Taiwan was one of those places that I had never thought of visiting despite its proximity to the Philippines. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about it prior to my trip aside from its famous skyscraper, the Taipei 101. Needless to say, I had no regret spending almost two weeks on this island because of one thing—food. Delicious, gratifying Taiwanese food.
Before deciding to go to this beautiful country, my initial choices of destination to take my holiday break were India, Vietnam, or Indonesia. I ended up going to Taiwan because it had the cheapest flights that I could find at that time. I am a frugal traveler which translates to I want things cheap. It was a fortunate accident, so to speak, because I had an amazing time discovering this nation that is rich in ancient history, friendly people, and delicious foods.
And delicious food it was! I was floored by the variety of tastes and flavors that this small country has to offer. Taiwanese street food is simply one of the best in the world. A myriad of Taiwanese dishes—greatly influenced by Chinese, Japanese, and other neighboring Asian countries—envelops every street and corner of every city and county on this tiny island. Each one boasts of its unique version or speciality. And for a good reason. Every food scene showcases the best and freshest ingredients that the local communities can offer to its hungry visitors.
The Shilin Night Market is arguably the most famous night market in Taipei, but I spent my first night of food tripping in a less touristy place—the nearby Shipai Night Market. My Taiwanese/Canadian friend, John Leno, toured me around and introduced me to the local street food scene. I met John in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia a few years back during one of my backpacking trips. He took me to Shipai Night Market where many of the locals go (less touristy too!). In this market, I had my first taste of Taiwanese cuisine, such as spring roll, shaved ice, and stinky tofu!
Ita Thao Village can be found in Sun Moon Lake, one of the popular tourist attractions in Nantou County. It’s a charming village along the magnificent lake, surrounded by the rolling mountains of central Taiwan. Its laid-back streets are lined with shops and restaurants which offer a variety of local specialties that I wish I can all devour.
Another popular tourist destination is Jiufen Old Street, about two hours east of Taipei. This village is a labyrinth of hilly streets and staircases. Lots of popular food to eat here, such as tea eggs, taro balls, and peanut ice cream roll. Jiufen became popular because of its resemblance to the setting of the Japanese animated movie Spirited Away.
It’s almost impossible to travel to Taiwan and not experience their street food and night market scenes. It would be like traveling to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. To give you an idea on what street foods to try in Taiwan, here’s a list of the ones that I was able to taste and enjoy:
1. Taiwanese Sesame Bun – Shaobing (燒餅)
I found this tasty sesame seed bun by accident in one of the busy streets of Shilin Night Market. Shaobing is a baked flatbread that comes in a variety of sweet and savory stuffings—from red bean paste to minced meat. My personal favorite is shaobing with spring onion filling.
2. Taiwanese Spring Roll – Popiah (薄餅)
Popiah is strikingly similar to the Filipino fresh lumpia (called “fresh” as opposed to fried spring rolls). In fact, the word popiah and lumpia came from the same Chinese word for “thin wafer” which pertains to its very delicate spring roll wrapper. The filling consists mainly of vegetables, such as bean sprouts, carrots, Chinese parsley, and peanuts. Meat and tofu may sometimes be added.
3. Coffin Bread – Guan Cai Ban (棺材板)
This bizarre Taiwanese creation is made from a simple white bread toasted in rich butter, hollowed and filled with a creamy stew of chicken and mixed vegetables. It’s like a mini version of bread bowls and just as pleasurable.
4. Flatbread Sandwiches
Taiwan has a variety of flatbreads and sandwiches—from shawarma to gua bao to scallion pancakes. I wasn’t able to try everything as much as I wanted to because there’s just too many to choose from! These flatbread sandwiches are served freshly cooked in a nice paper bag so you can easily walk around and scout for your next meal.
5. Oyster Mee Sua Soup (蚵仔面线)
Mee Sua (or misua) is a very common noodle soup in Taiwan’s night markets (Look for those food stalls with gigantic stainless steel pots!) These very delicate noodles can be served with meat pieces or innards, but the most popular choice is oysters. The mee sua noodle is similar to the one that is found in the Philippines, although the preparation and flavor are different.
