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Asia has a lot of things going for it, but one of the biggest draws is the cuisine. Most foodies have indulged on Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and maybe even Korean and/or Vietnamese if you’re an adventurous eater, but a large majority of people haven’t had the joy of tasting Taiwanese.
A variation on Chinese, a number of signature dishes can be found around Taiwan that includes savory soup dumplings, succulent seafood, street meats, and bubbly milk tea, among other delicacies. Some of my favorite finds included hard-boiled tea eggs, tempura tea leaves, and braised kelp. With lazy susans a common table centerpiece, you could (and should!) make every meal into a glorious, gluttonous feast.
Here are a few must-have eating experiences to seek out in Taiwan:
Soup Dumplings: Taiwan’s Most Famous Export
I ate so many soup dumplings in Taiwan I started to feel like I was turning into one. You know, kind of like Violet Beauregarde turned into a giant blueberry in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You can find soup dumplings at any mom and pop shop on just about every street corner, but the mecca is Din Tai Fung. You may have eaten here before as the restaurant has outposts around the world and quite a few locations in the U.S., but make no mistake, it’s a Taiwanese staple.
Bourdain called it, “A deeply religious experience” and CNN actually named it the second best chain in the world. In Taiwan, you can dine at the flagship location, or the biggest location in Taipei 101 where can actually see them making the little bites of heaven. Wait staff will teach you proper technique to consume soup dumplings (it’s an art) and the correct sauce procedure, which involves soaking fresh ginger in a very particular ratio of one part soy sauce to three parts rice vinegar. To eat, simply poke a hole with your chopsticks, let the soup flow out onto your spoon, drink the liquid, and swallow the dumpling whole topped with fresh ginger.
Medicinal Tribal Cuisine
There are 16 different aboriginal tribes in Taiwan spread across all corners of the country. This means that almost 25% of Taiwan’s population is indigenous, making for a truly unique mish-mashing of culture and cuisine. There are soups full of herbs and spices thought to have medicinal properties, meats prepared in traditional ways (in the mountains this means sans electricity), and fresh farm-grown vegetables. Whether the food truly has healing capabilities depends on your perspective of Chinese medicine, but at the very least I can promise it is good for the soul.
Anything Cute and Instagrammable
Taiwan’s attention to detail is simply insane and it appears there were certain restaurants founded to photograph their cuisine as much as to savor it. Buono Pops in Kaohsiung offers adorably Instagrammable ice cream, gelato, and macrons with mermaids, teddy bears, and other creative and colorful toppings.
Ice churros in Hualien is another pretty dessert stop, as two churros together form a heart you can top with ice cream and mochi. Their store actually has a flowery step and repeat setup specifically for pictures (clearly, they know their audience). For a more filling photo opp, Sanhoyan in Taipei is a dim sum restaurant that offers steamed buns in the shape of pandas and other cuddly creatures.
Much like Japan, Taiwan loves a good themed restaurant – and as kitschy as they can be, as do I. Modern Toilet in Taipei is well known for its toilet décor, drinks in urinals, and food served in a toilet bowl. The chocolate ice cream looks surprisingly shitty as does the curry. The food genuinely tastes pretty terrible, which may be part of the running joke, but it’s hard to miss this once-in-a-lifetime photo opp so let the toilet humor flow (sorry, I had to).
There are many Hello Kitty eateries from bakeries to diners, but we went with the Hello Kitty Shabu Shabu, which was surprisingly tasty. Translating to “swish-swish” in Japanese, shabu shabu is a version of hot pot where you select a protein and cook your meat and/or seafood in a bubbling flavored broth on the table. Absolutely everything is Hello Kitty’d out from the bow-shaped chair backs to the tofu imprints. Don’t miss the colorful cocktails with popsicles in them that also feature Hello Kitty’s signature bow.
Taiwan and China were two of the first countries to smoke their teas in order to bring out the flavor, and Taiwan takes their traditional and methodical tea preparation techniques very seriously. A huge source of national pride, you can explore Taiwan’s tea culture in the Mekong region, either by driving up or riding the gondola. The area is overflowing with teahouses, albeit the more authentic experiences and plantations are a bit further up the mountain. You’ll learn that the level of fermentation and temperature determines the tea’s color and flavor. Green is fresher and has more caffeine, while black is more aged, and oolong and red are in the middle.
Tea is like wine in Taiwan with different brands and styles signifying different levels of quality. You can attend a traditional tea ceremony in the Shiding neighborhood, where you’ll learn the proper way to prepare and consume a cup. Start by warming up your drinking vessel, observing the leaves, and smelling the aroma. You want to absorb the tea’s essence before sipping just as you would with a good vino.
Taiwan has over 100 night markets in every corner of the country, which is a great way to taste the local delicacies cheaply. What you try largely depends on how adventurous of an eater you are and how much you can stomach, but a few things to seek out include red bean wheel cake, fresh fruit juice or milk tea, stinky tofu, mango shaved ice, mochi cubes, barbecue corn, pineapple cake, grilled squid (actually grilled anything), and salty bags of snails. Many of the vendors offer free sake or alcohol tastings so if you need to wash something down, there’s no shortage of places to do so.
The Epic Breakfast Buffet
The hotels we stayed at in Taipei proved breakfast is in indeed the most important meal of the day. In fact, they offered the most insane buffets I’ve seen outside of Las Vegas. Everything from light bites like eggs to congee, to steamed buns, noodles, and hearty rice dishes were present, along with separate tables for salads, fruits, and pastry stations. You never entirely know what you’re going to find on the mysterious breakfast buffet (as most change daily), but some of the more intriguing options included spaghetti and braised pork. Two to try are the Westgate and Sonnien Hotels, both centrally located right off the metro.
The Signature Dish
If I had to name one signature dish in Taiwan it would have to be braised beef noodle soup. You can make it as spicy as your mouth can handle with a variety of chile sauces for flavor. If we’re being completely honest, I thought the broth was a bit too oily and the beef a bit too fatty for my taste, but it definitely depends on where you get it as everywhere prepares it a little bit differently. Regardless, it’s worth trying and a coveted local delicacy.
Special thanks to the Westgate and Sonnien Hotels for hosting me.
Looking for recommendations on things to do in Taipei? Check out this post.
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