Our aim in this post was to give folks an idea of what the most common foods are, but as we sifted through the photos we realised this wasn't so easy, Taiwan has so much dang food. We ate five meals a day (plus snacks) every day for three weeks in and never came close to trying (and retrying) everything we wanted.
So here's our primer on Taiwanese street food, subjective and clouded by memory, preference and circumstance. Apologies in advance.
Taiwan is a mix of modern and ye olde China. There's sprawling cities, temples, fast trains, scooters, shopping malls, wet markets, tops old aunties, mysterious Chinese shops, fashionistas, bike lanes, national parks, factoryscapes, public art, free wifi and kind strangers who stop and ask us if we need help. Taiwan is China without the great leap backwards, richer with a touch of South-East Asia's smile and Japan's manners. Well that's what we saw anyway, your Taiwan could be completely different.
To us, Taiwan means street food. Other developed countries have kicked their hawkers off the streets and into food courts, many others want to. In Taiwan street food thrives.
Taiwanese food is pretty much anything you can think of, with influences from all over China, particularly Southern China, and with sprinkles of flavour from neighbouring Japan, South East Asia and the west.
Night markets flourish in Taiwan but flounder elsewhere in much of Asia. There are huge 'destination' night markets in all the big cities...
...as well as countless smaller neighbourhood markets catering to locals and commuters. These were our favourites.
The thing we remember most about the street food of Taiwan is smiling hawkers with a a large pot full of mysterious liquidy brown stuff. There were many varieties of brown stuff. We called it 'goop'. Or 'vomit' for the scarier looking stuff. No offence intended Taiwan, it's just traveller's shorthand.
The goop we tried was spectacularly good, though it looked spectacularly bad in the pot. We wish we had more time and more nerve to try more goop.
Our favourite goop is pictured above, it's a thick soup of thin noodles, so gloopy it's eaten with a spoon rather than chopsticks. This version above came with offal but you can also get it with oysters. We remember it being fairly plain but with a delicate vinegar splash to it. Wonderful stuff. Here's more on this dish by somebody who actually knows what they're talking about, we think: http://easyeatintaiwan.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/oyster-thin-noodle.html
We've found this thin noodle soup in Sydney but it's not quite the same, though the version at Taiwan Ganbei gives the general gist of this dish. We tried the Shihlin Street Snacks version twice, it was pretty average both times, though Chocolate Suze reckons this Australian version is just like the Malaysian version of the Taiwanese version of this dish, which originally came from China.
After gloop, our second most visceral memory of Taiwanese street is 'stuff': street stalls with a display of meat and veg ready to go, chopped up or skewered on sticks, fresh or pre-cooked. And lots of offal. You don't have to enjoy offal to enjoy Taiwan, but it certainly helps.
For the foreigner it's a guessing game as to what is chopped up and how it is going to be cooked. It could be deep fried, grilled, oden'd, or even teppaniki'd. You need to take a peek at the cooking apparatus to see what what's going on.
In the picture above the goodies are simply served fresh: pick your meat'n'veg and it's shake-a-shaked in plastic bag with dressing and your choice of spices.
A surprise hit for us was stinky tofu. We'd had stinky tofu in China and dry retched, man, it was funky. In Taiwan however we fell in love with the stuff, probably because we ate the deep fried version. Deep frying takes the edge off the mouldy flavours, which give a salty base note and extra substance to the tofu. The skin of the tofu crisps up in the deep fryer and has a wonderful crunch to it. It is often served with sweet pickled vegetables which are an excellent counter.
We'd love to know if there's a crunchy fried stinky tofu served anywhere in Sydney. They served it at Dumpling King in the Sussex Centre Food Court, but the tofu wasn't so stinky, and the stall is not so open anymore.
Beef noodle soup is another famous Taiwanese dish. A sweet-ish, dark, beefy broth that's given a tang with pickled veggies. We tried a few of these and they varied a little in style, some had a lovely subtle beefy flavour that was almost like pho. Others went more for the pickled veggies and five spice flavours.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup is one of our all time faves, fortunately you can find some very good ones in Sydney, all varying a little in style. Sunflower Taiwanese Gourmet in Ultimo\Broadway is our current favourite. We're also big on the beef soup at Taiwan Ganbei does a humdinger and Noodles Your Way in World Square was our go-to for a while. We're yet to try it at Taipei Chef, but we're confident it would be a cracker.
Another favourite is big sausage little sausage, a pork sausage served in a bun of sticky rice. So simple yet it works so well. Often found in night markets.
We think this is served in the little Taiwanese street food stall that is downstairs at the Number 1 Dixon Shopping Centre in Sydney's Chinatown. We'll get there soon...
Stewed pork on rice is uber popular, often available on it's own or as a side dish. Sometimes we'd ask for rice and the pork on top would be a pleasant surprise. Often there's just a scraping of meat, the magic happens when the rice soaks up the sauce. You can get this at pretty much any Taiwanese joint in Sydney.
This clam soup we came across often. A simple clear soup that tastes of the sea. Love it. Sydney folks can find this at Taiwan Ganbei, at the time of writing anyway.
