Before my trip to Taiwan with AFAR Magazine, I was worried about whether or not I’d be able to eat anything, much less actually enjoy it. Friends (who had never been there) warned me that the cuisine would be “just like China’s” and they warned me of mystery meat and “weird gelatinous creations.” I’m a picky eater; very picky actually, and I seriously considered packing enough peanut butter to last the duration of my ten-day trip. That’s why I was shocked, truly and utterly, when I didn’t just find food I could eat, but food experiences that I think may be the best I’ve ever had.
What made the food so good? I wish I could answer that succinctly, but alas I cannot. It’s not one ingredient or even one meal that makes Taiwan such a foodie haven; instead it’s their love of food that catapults it into world dominance. From my brief stay I very quickly learned that food and the act of sharing food is a cornerstone of life in Taiwan. When you greet someone, the translation means, “Have you eaten yet?” Food is culturally important and this respect for it has led to some sensational food experiences. To give you a quick idea why I think Taiwan may be the best place in the world to eat a meal, here are five food experiences that elevated my own trip to Taiwan into something phenomenal.
1. Peking duck – This was my favorite meal of 2013 and perhaps even my life. I think about it regularly, even dream about it. Nothing I write here will adequately convey the richness, the gastronomic ecstasy that this fundamentally simple dish provides. But I’ll try. The adventure starts by ordering how you want the duck presented. Your options are duck served in one, two or three ways. Option one is the classic serving of the tasty duck, option two involves mixing the meat with scallions and soy sauce and serving it over rice and the third way is making a soup from the stock. Keep in mind, it’s not one or the other, if you order it three ways, you get all three ways. The classic is of course the best and more than enough food for several people. The duck is first presented to the table in all of its roasted goodness before the skin is served to the salivating diners. The proper procedure is to wrap pieces of the skin along with scallions and hoisin sauce in a small crepe. This simple layering of flavors quickly became one of my favorite meals I’ve ever had.
2. Xiao Long Bao or Soup Dumplings – If you think you’ve had dim sum before, you haven’t. Not until you’ve eaten at what is called the best dumpling house in the world, Din Tai Fung. They have dozens of locations around Taiwan and the world, and the line at the flagship restaurant can sometimes snake for two hours. But from my own experience I can verify that it’s well worth the wait. A meal at Din Tai Fung is a process, a symphony of tastes that starts out slowly until the loud climax with the soup dumplings themselves. Plates upon plates of small snacks, appetizers for the table to share covered every inch of space before the first dumpling was even introduced. You have to visit this restaurant hungry as to waste even a small bite is a cardinal sin. Known in English as soup dumplings, that actually isn’t the best description for Xiao Long Bao. These tasty bundles of dough are meticulously filled with a variety of meat options, folded and then steamed to perfection. The filling though is really meat aspic, which means when heated hot soup magically appears within the bun itself. The result is culinary perfection and a meal that begs for repetition.
3. Box lunch – This was a complete surprise and I’m so lucky that we decided to stop here to eat while driving around Chishang in the south of Taiwan. The Taiwanese box lunch was originally inspired by the Japanese bento box. Japan occupied Taiwan in the early 20th century, and their influence is still pronounced culturally. The Taiwanese gradually adapted the bento box over time to their own tastes and the resulting lunch, served usually on trains, is today one of the most popular meals around. At the Wu Tao Lunch Box Restaurant in Chishang you can enjoy your choice of lunch box served in a vintage train. The boxes all include your choice of meat along with the standard sides of rice, sweet sausage, boiled egg, and sprouts, all for around US $2.50. The meal is simple but hearty, just as it’s always been but more importantly, it’s delicious. The combination of sitting in the old train car and eating a yummy lunch with hundreds of locals was one of my favorite food experiences in Taiwan and one that I recommend to every visitor.
4. Fresh ingredients – All of this great food couldn’t be made without access to delicious and fresh ingredients. I saw it at every meal when dozens of small plates featuring locally grown, sometimes in the restaurant’s back yard, vegetables made the rounds. I especially saw it in the variety of fresh fruit found everywhere, from roadside shacks to the vibrant markets of Taipei. Two ways I loved the fresh fruits were in refreshing snacks, mango shaved ice and winter melon tea. The shaved ice was unlike anything I’d every had, the ice itself is mixed with condensed milk for a creamy texture before heaps, and I mean heaps, of freshly sliced mango are added to the top. The gargantuan size is more appropriate for a group than just one person, and on a hot day there’s no better way to feel refreshed. Unless, that is, you enjoy a winter melon tea. In Tainan, Taiwan, the Two Cents Cafe is one of the last places in town still serving up this traditional drink. Made from freshly diced winter melon and honey, the resulting drink is addictively good.
5. Street food – Night markets and other small street food restaurants are one of the best parts of traveling around Asia and Taiwan is no exception. From the big cities of Taipei and Tainan to small towns and villages, a robust tradition of fresh and cheap food abounds. At the night markets you can find a little bit of everything, including traditional (and gross) stinky tofu to the more palatable hunks of roasted meats. I prefer something a little more low key though, instead opting for a street side shack serving up fast and tasty meals for lunch or dinner. You have to be organized before you start, know exactly what you want, order it quickly and stand out of the way. But the Soup Nazi protocol is worth the hassle, as the resulting meals will be some of the best you’ll enjoy in Taiwan.
These are a few reasons why I think Taiwan may be the best foodie destination in the world. Of course I’m always traveling and always reconsidering my opinions, but right now this is one of the few places where I’d return just for the food.