Taiwanese cuisine naturally draws a lot of influence from traditional Chinese food – particularly the middle and southern provinces of the mainland – but also from the native culture and the Japanese influences introduced to the island during the 50 years of Japanese rule. The result is a collection of unique flavours, unusual concoctions and creative inventions.
Many of the dishes in our list of the Top 10 Local Food in Taipei are actually incredibly simple. They involve very few ingredients and are quick and easy to prepare, though some of those ingredients are a little unusual. In spite of this, several of them are very highly thought of and have, in some cases, formed the backbone of international brands spreading right across Southeast Asia and the world. Most of them can be found for as little as NT$50 or 60 (about US$2), although gourmet versions can be as much as NT$10,000 (US$320).
Xiao Long Bao
The signature dish of the renowned Din Tai Fung restaurant chain, these bite-sized dumplings have paper-thin wrappings around tender pork meatballs in a rich hot broth. Despite its simplicity, it is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike for its great flavour and has carried the Taipei-based restaurant to international acclaim. You can’t really say you’ve visited Taiwan without having tried one - just be careful not to eat them too quickly. Give the soup some time to cool or you might get a scalding surprise!
Beef Noodle Soup
Beef Noodle Soup (or “New Rou Mian”) is so popular in Taipei that it has a festival in its honour every year! As a result, the range of places selling this tasty dish is very broad, which each claiming to be the best. The meal itself is very simple – thick-cut wheat or flour noodles with tender cuts of beef in a tick beef broth. In the original version, there are no herbs or spices added – just a few bits of cabbage for a bit of extra taste and texture – which makes it practically unique among Chinese food. Many of the street stalls selling this hearty dish add a dollop of chili butter to spice things up.
Braised Pork on Rice
Another dish which is extremely common and popular around Taipei (though it doesn’t have a festival) is Lurou Fan. Like many of the most popular food in Taipei, it is remarkably simple, but very tasty, consisting of finely-chopped pork belly which has been slow-cooked in soy sauce and Chinese five spice. This is spooned on top of rice, which soaks up all the fat and the flavourful sauce, making a really mouth-watering comfort food, with a slightly sweet and salty flavour. As simple as this may seem, the debate about whether it originated from Shandong Province in mainland China or from Taipei is one which even the city government is involved in.
A very gooey, chewy snack which is commonly found in Taipei’s night markets, the oyster omelette is particularly popular among tourists visiting the city. The primary ingredient is the small oysters found around Taiwan’s coastline. They are folded into an omelette made with a dose of sweet potato starch added, making it thicker and chewier than normal. It is usually served with a savoury sauce, sometimes with an added kick of chili to spice up the snack.
Gua Bao is sometimes described as Taiwan’s answer to the American hamburger and, indeed, the popular market snack is very similar. The sesame seed-covered bap is swapped for a steamed bun and the beef patty is replaced with braised pork belly, pickled Chinese cabbage and powdered peanuts. The flavour is a lot more diverse, as a result, including salty, sour and sweet notes. You still get the satisfying sensation of grease running down your chin, though. Just like a hamburger, Gua Bao is a real diet-breaker!
An excellent souvenir to take home to your friends and family (assuming that you can resist the temptation to eat them all before you get there), these sweet, fruity delights are made from the fresh pineapples of the Bagua Mountains in Taiwan. They’re turned into a rich jam filling, which is presented in a slightly buttery pastry to create these moreish little cuboid cakes. The best of these are the gourmet offerings of Sunny Hills and are appropriately named “Sunny Delights”.
Stinky Tofu is something of a Marmite-like Taiwanese snack; you either love it or hate it, and the strength of your sense of smell will probably have a lot to do with which. It consists of a deep-fried cube of bean curd which has fermented in a vegetable, shellfish, milk or meat brine. It is served coated in a sweet and spicy sauce and offers a tasty mix of textures, from the crispy casing to the soft filling. Popular with tourists as a dare and with locals as a snack, Stinky Tofu can be very easily found in most of the Taipei night markets – just follow your nose!
Pig’s Blood Cake
A Taiwanese variant of the European ‘blood pudding’, this is exactly what it sounds like. To be precise, it is a glutinous mix of pig’s blood and sticky rice which is steamed and then coated in a layer of peanut powder. It is served like a lollipop and is a favourite snack for those walking around Taipei’s night markets. If you are not too squeamish to try it, you’ll find it to be a chewy treat with a salty, spicy and sweet flavour.
Mango Shaved Ice
A perfect treat for those hot and sticky summer days in Taipei, Chinese shaved ice is an adaptation of the Philippines’ halo-halo. Baobing, as it is known locally, uses fruit (mango is a favourite, but strawberry and melon are common, too) mixed with ice and condensed milk to create a popular thirst-quenching dessert. Baobing is sometimes also called a shaved ice mountain due to the huge servings which, with milk and fruit juices and melting ice streaming down the sides, makes it look more like an erupting volcano!
Chicken’s Feet is not a fanciful description – it is exactly what it sounds like. Remarkably, this slightly gelatinous and fatty treat is so popular and common in Taipei that it is even sold in the cinemas as an alternative to popcorn! They can be a little fiddly to eat and there is not much meat on each foot, but they are available in a choice of preparations (just like popcorn is) and make an interesting, novel and tasty snack.