26th June 2017 | by Guest author
Until recently, Taiwanese food has received very little attention in the UK. However, Taiwan’s street-food scene is one of the best in the world, and since the famed Din Tai Fung specialist dumpling restaurants in Taipei received a Michelin star and went international, Taiwanese delicious cuisine has been all over the press. From bubble tea to gua bao (soft steamed buns filled with stewed pork belly), its delicacies have become increasingly popular in the UK, and several Taiwanese restaurants have opened-up both in London, and throughout the country.
Taiwanese cuisine is diverse. The indigenous Formosan people, who have lived on the island since long before the arrival of the Han Chinese, have their own distinctive flavours, while the Japanese occupation influenced not only the island’s politics and economy, but also its food. So, there are various types of cuisine that you should savour when visiting Taiwan!
Taiwan’s street-food scene is arguably as rich and flavoursome as Thailand’s, which is saying something. The Taiwanese love to eat, and the best places to find local favourites are the ubiquitous night markets in every city in Taiwan. Some of the most famous night markets are Shilin and Raohe in Taipei, Tainan’s Huayuan and Dadong, and Ruifeng and Liuhe in Kaohsiung. The best way to get down with the locals is to find quick-fry hole-in-the-wall restaurants where each place only offers a handful of dishes, and if you are stuck on what to order, just ask the friendly locals.
What to eat at night markets?
Well, the Taiwanese love xiao chi or ‘small eats’, and will typically eat a selection of small dishes to make the most of the variety of food on offer. Favourites include Ba-Wan, a round dumpling filled with pork and shiitake mushroom, fried chicken, grilled octopus, fragrant sausages (now available with rolls made with sticky rice), Gua Bao, Cong You Bing which are pancakes with spring onion, and oyster omelette. The brave may wish to try Chou Dofu – fried stinky tofu served with vegetable pickle and soy sauce! Noodle fans should head to Yongkong Street to try some of the best beef noodles anywhere in Taiwan.
The many fishing villages and markets all around Taiwan supply fresh produce for restaurants, so you can find good seafood anywhere on the island. To experience authentic local flavours, head to 89 Seafood in Taipei, where diners can select their choice of seafood and how it is cooked – ask the locals for the best ways to have each type – we recommend fried with salt and pepper, or just go for a seafood hot pot and cook your own selection in a ready-made broth. Sushi, a culinary legacy left by the Japanese, is very popular. One of the best places to sample sushi is at Dong Gang Seafood Market, 40 minutes drive from Kaohsiung. Fresh off the boat, the sushi here rivals Japan’s.
Indigenous Formosan food
Integral to the Taiwanese food culture is its indigenous cuisine, and the foods eaten and methods of preparation are distinguishable from the more typical Chinese-influenced cuisine. There are 14 recognised indigenous tribes, and even within these tribes there are distinct culinary customs, leading to a rich variety of cuisines to enjoy! The unifying philosophy when it comes to indigenous cooking is ‘fresh is best’, therefore, most will only use seasonal and local produce.
Depending on where the tribes live on the island, many still follow the traditional way of life, which includes foraging and hunting for food. Those living inland tend to forage for mountain plants, fish for river shrimps and freshwater fish, and hunt wild dove, wild boar and mountain chicken. For those living on the coast, seafood and seaweed are staples. Roasting and barbecuing are popular methods of cooking, as well as steaming in bamboo tubes and plant leaves. A a must-try dish is stone-roast wild boar.
You can find many aboriginal restaurants all over the island, particularly in the Alishan National Park, Taitung and Hualien. Many indigenous families have turned to tourism to earn a living, opening traditional restaurants or guesthouses to give tourists a chance to learn about their traditional culture and enjoy their culinary heritage.
Taiwan’s Chinese culinary tradition is often associated with those of the southern provinces of China, such as Fujian’s Hokkien and Hakka cuisines, but those from other parts of China are also easily found on the island. In fact, Taiwan arguably boasts the most concentrated selection of Chinese regional cuisines in the world, with dishes from Shanghai, Beijing, Hunan, Sichuan, Guangxi, and Jiangxi found alongside Hokkien and Hakka foods.
Pork, seafood, rice, chicken and vegetable are very common ingredients, while beef is rarely used – some older Taiwanese even refrain from eating beef, even though beef noodles are considered to be one of Taiwan’s national dishes.
The Taiwanese have combined regional Chinese recipes with local produce and flavours to create their own distinct dishes – one of these is San Bei Ji or ‘Three Cups Chicken’, a dish of chicken braised in soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil, hence the name. The island’s sub-tropical location ensures an abundant supply of fresh vegetables, together with the Buddhist influence on the island, so many Taiwanese are vegetarian. Vegetarians need not worry when travelling through Taiwan!
Din Tai Fung
Din Tai Fung is a chain of specialist dumplings restaurants, and its humble story originated in Taipei. Founded in 1980 by Yang Bingyi after his cooking oil business floundered, Din Tai Fung is now Michelin-starred (the restaurant in Hong Kong) and has branches in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, USA, Hong Kong and Australia, with one set to open in London in late 2017. Even EVA Air serves Din Tai Fung’s dumplings in its business class! There are eight restaurants in Taipei alone - there are 21 locations in Singapore, but queues get very long due to the cult following, so it is best to arrive early.
You may wonder why a chain of dumpling restaurants is such a big deal and how it got a Michelin star. The answer is its delicious xiao long bao, steamed dumplings with various types of meat or seafood and clear soup encased in delicate wrappings. Other classics include steamed chilli crab, pork buns, and steamed chicken soup. Diners can witness the creation of these delicious dumplings by the chefs while they wait overlooking the restaurant’s open kitchen.
Ready to taste for yourself?
If you're planning a holiday in Taiwan, get in touch with our Taiwan Specialists for advice and more insider info.