A travelogue where I eat myself stupid while the locals gawp and stare
I could bore myself to tears writing about Taiwan – the landscapes, the cities and the people are, respectively, awe-inspiring, terrifying and fascinatingly peculiar. Taiwan’s food culture is a complex, wonderful thing with cuisines from all over mainland China crowded together on a single island and it deserves a far more in-depth exploration then the one I can give here based on my two week trip.
What follows is a whistlestop overview of the street markets and other random eateries that don’t need full stand-alone reviews of their own. A load of full restaurant reviews will follow soon.
The capital has more night markets then you can shake a panda at, but the biggest is Shilin. It attracts hordes of tourists due to its size, which means there are also quite a few price gougers congregated around the entrance nearest to Jiantan station. It’s therefore best to wander a little deeper into the market – average prices for a bite range from $NT20-60 so if someone is trying to charge more than this then they’re taking you for a ride.
I’m a big fan of squid and there’s some tender, grilled-to-order squid available marinated in a sweet, lightly salty sauce.
Kitchener displayed some uncharacteristic adventurousness by ordering some octopus balls topped with a creamy sauce and quivering tuna flakes. Lightly salty and chewy, the balls went down a treat.
There’s plenty for vegetarians to dig into. Templeton Peck and I managed to find a stand serving up mushroom tempura. This might sound terribly dull, but beneath the crisp, slightly oily coating are some tender, earthy shiitake mushrooms as well as some firm, silky enoki ‘shrooms. Naturally, Chip Butty refused to eat anything.
Of course, this much grilled and deep fried food combined with Taipei’s ridiculously humid weather requires some liquid refreshment. Just outside Shilin we found a branch of Al Tea’s (sic). A mixture of Heineken and iced tea sounds ridiculous, but it is very refreshing and tastes exactly as you’d expected according to Templeton Peck and Kitchener.
As a non-drinker I opted for some bubble tea instead if only because of the sheer variety – there are bubble teas in Taipei that are unheard of back home. Coconut and pineapple are some of my favourites if only because they actually taste like those fruits rather than a squirt of fruit-flavoured syrup.
Speaking of fruit, Taiwan has a dizzying variety of fruit from custard apples to lychees and even more that I couldn’t recognise, all fresh of course. A small, small sample can be seen here at this blog.
Shida night market near Daan Park is a lot smaller and has a more eclectic range of stands including, on the weekday night of my visit, fondue and burritos! The humidity dampened my appetite, but my sweet tooth demanded tribute. A take-out only branch of the Ijysheng bakery chain is a short stroll from the market and its shelves are fit to burst with piles upon piles of sweet things.
I opted for the mochi, a legacy of the Japanese colonial occupation. Some of the mochi available at Ijysheng are good examples of how mochi should be done – soft, mildly chewy skins filled with firm and squidgy sweet yuzu or plum jelly. The versions filled with a vaguely strawberry-flavoured cream were less pleasing – the muted flavour and wispy consistency weren’t a good match for the skins.
Away from the night markets I attempted to track down what is supposed to be Taipei’s best Taiwanese beef noodle soup restaurant. I became hopelessly lost though (I blame the duff directions) and a torrential downpour forced me into a branch of Akasaka Ramen for cover and sustenance.
The barbecue pork miso ramen was a bit odd. The broth didn’t taste much like miso, but was closer instead to a tonkotsu broth in colour but not in taste. It was oddly bland and the noodles were far too too soft and squidgy. At least the pork was reasonably fatty.
The kimchi, obviously turned out from a bowl, was a tad refrigerated but it was still reasonably spicy and tangy.
Hualien is a relatively small port city on the eastern coast of the country. The city doesn’t appear to have that many attractions of its own, but it is a good resting point if you’re exploring the stunning vistas of the East Coast National Scenic Area. Despite the city’s aboriginal population, the food of indigenous Taiwanese didn’t seem to have much a presence, at least not to the casual observer.
Hualien Xiang Wonton is a small diner that’s famed for its wonton dumplings handmade on site and for good reason. The skins may be thin, but they’re sturdy and filled with firm, fresh prawns that are just cooked and moist, meaty packets of pork. They taste even better when topped off with some of the garlicky, mildly fermented chilli sauce. There’s a hint of Taiwan’s past as a Japanese colony with the nori-style seaweed topping.
