Culinary Notes from the Beautiful Island

James Carl Rinto 2022.03.07

     So, you’re thinking about coming to Taiwan, huh? Well, in that case, you’d better be ready to EAT. Whether you are a die-hard foodie or a casual grazer, already an adventuresome gourmand or a meat-and-potatoes newbie, Taiwan has something for everyone. But what wonders can you expect to discover on the culinary landscape if you decide to come to Taiwan? Will there be night markets? Yes, many. Will you try beef noodle soup at some point? Most likely. Does stinky tofu really smell as bad as everyone says it does? I mean, guessing “stinky tofu or open sewer?” is still a game I like to play after living here for seven years. However, I am here to tell you that the cuisine of Taiwan is much, much more than just these things. It is Taiwanese, and it is Chinese. It is Hoklo and Hakka. It is the legacy of Japanese colonialism and the influence of Southeast Asian guest workers. It is wild boar from the mountains and oysters from the sea. It is fancy restaurants in Xinyi and humble noodle shops in Wanhua. It is the vegetarian cuisine of Buddhist monasteries and all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ. It is a place where coffins are made of bread, small sausages nestle with big sausages, and you often have to chew your tea. In other words, it is exactly what you would expect from an island at the crossroads of Asia, settled by people from ancient cultures and yet comfortably inhabiting the globalized, 21st century world. Interested? Then start working on those chopstick skills.

 

Aboriginal Cuisine (Wulai) 

     Do you have Andrew Zimmern-envy? Is “nose-to-tail” dining just not edgy enough for you anymore? Well, in that case, can I interest you in a plate of stir-fried bees? How about some ice-cold, fermented pork? Heck, we’ll even let you eat sticky rice out of a bamboo tube and get tipsy off of millet wine. If it’s something “unique” you’re craving, look no further than Taiya PoPo on the old street of Wulai. One of the most well-known restaurants featuring the cuisine of Taiwan’s indigenous community, at Taiya PoPo you can sample special dishes like the ones I mentioned above, as well as a wide variety of other specialties of the Atayal people. When I visited this restaurant with my Taiwanese friend a few years ago, we enjoyed the beautiful mountain scenery of Wulai before sitting down to a feast of edible ferns, wild boar, and several dishes I would have never dreamed existed. I’ll be honest: the cold, fermented pork was not to my taste, but the stir-fried bees were delicious! Tossed with garlic, Thai basil, green onions, and spicy chili peppers, they make the perfect crunchy, salty drinking food: think peanuts with legs.

 

Kang Rou Fan Breakfast (Taichung)

     If you live in Taiwan long enough, you will probably have a go-to, favorite breakfast place. Mine is this little shop by my apartment. Run by a friendly grandmother and her adult children, it is a great place to enjoy the not-so-health-conscious staples of Taichung’s breakfast cuisine: fried noodles, meatball soup, and the fattiest jewel in the city’s breakfast crown, Kang Rou Fan. Kang Rou Fan is a piece of braised pork belly served over steamed, white rice. Not your idea of a healthy start to the day? You are missing out on life, my friend. A quality piece of braised pork belly like the one at this shop has been braised for many hours in a marinade consisting of soy sauce, rock sugar, and a bouquet of spices, resulting in the most tender, savory and sweet pork you’ve ever had. Combine this with some braised tofu, pickled bamboo shoots, minced garlic, and a squirt of Taichung’s favorite chili sauce, and you have the best possible start of a lazy Saturday morning. I try to go to this place every weekend and either dine at one of the little tables they have set up on the sidewalk, or take my breakfast back to my apartment, picking up some soy milk on the way. It’s filling, it’s cheap (less than $3), and, most importantly, it’s completely delicious.

