I could speak at length about the balance between world-class city life and dream like, beautiful landscapes, the fact that all my plugs from Canada work in the outlets here and the Taiwanese as being probably the friendliest people in Asia, however, if I only had once chance to convince you to visit, I’d probably try to do it through Taiwan’s incredibly delicious and unique food culture.
It’s no coincidence that Taiwan’s food culture seems like something you may have had before, but unique in its own right. The Chinese culture connection aside, Taiwan was also occupied starting in 1985 for over five decades by the Japanese, and many of the influences for that era can still be felt today. Taiwan has historically been more culturally open than China, and that shows in the mix of international restaurants and food found in Taiwan. You can also find slight Dutch colony influences as well as nods to Taiwan’s original, aboriginal roots in the food.
If you’re going to talk about food in Taiwan, you can’t skip the night markets. There’s at least one in every city. In Taipei, there are probably at least 50. The great thing is no two night markets are the same in terms of specialty street food dishes, people and atmosphere. You can eat at Shilin Night Market and mingle with tourists, hit up a bunch of shopping and games or you can head over to the more historic and low key Raohe Night Market for some famous black pepper pork buns. You can venture out to Keelung where the focus of the night market is seafood or head to the Gongguan night market and feel the younger, hip buzz brought on by the adjacent NTU and NTNU university students.
While the night market choices are endless and food stalls are always trying to innovate and break a new street food fad, there are a few staple dishes you should always try when checking out a night market for that Taiwanese authenticity:
Oyster omelette (蚵仔煎) – so popular you’ll hear most local only refer to it as “ô-á-chian” which is the Taiwanese name for them.
Pig’s blood cake (豬血糕) – this one took some getting used to but liked it a lot more this time back in Taiwan. It looks like an almond covered chocolate popsicle and tastes like salty jello. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan but it’s a hit with most of my Taiwanese and Chinese friends.
Guabao (割包) – These magical pork buns are even being used in Michelin star menus, a la David Chang. Go back to the source.
There are many more, but I’ll leave them up to you to discover.
Great restaurants and eats
Taiwan’s is a gastronomic epicentre in Asia and is not shy about importing the best and most popular foods from all around the world. The two restaurant meals you need to try in Taiwan are hotpot, renowned in Asia, and Din Tai Fung, an internationally celebrated xiaolongbao restaurant that even gets a thumbs up from Tom Cruise.
Taiwanese-style hotpot is unique in that its a cultural fusion of the best elements of Chinese huoguo (火鍋), and Japanese shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ). It also helps that many are all you can eat spots.
Din Tai Fung is an interwoven product of Chinese and Japanese culture. While xiaolongbaos were invented in Shanghai, Din Tai Fung’s dumplings use a very Japanese approach in creating them; each dumpling is prepared with exactly 18 folds to seal in the soup and also a specific thickness of dumpling skin in the shop. The kitchens are immaculate. You can see the chefs through large windows in the kitchen walls and they look more like scientists than chefs. It’s this meticulous attention to detail that makes Din Tai Fung dumplings extra special and worth a visit every time you’re in Taiwan.
Even with so much great food, I’d probably fly back to Taiwan just for a bowl of that beef noodle soup.