Eat Your Way Through Taiwan's Culinary Scene With These 10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Delights

Eat Your Way Through Taiwan's Culinary Scene With These 10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Delights
From, by Janice Nieder

When I received an invitation to join a group of culinary journalists on a trip to explore the food scene in Taiwan, I immediately broke into my happy dance (trying to burn off some calories in advance). Many in-the-know foodies consider Taiwan the ultimate culinary destination for Asian cuisine and considering many Taiwanese greetings start with “Have you eaten?”, I knew I was going to like it there! The island is like a little foodie United Nations due in part to the fact that the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and the Japanese have all settled there at one time. There is also a tasty fusion of distinctive regional Chinese styles of cooking from the Fujian, Cantonese, Szechwan and Hakka communities. So, if you are planning a trip to Taiwan soon, make sure you sample these 10 cuisine standouts:

Shi-Yang Culture RestaurantPhoto Credit: Janice Nieder
Find Zen at Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant

Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant requires a minimum of 2-3 hours to fully appreciate the innovative prix fixe 10-course meal, which means it may not be the best choice if you are in a hurry. After a 45-minute drive from bustling Taipei you’ll arrive at the lush Yangmingshan National Park where Mr. Lin Bin-Hui—previously an acclaimed architect/designer—created a culinary mountainside retreat. The organic Zen-like restaurant was inspired by his appreciation of the Song Dynasty in 10th century China. His creative cuisine focuses on reinterpreting traditional foods with an eye to refined beauty and a nod to a more health-conscious diet, focusing on the highest quality seasonal ingredients.

A seafood still life of sashimi, sea urchin, shrimp, squid and rice paper-wrapped rolls topped with salmon roe was so beautifully presented that we hesitated (for at least a full 10 seconds) before digging in. However, the pièce de résistance was a simple black cauldron of chicken soup, made remarkable when the waiter gently placed a large lotus blossom on top which dramatically unfolded over several minutes due to the hot steam.

After lunch, a short stroll through the tranquil forest brings you to Shi-Yang’s teahouses, where a ceremony can be pre-arranged.

Insider Tip: To avoid disappointment, your reservation should be made months in advance.

Best Way to Start the Day

Although the décor of the bare-bones Fu Hang Dou Jiang (tucked away upstairs in the HuaShan Market Building) may leave something to be desired, their carb-heavy food might be the world’s best cure for jet lag. As you join the perpetual queue, you’ll pass the open kitchen where you can watch bustling bakers churn out shao bing (a chewy sesame flat bread cooked in a fiery hot barrel) and youtiao (deep-fried Chinese crullers served with sweet or savory soymilk).  For a delish, all-in-one takeaway breakfast, order the sao bing youtiao (thin flatbread with Chinese doughnut and egg). Yum!

Noodle CuisinePhoto Credit: Janice Nieder
An Unusual Wine Pairing

Taiwanese are obsessed with beef noodle soup, and much like chicken soup in North America, it is quintessential comfort food. From the most expensive restaurant to a makeshift alley cart, everyone wants to be known for serving the best beef noodle soup. Noodle Cuisine (Tel: (02) 2741-6299) is definitely a strong contender for the title. Owner Wu Zanhao was originally a decorator, which is obvious considering there are Swarovski crystal chandeliers all over his restaurant. In 2011, he participated in the Taipei International Beef Noodle Festival and placed eighth in the “Creative” category. The signature dish here, the World-Class Selections Beef Noodles Soup, has three cuts of beef (tendon, shank and tail) and Wu likes to pair this with a most unique beverage: a bottle of Onion Red Wine.

ice monsterPhoto Credit: Janice Nieder
The Best Place to Cool Off

Ice Monster offers a shaved ice dessert consisting of a large pile of finely shaved ice topped with a variety of sweets, beans, tapioca bubbles, jellies, and fresh fruit. They have a special machine that shaves the ice in a quick circular motion, producing a pile of fluffy powdered snow. Our definite favorite is their refreshing mango “avalanche," with mango-flavored ice piled high with fresh mango cubes, pudding, sweetened condensed milk, mango jelly, and a mango ice cream ball.

Stinky tofuPhoto Credit: Janice Nieder
Stinky Tofu Tastes Better Than it Smells

Stinky tofu begins life innocuously enough as fresh white tofu, which is then fermented in vats of brine (often made from fermented milk, vegetables and meat) until it reaches just the right stench of ripeness. Street vendors will then deep fry it until crispy and serve it with some sour pickled veggies. Non-foodies may give it a wide birth, but we really liked it. Once you make peace with the smell, the yin/yang of the crunchy exterior, silken inside, and the sweet and sour flavor profile can be highly addictive. You can find it at night markets and several restaurants and bars as a side dish.  

