Taiwan has a long and complex history. This is also reflected in the diversity of Taiwan food.
First there were the Aboriginals, with the crops originally available in the island as taro and millet.
Starting from the 17th century chinese people from Fujian and Guangdong came to Taiwan in search of a new life - they brought their Southern China cuisines: Fujianese and Hakka. They brought rice too.
Much later, in 1895, the Japanese conquered Taiwan. They ruled the island for a sizeable amount of time, 50 years. They left their cuisine and the most advanced farming techniques.
When the Japanese left, after 1945, people from all the provinces of China fled to Taiwan, including many of the best cooks of that time.
The huge diversity and quality of Taiwan food comes from all these events.
Taiwan Food: Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant in Taipei.
Now that we have made the introduction, I think the right way to describe Taiwan food is just to write about what the Taiwanese eat during the day, on the working days and on the (few) holidays.
And that is what I hope you'll probably want to eat if you are in Taiwan ...
Taiwan people eat breakfast at home or, very often, on the way to work or school, in breakfast shops or food-stalls. Here's what they eat ...
Many Taiwanese, modest and thrifty, for breakfast they just eat the leftovers from the day before. For the sake of the truth, after so many years I am still surprised when I see my wife eating, with evident enjoyment, pig knuckle for breakfast ...
Western breakfasts are quite common, both in hotels than at home. Still, chinese breakfasts are far more popular - and certainly my favorite way to eat breakfast ...
Breakfast is an aspect of Chinese cuisine quite unknown in Europe ...
Taiwan Food: Chinese breakfast shop in Taichung
What is a Chinese breakfast?
The main ingredients are:
Chinese breakfast at home with doujiang (soy bean milk) and youtiao.
Congee itself is rather bland, so the Taiwanese add little things like:
Many more delights, mostly from Northern China cuisine, are offered by breakfast shops and hotels breakfast buffet, such as:
Chinese breakfast in Taiwan includes also typically local snacks, eaten not only for breakfast:
Taiwan people have their lunch early. Every restaurant open at 11.30 AM or even earlier.
Many people eat lunch out of home, at the work place or school.
One of the most popular choices for lunch is called Biandang.
Biandang is a boxed lunch, sometimes divided into small compartments.
A biandang normally consists in steamed rice, meat, eggs or sausages, dried bean curd (Dougan), vegetables, a few slices of pickled ginger.
Biandang is of Japanese origin (where it is called Bento). The biandang provides a complete meal at an affordable price, usually from 40-50 to 100 NTD (1~2.5 €- 1.5~3 $)
Biandang are sold in a lot of places, at food-stalls, at convenience stores, at take-aways. Often are delivered to the offices for the lunch-break.
Sometimes I wonder how the cheapest biandang (around 1 euro) can make a profit ... so it is better you don't buy the super cheap ones.
Among the best biandang, I recommend those made with Chihshang fragrant rice.
Once they were sold at railway stations. Now you can find them, in addition to Chihshang itself, at the chain stores around Taiwan.
Self Services are often a convenient choice. Many self-services are vegetarians - in this case they show a swastika (that, in this part of the world, is just a Buddhist symbol).
Grab your tray and fill it, you will pay by weight - if in doubt what to do, just follow what the others do!
Business lunch are quite common. Often restaurants offer very convenient set menus for lunch. More, some 5 stars hotel provide "afternoon teas" (from 2.30 to 4.30 PM) which include huge buffet for a very convenient price.
For instance I recall Prince Howard Hotel and Windsor Hotel in Taichung offer afternoon tea for 400~500 NTD with buffet "all-you-can-eat". An interesting solution if you are on the move ...
At the end of the day families, often separated during the day, reunite.
So they have dinner at home but, especially on weekends, Taiwanese enjoy eating out in night markets and restaurants.
Restaurants open early for supper, at 5.30 PM or even earlier. They close early, even at 9 PM. People here work a lot, it is not as in Europe :))
Anyway, the Taiwanese prefer to eat several hours before bedtime in order to keep a healthier body. This is what a friend told me, astonished by the Italian habits ("So you're all fat!", she said).
A big part of the authentic Taiwan food is made of snacks, that in Chinese are called xiao chi meaning "little eats".
Virtually every city or county in Taiwan boasts its own specialties, that can be tasted in night markets scattered throughout the island.
Beside traditional snacks, in the night markets you can find the real Taiwanese fast food, such as the local sausages.
Also there is some strange Taiwan food, from chicken feet to the dish named seven miles fragrance, that is BBQ chicken butts.
Night markets also provide funny crap as spaghetti and mayonnaise sandwiches ... certainly not all Taiwanese are gourmets, especially the younger generation ruined by fast food.
Traditional Taiwan food in a small restaurant in Tainan
Here a list of some of the more interesting xiao chi among Taiwan food:
Taiwan is a semi-tropical island so the houses are not heated.
In winter, when the cold front from Mongolia comes, the temperature can drop to 10 degrees (50 F), even down to 5 (40 F) in Taipei.
Then inside the house is very cold. The Taiwanese so know that the time for hot pot has come.
Huo Guo means Fire-Pot.
Hot pot is one of the most popular Taiwan food. Hot pot was probably brought by the Mongols. It is very popular in China too, especially in Sichuan.
The hot pot is placed on the dining table, on top of a stove or a hot plate.
The hot pot contains stock and is kept simmering or boiling. Every sort of ingredients are cooked at the table in the hot pot, such as slices of meat, shrimps, eggs, mushrooms, dumplings, vegetables.
Each diner pick the food straight from the pot. The bite is dipped in a sauce, also to cool it down, before eating it with rice.
The hot pot really warms and comforts the body on a cold winter evening. It is a convivial moment that Taiwanese love to share with friends or family.
They slowly cook their food, at the same time they cook their friendship and bonds with friends. If you come to Taiwan for business in winter, it's a good idea to establish your relationship with your local partners with a hot pot.
Many restaurants offer different versions of hot pot, from Mongolian Hot pot to the spicy Sichuan Hot Pot, from the Vegetarian to the Japanese (shabu-shabu).
There are also restaurants that only serve hot pots. In these restaurants, each diner is provided with his own hot pot and a built-in stove. I guess we will not see this kind of Taiwan food in Europe, given the European obsession for safety and hyper-regulation :))
You can find any kind of cuisine under the sun, at least in Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung.
Of course all the different Chinese regional cuisines rule. So for the Japanese cuisine, that very often has a Taiwanese twist here.
The most common types of restaurants, the most typical dishes, are the following:
Taiwan Food: Vegetable steamed dumplings (jaozi).
This is an ongoing debate, especially among foreigners ...
I have to say that, because of my job, I am often in contact with people of different asian nationalities.
For them, I really live in one of the food world capital - and I am talking about Singaporeans and Chinese ...
In my opinion, these are the strong point of Taiwan food:
Night market or hole-in-the-wall food can be funny but seldom provide a lot of hygiene or visual decor - it is up to you if you like to eat there :))
In my experience is quite difficult to have a bad meal in Taiwan, provided you stay in nice looking restaurant - we normally spend from 200 to 500 NTD per person for a meal.
Enjoy your Taiwan food!
If you are interested to Taiwanese cuisine, on Taiwan Travel Experience you can also find the following articles:
Chinese Desserts: the 10 most known (and eaten) Chinese Desserts in Taiwan.
Double Happiness Cakes: an important part of a Traditional Chinese Wedding in Taiwan and really a charming delicacy.