There are some side dishes that you pick up from the counter at the front of the diner near the till such as mildly pickled cabbage and some dense, meaty, slightly smoky tofu. I was tempted to order more variations of the wonton dumplings, but I also wanted to give Hualien’s night market a try.
Hualien’s night market is unsurprisingly a lot smaller than the ones I encountered in Taipei, but I did stumble across a small nameless diner to shelter from the torrential rain. The rice was disappointingly stale and the tofu simply wasn’t as flavourful as the same dish at Hualien Xiang Wonton. The greens were crisp and refreshing though and the Chinese sausage was thicker, fattier and sweeter than the versions I’ve tried in London’s Chinatown. The pork knuckle was tough, but it did have a subtly boozy flavour to it that I wasn’t expecting.
Up in the hills of Hualien County is a rather bland monument marking the Tropic of Cancer. It’s a good stopping off point if you fancy a brew though. A small coffee and tea shop right next door to the monument serves up the best iced green tea I’ve ever had. It’s crisp, refreshing, mildly fruity and doesn’t have any of the cloying oiliness that makes the iced green tea shovelled up by Toku and Shoryu back in London so unpalatable.
Taiwan isn’t known for its coffee, but the local brew has potential. The so-called ‘Cloud Coffee’ is very mellow with little acidity and has a slight fruity brightness to it. It doesn’t have a lot of kick to it though, which was a disappointment since I’m an irredeemable caffeine addict.
Further south along the East Coast National Scenic Area is Sanxiantai near the city of Taitung. This beachhead has some seriously moody scenery, such as a curiously alien-looking rocky coast. I stumbled across a random restaurant in a nearby mountain village which I wouldn’t be able to find again if my life depended on it.
Although the ramshackle decor was rather dilapidated, the fresh, firm tuna-like sashimi was delicious and served with real, nose-burning wasabi – none of the fake horseradish-laden imitation stuff. I’m not sure if the medallion-shaped slices would pass muster with a sashimi chef though and I couldn’t quite place the fish in question. It might be bluefish, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Even better was the fish soup which was one of the best I’ve ever had. The bony chunks of grouper are light but filling, while the soup itself has the unmistakable taste of fresh basil and ginger. Simple but lip smacking.
I somehow ended up with shrimp fried rice rather then the boiled rice that I actually wanted. It was far better than the greasy, bland stuff back in London though. Plenty of fresh shrimp and a meaty stock made the rice surprisingly moreish.
Kenting is Taiwan’s southern-most town and has a very laid-back feel befitting its status as a seaside resort. Nearby are a series of serene yet gasp-inducing beaches, some of which sit in front of rainforests and look just as good, if not better, in the rain. The aural combination of roaring waves and the hushed whispers of the forest are nothing short of magical.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup is one of the island’s most satisfying dishes and Taiwan New Beef Noodle House does of the best versions I’ve had. Tender chunks of beef, jelly-like tendons and firm, springy noodles in a rich, mildly spicy soup.
Far too many Brits are queasy about offal which is a shame considering our rich history of offal quaffing. I honestly can’t remember if I downed a plate of beef or pork intestines, but it hardly matters – tender, slightly chewy and served in a light, mildly salty sauce. Hmmmm, offal.
Kenting may be a seaside town, but some of the seafood available in the local night market was surprisingly subpar. Various skewers of squid, although pleasingly sweet and salty, were almost surprisingly tough.
I can’t remember which fast food chain outlet I visited for breakfast, but if you’re need in a greasy dollop after a hard night out then a fluffy, thick, slightly chewy roti filled with ham and scrambled eggs will probably do the trick.
Five Things I Learned Eating My Way Around Taiwan
- If you don’t know what it is, don’t ask. Just eat it and stop being such a girl’s blouse.
- When in doubt, eat at the local night market.
- Many Taiwanese outside of Taipei will do little to hide their bemused curiosity when meeting a foreigner.
- Food at motorway stops in Taiwan sucks just as much as it does in the UK.
- When it rains, it rains a lot. Seriously, a lot.