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.
6 thoughts on “The Best Foodie Destination in the World? Taiwan in 5 Bites”
Thanks for this great article : I’d never thought of going to Taiwan for a foodie escape ! (more into Thailand, I guess…) – I totally agree with you on the Peking duck. Eating the skin with a crepe and fresh vegetables is actually amazing !
Not many outside of the region know about Taiwan and its food, but it’s true. Tourists from nearby countries visit JUST for the food sometimes. :)
Glad to hear that you enjoy the food so much in Taiwan. My wife introduced me to Taiwanese food a dozen or so years ago and no one believes me when I tell them how good it is. I’ve even developed a taste for stinky tofu (which actually took a while – it smells like feet!). It is pretty amazing the many different amazing foods that Taiwan produces. My favorite is the beef noodle soup. If you did not get a chance to try it, be sure to put it on the list for next time. Great article!
Oh I had my fair share of beef noodle soup; that would be a great addition to this list actually. Thank you!
Taiwan is truly a foodie heaven. Ok, one of the foodies heavens (to be fair). :-)
What I like about the food there in general is the variety (so many dif. cuisines from all nations in the world, not fusion but true to taste and cooking method) and the wide range of price level (from pocket change to tens of thousands).
Japan, Korea, and many south east Asian countries have great food but mostly they only excel at their own national cuisine. China I have a hard time trusting the cleanliness (even in a 5-star hotel restaurant) and authenticity of ingredients (too many news about fake ingredients scare me). Hong Kong doesn’t have a vibrant night market and street food scene (a big part for foodie if you ask me)even if it has a wide array of international cuisines to choose from.
I am planning a 2-week visit in November this year. My goal is to lose 10lb so that I can eat without guilt. :-)
OMG…drooling here. I lived in Taiwan on various occasions in the mid-80s and early 90s (my writing career started there, strangely enough, in a major international advertising agency), when it was still quite difficult to travel in Mainland China. So, those of us with a penchant for things Chinese, like wanting to learn Mandarin, went to Taiwan.
I fell in love with the place, and have never quite gotten over that affair. Much of it had to do with the food. I have eaten some of the best meals of my life in Taiwan, and much of it on a budget. Some of the very best food is in the night markets.
But my all time fave is dim sum-ish place called the Golden Chicken Garden (金雞園) in Taipei. Taiwan isn’t famous for dim sum, but this place makes some of the best on earth, albeit with their own style. Among the yummiest things I’ve ever tasted is something called a Xian Rou Da Bao (鮮 肉大包), which is similar to a European sausage roll (wonderfully flaky crust!). They also have some of the most amazing pork and shrimp shao mai dumplings I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten a lot). For dessert, their little black sesame cakes (芝麻 酥 餅) are shockingly good. I hauled a bunch of them home to Canada and friends were delighted. Details: No. 28, 1, Yong Kang Street, Taipei (台北, 永康街28之1號, 金雞園)
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