Yu Shan GePhoto Credit: Janice Nieder
Veggie Delight

Vegetarians will have an easy time in Taiwan with its 6,000 vegetarian-friendly restaurants. But even the most ardent meat eater will be tempted to turn veg-head after trying the vegetarian Kaiseki haute cuisine at the elegant Yu Shan Ge. No matter which set menu you order from, you’re in for a creative culinary experience that is seldom seen in vegetarian dining. The artistically-presented hedgehog mushroom was as satisfying as any Wagyu steak, and the stylized platter of cold appetizers had some sort of pink agar that I would have sworn was cured salmon. Plates were artistically garnished with living plants, mini-rock gardens, or candles nestled inside cut-out oranges.

Din Tai Fung, Xiaolongbao Photo Credit: Janice Nieder
Steamy Xiaolongbao

Din Tai Fung’s renowned culinary empire (two of its Hong Kong stores have been awarded a Michelin Star) got off to a slow start as a cooking oil shop in Taiwan in 1958. When sales began to dwindle, owner Bingyi Yang and his wife started selling Xiaolongbao, steamed soup dumplings, on the side and the rest is history. Now no trip to Taipei is complete without slurping down their succulent soup dumplings, which are accompanied by assorted veggies, pot stickers, salads and eight-flavored sticky rice. At the popular Taipei 101 skyscraper basement location you can watch the cooks masterfully fold whisper-thin wrappers around the juicy pork meatballs to create these quality Xiaolongbao, which explains the one to two hour wait.

Inside tip: Put your name in, get your number, and then cross the hall to the fried chicken stand for some appetizers. 

Wistaria Tea HousePhoto Credit: Janice Nieder
Oasis of Calm

The Wistaria Tea House is a traditional wooden structure that was originally a Japanese naval dormitory built in 1920 and was designated a historic monument by the Taipei government in 1997. Opt for one of the serene tatami rooms to experience the ultimate Taiwanese tea ceremony. Wistaria sources water from the Wu Lai Mountain Spring, which is poured into a glass pot and heated on a kerosene boiler. They offer a wide variety of quality teas (like their special Pu’er tea from Yunnan, China) with wonderfully poetic names, accompanied by sweet and savory snacks.

Addiction Aquatic Development Photo Credit: Janice Nieder
Find the Freshest Seafood

The Addiction Aquatic Development is made up of a cluster of seafood eateries located next to the Taipei Fish Market, serving pick-your-own fresh fish, scallops, geoducks, prawns, abalone, and King crab. Pay for your choice and then they will either run it over to one of the restaurants where they will cook it to your specifications or you can bring it home to cook yourself. Visitors can next join the crowds at the supermarket area, which is stocked with shelves of pre-packaged, fresh sushi, sashimi, salads and side dishes, as well as a nice selection of wine and beer.

For the ultimate hunter/gatherer types you can head to Shillin Night Market, where you can rent baby fishing poles to catch your own shrimp—not as easy as you would think! Afterwards, they will grill your catch on a tiny hibachi at the back of the stand.

Shilin MarketPhoto Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The Best One-Stop for All Tastes

The foodie highlight of the whole week was experiencing Taipei’s night markets. The island has over 300 to choose from, which are mostly open-air bazaars lined with hundreds of stalls, selling mouth-watering “xiaochi” (small eats)—which are a big thing in Taiwan. And the granddaddy of them all is the sprawling Shilin Market.

hot star chicken Photo Credit: Janice Nieder
5 Not-to-be-Missed Snacks:

  1. The aforementioned stinky tofu.
  2. An oyster omelet (Orh ah jian): plump, briny bivalves, eggs and chopped lettuce are gently folded together with a little sweet potato starch to provide “the chew” factor that is so beloved by the Taiwanese.
  3. “Big sausage wrap small sausage” (Da chang bao xiao chang) is a tasty Taiwanese pork sausage wrapped in a slightly larger sticky rice sausage.
  4. Hot Star fried chicken (Hao Da ji pai): crispy and delicious oversized fried chicken cutlets covered with a gossamer layer of crisped batter without a trace of oil. Taiwanese are obsessed with fried chicken—according to Taipei Times, Taiwanese devour more than 250,000 fried chicken cutlets a day!
  5. Pepper pork buns (Hújiāo bǐng) are definitely in the running for my favorite bite on the trip. The sesame covered buns are filled with generous amounts of peppered pork and spring onion filling.
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