We saw loads of oden stands in Taipei. Choose your own fishcakes, veggies, tofu, boiled eggs etc and a nice lady like this one will dunk it in a sweet simmering broth for you. Oden is a good, cheap, flavourful filler.And it's almost healthy if you skip the fried goodies. Every Seven Eleven has an oden pot, it's bloody good too, picture above.
Sydney folks can get an oden fix at Oden House in Chinatown.
The bainmarie of love lives strong in Taiwan. Pick'n'mix economy rice joints thrive all over, ranging from little mum'n'pop lunchtime joints to big lavish twenty four hour numbers.
These places are a great way to sample a whole bunch of dishes at little cost, and it's probably the closest you will find to homestyle food. Hit them when the food is fresh and they are fantastic. Some of them look a bit sad at the end of the day though.
Sydney folks have a couple of beauties for this kind of food: Taste of Cho in Market City is crazy popular and Noodles Your Way in World Square has great bainmarie goodness, it's always fresh thanks to steady turnover. Cho Dumpling King is the pick for killer side dishes.
Dumpling, bun and wonton lovers are well looked after in Taiwan. The panfried dumplings, or potstickers were a favourite: with crunchy buttocks and fresh, generous fillings.
Mr Shawn's favourite breakfast is fairly easy to find, often made by tops aunties right on the street in the mornings. Sticky rice is rolled up with a crunchy fried bread stick, fresh tangy pickled vegetables, omelette and meat floss.
The result is a textural masterpiece: light, airy, tangy, crunchy, dry, moist and stodgey all the same time.
Sydney folks can get fan tuan from Mother Chu's Taiwanese Gourmet in the Dixon Street Mall, alas they're nowhere near as good as the ones we had in Taiwan.
Miss Chicken's favourite Taiwanese breakfast is savoury soy milk: fresh hot soy milk curdled with a splash of vinegar, best with a dash of chili oil.
Mother Chu's Taiwanese Gourmet in the Dixon Street Mall does a good version of this, highly recommended.
Oyster pancake was a dish we tried in Sydney at the long gone, sadly missed Taiwan Yes. It was fairly close to horrible truth be told. But we had a couple of these in Taiwan and they were great. Simply an oyster omelette drizzled in a sweet sauce. The magic is in the sauce, it's kind of like a not-so sweet'n'sour sauce, and it varies from joint to joint. When it's done right this dish is way way better than it sounds.
Simple stodgey savoury flat breads are popular for breakfast. We go for one with egg.
These breakky-bread/pastry things are best washed down with some soy milk.
Sydney folks get a good version of this at Mother Chu's Taiwanese Gourmet in the Dixon Street Mall.
Taiwan loves a bit of western food. You can get a reasonable sandwich if you hunt around, and there's some local run chain burger joints in the cities. At markets there are some interesting twists on western food: deep fried sandwiches, pepper steak and noodles, we even found an Aussie meat pie stand. Plus there's the usual fast food giants in central city areas. The locals do a mean fried chicken as well.
No train journey is complete without a bento box - rice topped with various goodies.
It is difficult to describe just how massively popular bubble tea is in Taiwan. They invented the stuff after all. We tried one but it was hellishly sweet. We were told that we can request less sugar, if we could speak Chinese... It's shame because we saw some amazing flavours.
Japanese ramen is also hugely popular. We tried one, unfortunately the wrong one, staffed by bored giggily kids. In Taipei we stumbled across a couple of very promising looking ramen joints, complete with queues of folks waiting outside.
Like the rest of the world, sushi is way easier to find that in is in Japan. There are some pretty good looking sushi trains in the big cities, though the night market sushi stalls looked scarily unrefrigerated.
Taiwan is unique in that it's the only country we've ever been too and hated the beer. 'Taiwan Beer' is the main brew, and it's as bland as it sounds. Fortunately Japanese beer and Heinekin is readily available. Sparkling Chardonnay became a popular beer alternative, it's West Coast Cooler for grownups, semi-grownups.
We were very, very, very lucky to stumble across a rare variety of it called 18 Day Beer, it is supposed to be drunk with in eighteen days of bottling, or something like that. We only found it one place in the whole country, but it was sensational.
Speaking of responsible service of alcohol, Taiwan has Hello Kitty booze. It's mid-strength but the kiddies will love it's sugary, fruity flavours. All we need is Hello Kitty cigarettes.
Another of our Taiwan obsessions is piggy blood rice cake. If that sounds bad don't worry, it's not a big offal flavour, in fact there's not a big flavour at all, but the texture is great and they can be cooked any which way - stir fried, oden'd, grilled on sticks, whatever.
Taiwan Ganbei in the Dixon Street mall does some great blood cake dishes.
For our coffee hits we found it best to drink it black and the best deal was Seven Eleven or Family Mart. It's pulled from an auto-espresso machine and costs a buck or so. Kudos to Taiwan's Seven Eleven staff, those folks work so hard and give such pleasant, cheerful service, every single time.
This was supposed to be a short post. We'll shut up now.
We love Taiwan!