Ask someone who has been to Taiwan before what their favorite aspects of the trip were and “the food” will invariably be one of the top answers — and with good reason.
Cultural influences from indigenous aboriginal tribes, a history dotted with varying country rules, and the ultimate arrival of many mainland Chinese fleeing to the island have resulted in one of the most enjoyable culinary experiences I’ve had while traveling.
While street food is undoubtedly the most popular aspect of Taiwan’s culinary scene, not everything that Taiwan is known for is available only in a Taiwanese night market. Although a small island geographically speaking, the cuisine is quite diverse and the further south you travel from Taipei, the more likely you are to encounter some pretty interesting and very local dishes.
If you are traveling in Taipei and looking to try some of Taiwan’s more well-known foods, here are five items you need to keep on your list of “iconic Taiwan foods”.
Pretty much regarded as the national dish of Taiwan, this odiferous treasure is most commonly associated with night markets – especially Shilin Night Market in Taipei. You cannot walk inside the food building without the stench nearly knocking you on the ground.
For those who say it doesn’t taste as bad as it smells, my taste buds tend to disagree. However, it is still a must try food – although it took me a year to work up the courage. I have since had it at least two times and actually didn’t gag the second time around. I have learned that yes, there is such a thing as a good and bad stinky tofu vendor, at least as far as my western palate is concerned.
For a real challenge – check out Dai’s House of Stink which is a restaurant dedicated to nothing but this putrid dish. If you are an Andrew Zimmern and Bizarre Foods fan you might remember the Taipei episode where he tangled with the stinky tofu here…and lost.
Moving on to something far more pleasant is the sweet treat of “Mango Ice”, which can be found in numerous night markets and dessert shops throughout Taipei.
The now closed Ice Monster on Yong Kang Street was the most famous, being written up in nearly every guidebook and many overseas newspapers. This obviously resulted in massive crowds, especially on weekend nights. Although Ice Monster closed in January 2010 due to an alimony dispute, Yong Kang 15 reopened in its place, and the owner of Ice Monster is said to be serving as a technical advisor.
The portions are a tad smaller at Yong Kang 15, but the quality is still up to par with the original Ice Monster, and you can’t beat this sweet indulgence with chunks of fresh Taiwan mango.
Beef Noodles (Niu Rou Mian)
Another Taiwan staple is Beef Noodles. Initially finding the consumption of steaming hot beef noodles in 100-degree heat odd, I have now seen the light. I could eat them probably six days a week! You can find Taiwan beef noodles, or niu rou mian, everywhere island wide. There is a “Beef Noodle Street” in Taipei, and even the food court at Taipei Main Station has a section devoted to just beef noodle vendors.
If you try them in other parts of Taiwan, you will likely find local variations that will make you fall in love with beef noodles even more.
Another dish that is historic in Taiwan is Danzai noodles. They originated in the city of Tainan, which is located in southern Taiwan, however, you can enjoy these in Taipei as well.
Danzai noodles were first sold by a local Tainan fisherman who was trying to make money in the off-season, and they became known as “slack season” noodles. His noodles were so popular he eventually began making them full-time, opening a restaurant, Tu Hsiao Yueh (may also be spelled Du Xiao Yue or Du Siao Yue).
Today, there is at least one branch in Taipei, just a few doors down from Yong Kang 15. The fourth generation of the family owns and operates the restaurants, which can draw big crowds on weekends as people enjoy watching the noodles being made right there in the storefront window.
Despite not being in a night market, the prices are quite a steal. A bowl of Danzai noodles is only 50 NT (about $1.50 US). This Taiwan specialty features a shrimp broth base, filled with noodles, and topped with minced pork and spices, along with a single shrimp.
Be sure to check out the rest of the menu as there are a number of other local Tainan signature dishes available.
Xiao Long Bao
Without a doubt, xiao long bao (often called Shanghai soup dumplings) are one of my all-time favorite dishes. While they are not a Taiwanese invention per se, Taiwan definitely helped put these juicy delights on the map.
Din Tai Fung is recognized around the world for their xiao long baos, and much like the mango ice, they have been written up in countless guidebooks, newspapers, and the two branches in Hong Kong have even earned coveted Michelin stars.
There are outlets in other countries like Japan, Singapore, California, and even Australia, but the original Taipei location is considered the xiao long bao mecca. Located just around the corner from Tu Hsiao Yueh, the original Din Tai Fung can easily command a two-hour wait during peak times. While it is fun to visit the original, there are other locations in Taipei, including the brand new branch at Taipei 101.