If I had a dollar for every time I mentioned having family in Taiwan and someone said, “Oh, I love Thai food!” …I would have a lot of dollars. My travels haven’t taken me to Thailand yet, but from what I gather, the two countries have very little in common. They are, however, both warmer than the States and really far from the States. The 24-hour+ travel time is justifiable for not only the obvious joy of seeing extended family and far-away friends, but all the food I don’t get to have in the States! All for a mind-boggling small amount of money (the food, not the plane ticket)…
Some of these dishes are so common/every-day that I don’t even think to take photos of them beyond the obligatory Snapchat. If you find yourself on the other side of the world and have no idea where to start, here’s my list of foods I think no trip to Taiwan is complete without. Let it be known that I have zero shame about the fact that nearly everything on here is carbs, fried, or fried carbs 🙂
1. Beef noodle soup (牛肉麵)
niou rou mian: The national dish of Taiwan – braised beef, thick noodles, and veggies in flavorful broth that has been simmered for hours. This quintessential comfort food has no single component more important than the others; the broth must be light but flavorful, the beef should fall apart in your mouth, and the noodles perfectly chewy (or “qq”, as the Taiwanese say.) You can literally get this anywhere in Taiwan. Just ask a local where their favorite niu rou mian is – and don’t be surprised if they point you to a family-run hole in the wall with plastic stools and no air conditioning, or a stall at the market where they only serve it in takeaway containers.
I’ll throw in another noodle soup variation because if I could have one food for the rest of my life, it would be noodles! These egg noodles are called yi mian (伊麵 ), served with ground beef and an egg braised in soy sauce. My grandparents’ hometown of Nantou is known for this dish! In case you’re wondering, as long as you can recognize the character for noodle (麵) on a menu, you’ll do just fine in Taiwan.
2. Bubble tea (波霸奶茶)
boba nai cha: While the concept is now highly Westernized, lending itself to crazy slushy flavors and fruity add-ins, the original Taiwanese drink is strong black tea with milk and tapoica pearls (aka bubbles, aka boba). The pearls are chewy – again with that “qq” texture – and somewhat of an acquired taste. I’m really more of a fan of the tea than the bubbles, so I like to also get mine with red bean to sweeten the tea instead of bubbles.
3. Triangle rice balls (onigiri)
fan tuan // onigiri (Japanese): In Taiwan, 7-11s are on every corner and serve as a one-stop shop for everything from train tickets to photocopies to phone plans… and my favorite grab-and-go lunch/snack. Literally translated to “rice ball” even though it’s triangular, onigiri is essentially the same idea as a sushi burrito or maki roll originally Japanese (the Japanese occupation of Taiwan had a huge influence on Taiwanese culture). The fillings are cooked, instead of raw – tuna, teriyaki chicken, braised beef, etc. Stop in early for the best flavor selection, because they can sell out quickly! Check out this handy guide to unwrapping onigiri because… leave it to the Japanese to incorporate origami into their food wrappers 🙂
4. food stall/night market FAVORITES
Totally cheating here to fit multiple foods, but my favorite night market staples:
- Taiwanese popcorn chicken (鹽酥雞 // yan shu ji)
These crunchy bites of chicken, tossed in fragrant “five spice powder” and fried with basil leaves, are starting to make their way into bubble tea shops around the US, but only for 5x the cost!
- Deep fried yam balls (地瓜球 // di gua qiu)
Di gua qiu resemble yellow (and sometimes purple) donut holes, and they’re just as bad for you (if not worse). They are served piping hot in little paper bags or on a stick, and are kind of comparable to hushpuppies on the outside and mochi on the inside (just lightly sweet).
- Taiwanese sausage (香腸 // xiang chang)
You may notice a pattern of street foods (xiao chi) being served on a stick, and Taiwanese sausage is no exception. The links are usually on the small side, and either on a skewer whole or cut into thin slices at a diagonal angle. In this photo it’s served over rice, another one of my guilty pleasures. The Taiwanese palette tends to favor the sweet-and-salty combination, with a lot of marinades using brown sugar. This sausage is no exception, with a slightly sweet flavor that distinguishes it from other traditionally spicy or smoky flavored sausages.
5. tropical fruits
Being a subtropical climate, Taiwan’s fruit game is very strong. Depending on the season, you can find mangoes the size of papayas, lychees, dragonfruit, pink and white guava, starfruit, and my all-time favorite: “wax apple”.
蓮霧 // lian wu: “Waxed apples” – don’t ask me how that translation came about, that’s not what the words mean literally – look kind of like a cross between a bell pepper, an apple, and a pear. The flesh is light and juicy, not very sweet, with a very thin skin. The closest thing I could compare the texture to is like biting into a cross between a watermelon and an Asian pear. If there’s one tropical fruit you try in Taiwan, it has to be lian wu. You can buy it at a farmer’s market, the grocery store, or on the street pre-cut (and yes, sometimes on a stick.)