        

 

Hot Pot (Taipei)

     Taiwan is not just about cheap street food; sometimes you also gotta get fancy-shmancy. I lived in Taipei for four years before moving to Taichung, so every other month or so I like to take the high speed rail to Taipei for the weekend and plan a few get-togethers with my friends and former colleagues who still call Taiwan’s capital home. When the weather is a bit cooler, there is no better place to socialize and dine than at one of Taipei’s many hot pot restaurants. This place, Top One Hot Pot in Zhongshan District, has an Imperial China theme, and you definitely feel like an emperor dipping piece after piece of thinly-sliced beef, pork, and mutton into one of their rich broths. However, it isn’t just the taste that is important: you’ve gotta impress those Facebook and Instagram followers as well (after all, if you aren’t posting on social media do you even really exist?), so the presentations at an upscale hot pot place are sometimes truly eye-catching. My favorite thing about this restaurant was the ultra-thin tofu skin, cut to look like pieces of paper, with calligraphy brushes that use edible squid ink to write! My Taiwanese friends helped me to write my Chinese name on the tofu skin, which we then tossed into the hot pot for a minute, dipped in sauce, and consumed. I guess sometimes you really are what you eat.

 

 

Fresh Fruit Shaved Ice (Tainan)

   

     One of the great advantages of being on a sub-tropical/tropical island is definitely NOT the weather. Full disclosure, folks, Taiwan is HOT. And humid. Maybe that's your thing: it is 100% not mine. So, if I am going to suffer the tropical climate, I might as well at least get my fill of tropical fruits. Taiwan is a fruit-lover's paradise: mango and papaya, kumquats and dragon fruit, wax apples, custard apples, pineapples...the list goes on and on. I often buy fruit at the traditional market near my school, but I also sometimes like to enjoy a selection of fresh fruit served over shaved ice, especially on one of those muggy days in the endless summer after I've barricaded myself in my air-conditioned apartment all day. One of the best fresh fruit shaved ices I ever had was at a shop in Tainan, culinary capital of the south. Banana, kiwi, apple, watermelon, and dragon fruit, drizzled in sweetened, condensed milk and served atop a mountain of shaved ice, with a whole pudding as the cherry on top: good enough to make me forget about sweating for a few minutes.

 

 

Home-cooked Meal (Taichung)

    

If you decide to come to Taiwan, you will have a chance to try some of the best food you've ever had in your life, but it's the people you share it with that makes it even more special. Taiwanese people love to eat, and often socialize with each other at restaurants, night markets, and cafes. However, if you are lucky enough to be invited into a Taiwanese family's home, you will not only experience the flavors of the local cuisine, but also the warmth of the local hospitality. One of my dear friends from work invited me over one Saturday after I had a special morning class to have lunch with her and her family. I was expecting a light lunch of couple of dishes and some rice, but when I arrived I discovered that she had gone all out: three-cups squid, stir-fried cabbage, chicken and mushroom soup, smoked duck, and more. So much for a light lunch. As I sat there with her family, happily chatting away and eating the tasty food she had prepared, I was reminded of the fact that food really has the power to bring people together. Whether it be families coming together at their reunion dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve or friends meeting for a casual lunch; a ten-course, end of the year banquet with the entire school faculty or a bowl of noodles with a colleague on the way home from work, in Taiwan the quickest way to people's hearts are usually through their stomachs.

       

 

The few examples I've given of the culinary experiences I have had in Taiwan are like the thin layer of powered snow on the tip of a massive iceberg. Maybe not the best analogy for a place this hot, but you get the point. Don't let anything I've said put you off coming though. If you want McDonald's, they are everywhere. UberEats can bring you pizza as easily as at can bring you pig's feet. You can ease your way into the local food scene, or be up to your eyeballs in organ meats and weird seafood from Day #1. There is so much to love about living on this island, and if food isn't your thing, then focus more of your free time on exploring the incredible nature Taiwan has to offer, or learning about Taiwan's fascinating history and culture. Or just swipe right on Tinder all day: we'll pretend not to judge you. But if you are ready to bring your taste buds on the journey of a lifetime, just sign on the dotted line. We'll be waiting for you with a cold, Taiwan Beer and a plate of stir-fried bees.


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