the optional sprigs of coriander in the ice cream roll. Yes, coriander! I was regretting it for not adding the coriander to my ice cream, I could totally see it will work in the flavour profile.
9. Braised Minced Pork Rice & Beef Noodle Soup – 滷肉飯 & 牛肉麵
I am going to group this two dishes together as they are not quite “snack food” per se but something more substantial. Nevertheless, you still able to find these two classic Taiwanese dishes at any night market and you simply have to try them. Lu Rou Fan is a very simple dish of minced pork braised in soy sauce then served on top of a bowl of steamed rice. Usually it comes with some pickles to cut through the richness, and sometimes you will also get half a braised soy egg as well. Every country has its own version of beef noodle soup, the Taiwanese version comes with chunks of slow-cooked tender beef briskets served with a big bowl of egg noodle and pickled vegetables in hearty broth. Believe it or not, Taiwan even has their own beef noodle soup festival! The best beef noodle soup can be found at YongKang Street.
10. Herbal Tea & White Bitter Gourd Juice
This might not be for everyone, but if you find yourself getting a fever, cold or stomach pain, then you might want want to hit Xichang Street for some herbal remedy. There are drinks for sore throat, cold, stomach ache, detoxing, better skin complexion and even slimming. They also sell succulent, not for growing, but eating as it also meant to be good for your health. A nice crunchy healthy snack perhaps?
At Ximending, we also found white bitter gourd juice. A variety of bitter gourd I’ve never seen before, the white bitter gourd is not as bitter than the green ones, it is juiced along with rockmelon and some honey to concoct up a quite refreshing drink, and of course it is good for your body too!
11. Penis shaped waffle – 大雕燒
Novelty food are everywhere in Taiwan, but this one takes the cake – Penis shaped waffle! Phwoar! Spotted these waffles at the Ningxia Night Market but apparently the main shop at Shihlin Night Market offers more than just waffle including penis shaped waffle with hotdog on a stick and penis shaped ice cream! The stall was pretty quiet, I think the locals were too embarrass to actually stand in front of the stall and buy it, only the crazy tourists like us would do such silly thing. But they ain’t cheap at 280NT (AU$11.80) for two in a box. But you’ll be glad to know that I able to bring these penis back to Australia and they got through the custom without trouble. I am just glad that I didn’t get asked to open my luggage to save me from the embarrassment of having to explain to the officer what they are. Can you imagine?!
12. Gua Bao – 刈包
They called it the “Taiwanese hamburger”, Gua Bao, literally means ‘slashed open bun’ is definitely one of the best snack food in Taiwan. These open-face steamed pork bun has become very popular around the world recently when Momofuku’s David Chang brought the idea to NYC. Traditionally, the bun is filled with either shredded fatty pork meat or thick slices of pork belly, accompanied by pickled vegetables, crushed peanuts and coriander. These buns can be found at most night markets, but 藍家割包 (lan jia guar bao) at Roosevelt Road in Zhongzen District claimed to make the best one.
13. Fried Chicken Cutlet – 炸雞排
Who doesn’t love fried chicken? Taiwanese version is pretty darn amazing too. Taiwanese are obsessed with fried chicken, according to a Taipei Times’ report of 2011, Taiwanese devour more than 250,000 fried chicken cutlets a day. Fried chicken nuggets (鹽酥雞）are very common in Taiwan, but why settle on tiny bits of chicken when you can have a whole piece the size of your face?! That’s why you to go to Hot Star for the the original oversized fried chicken cutlet. You can ask for any seasonings you like on the chicken. Hot Star was originally only a small counter in Shilin Night Market, now it is a popular franchise present in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and even Australia!
14. Ai-yu fig jelly drink – 愛玉冰
Another popular Taiwanese drink is the ai-yu jelly drink. The jelly is not exactly what you think it is, there are no gelatin or agar-agar added, the jelly is made from the gel from the seeds of a variety of fig found in Taiwan and East Asian countries of the same climates and latitudes. The jelly itself hardly taste of anything, it takes on the flavour of whatever it’s served with. The ai-yu jelly drink is typically a sweet longan drink with some shaved ice and the jelly on top. A very refreshing summer drink.
15. Offals and Duck Heads
What a bunch of duck heads! Literally. There are only two kind of people will eat this: 1. Those who like nose to tail eating and love offals, or 2. those who just want to try something weird as a dare while on holiday. I am both of them. I was fascinated by the duck head and really wanted to try them. It cost me NT70 (AU$3) for a duck head, the lady deep fried it, chopped it up then sprinkled with hot chilly pepper powder. The duck skin was caramelised and surprisingly sweet from a soy sugar glaze, there were some meat on the neck and plenty of bones to gnaw on.
There is a lot of other snack food in Taiwan that I am yet to try. I guess it gives me a good reason to come back again to eat some more!