6. Soup dumplings (小籠包)
xiao long bao: Dumpling empire Din Tai Fung is the holy grail of soup dumplings (minced pork wrapped in paper-thin dough, steamed in bamboo baskets yielding a mouthful of savory broth when you bite into each dumpling). The dish (and the restaurant) is well-known by Westerners in part thanks to Anthony Bourdain’s Taipei episode of The Layover, in which he describes XLB as a “deeply religious experience.” He’s not wrong! The Taiwanese restaurant has expanded around the world, but the location closest to me is Seattle…(not helpful). If you’re new to the XLB experience, checkout Migrationlogy’s guide on how to eat soup dumplings so you don’t scald your mouth or drip soup down your chin!
P.S. I’m also obsessed with Din Tai Fung’s pickled cucumbers mentioned in the Migrationology guide
7. TaiwAnese gnocchi (麵疙瘩)
mian ge da: lesser known than anything else on this list, these dumpling knots are a cross between noodle and dumpling with no filling. The dish can be tough to find in restaurants because of its origin as scrappy food, if you will (during wartime, rice wasn’t as available as wheat flour).
8a. scallion pancake (蔥油餅)
cong you bing: Every country has its variations of fried dough, and I usually don’t discriminate. These savory pan-friend “scallion pancakes” are probably #1 in my book; I grew up on this, even in the States because you can find it frozen in Asian grocery stores. With an egg rolled inside, as my mom always makes it, cong you bing is similar to its thinner counterpart dan bing. The folding and rolling process of cong you bing makes the pan-fried dough flaky, kind of like laminating the dough for croissants.
8b. Taiwanese egg crepe (蛋餅)
dan bing (literally: egg biscuit”) – not to be confused with its fluffier big sister, da bing (literally: “big biscuit”). Dan bing is made with more of a crepe-like batter than dough, and rolled up with egg and scallions. Traditionally, it’s served for breakfast with a thick soy sauce for dipping, alongside soy milk and other savory carbs.
9. Bakery finds:
- egg tart (蛋撻 // dan ta)
Egg custard tarts are a walk down memory lane, from my family’s regular trips to the Chinese bakery as a kid. I have a distinct memory of not being able to see over the counter when we went up to the register with our trays to pay after picking out our various breads and pastries. Imagine my surprise when I found out the Portuguese boast a very similar pastry, pastéis de nata… As if I needed another reason for Portugal to be at the top of my European travel bucket list!
Fun fact: they sell these at KFC In Taiwan (and they’re pretty good)!
- pineapple cake (鳳梨酥 // feng li su)
Once upon a time, my sister brought a strawberry-flavored version of this dessert to share with friends at school. “It’s pineapple cake! But… not pineapple, and not cake,” she said. You see, her little sister was not yet a food blogger who could articulate pineapple cake as “shortbread encased with thick pineapple jam” – lest anyone get confused with images of pineapple upside-down cake. You can find lots of flavor variations, but classic pineapple is the way to go. And if you don’t like pineapple, me neither! But, I promise they don’t taste like what you think of when you imagine pineapple desserts!
Pineapple cakes in nice gift boxes are hands down the most well-known souvenir that people bring back from Taiwan, even though they’re sold at some US Costcos now. The flavor and texture can vary quite drastically from bakery to bakery, but my favorite (and most would agree) is easily Chia Te in Taipei. The line to get into the bakery is usually out the door, but it moves fair quickly as they have a good system in place to accommodate the crowds buying pastries in bulk as gifts.
- sun cake (太陽餅 // tai yang bing)
Originating from Taichung, Taiwan, these are another typical souvenir gift, lesser known than pineapple cake but just as yummy. The texture is like a mini hand pie with the flaky crust and a creamy condensed sugar filling. The shelf life is short on these, so I’d recommend just trying this for yourself and sticking with pineapple cakes for your friends 🙂
10. matcha everything
Last but not least, another nod to the Japanese culinary influence in Taiwan is the ominpresence of matcha desserts. I’ve always loved the light, slightly grassy flavor of powdered green tea and I am not mad about how trendy it is to put matcha in everything these days! In Taiwan, grocery stores (and 7-11s) carry matcha flavored Kit Kats, biscuits, Pocky, chocolate, Oreos, wafers, donuts (ugh I forgot to include Mister Donut’spon de ring mochi donuts)… The real matcha desserts near and dear to my heart are ice cream and swiss rolls with red bean, pictured above. You really can’t go wrong with that flavor combination!
If you made it all the way to the end, thanks for sticking with me! I had a really hard time writing this post because I would get hungry every time I opened up the draft and have to go find a snack… if you are lucky enough to be in Taiwan or have an upcoming trip, stuff your face and tag me in your pics @forks_intheroad!
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