6. Blow-torched Beef Cubes
This tasty grilled beef steak does not use the usual charcoal grilling. Instead, the meat is roasted to juicy perfection using a blow torch. The slab of meat is cut into bite-sized pieces for fast cooking. Then they are served in paper trays and eaten using a toothpick.
7. Peanut Ice Cream Spring Roll (花生冰淇淋春捲)
Spring rolls in Taiwan also come in cool, delicious treats! Scoops of taro ice cream are carefully placed on the wrapper, then sprinkled with ground peanut brittle, before rolling it into a beautiful takeaway dessert. This is definitely one of my favorite sweet treats in Taiwan.
8. Stinky Tofu – Chou Doufu (臭豆腐)
Stinky tofu is infamous for a reason; it does stink and the taste may not please everyone’s palate. Surprisingly, I loved it! I liked it so much that I had to order another serving. The smell may be overpowering, but the flavor and texture are an acquired taste. I grew up eating tokwa in the Philippines, and I’ve also had fried tofu in Singapore and Thailand with sweet & sour sauce. If you’re used to these kinds of bean curd, stinky tofu is not that different.
9. Fried Chicken Cutlet – Zha Jipai (炸雞排)
I was already full that night, but the long queue to this fried chicken stall intrigued me so I had to order one. Tbh, I was a little disappointed. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t extraordinary either. The chicken cutlet was coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried, then it was grilled (as shown in the photo) before being served. The portion is huge though, which is great for sharing. The outside was crispy and the meat juicy. The flavor, however, is underwhelming; it’s not something I would crave for in a fried chicken.
10. Fried Wonton (炸餛飩)
If there is a street food that surprised me, it would be these fried wontons. I’ve tried many wontons and dumplings in my previous travels, and although I enjoyed most of them, I usually prefer the steamed ones (or served in soups). I wasn’t expecting a lot from these fried wontons as they looked ordinary, but the taste—ohh, I’ve never been so pleased to be wrong! The chicken meat stuffing was juicy with just the right amount of seasoning. The wrapper, however, was packed with so much flavor. Yes, the wonton wrapper! Wonton wrappers normally taste bland and the filling is the main source of flavor. These wontons, however, had a delicate salty-peppery seasoning, they almost taste like fried chicken skin fried to a perfect crisp. I know it’s strange, but this is probably my favorite street food in Taiwan. 🙂
11. Yeung Chow Fried Rice with Taiwanese Sausage – Shang Tang (香腸)
Another Taiwanese staple is the ubiquitous Taiwanese sausage. These sausages are akin to Chinese sausages, but they’re normally grilled. They are served on a stick, in bite-sized pieces, or in a bun. The taste is quite similar to the spiced chorizo de Bilbao or Macau, which are popular ingredients in the Philippines when making pancit or siopao, but the Taiwanese sausages are moist and juicy. The texture is comparable to our favorite longganisa (Filipino sausage). And just like any typical Asian, I like them served with rice, preferably Yeung Chow.
12. Oyster Omelette – O-a-chian (蚵仔煎)
The island of Taiwan is abundant in seafood, and one particular kind stands out from the rest: oyster! Every foreign traveler in Taiwan must have at some point tried this popular street food. Pieces of oyster are cooked with an egg-potato starch mixture. It is then topped with a sweet and savory sauce. Personally, I’m not a fan because of its slimy texture. I still prefer my oysters fresh, straight from its shell. But I’d still suggest that you try it at least once. Who knows, you might just like them.
13. Pearl Milk Tea/Bubble Tea – Boba Naicha (波霸奶茶)
Did you know that this popular milk tea originated in Taiwan? It comes in many names: bubble tea, boba tea, pearl milk tea, etc. Pearl milk tea is not exactly a street food, although there are several night market food stalls that sell this drink. Taiwan is a tea country, so it’s not surprising for the locals to innovate and eventually create this famous concoction. Its basic ingredients are tea, milk, ice, sweetener, and tapioca balls, but fruits, pudding, and other flavors may also be added.
Read the second part here: Lola’s Food Travel: THINGS I ATE IN TAIWAN (PART 2 – NON-STREET FOODS)