Eating and Drinking in Taiwan

Taiwan has been getting a lot of good publicity lately for its food, so we had high expectations about what we would eat on the island. Alas, our culinary experiences weren’t all that we’d hoped for.

Taiwan’s food culture is on display most vividly at the night markets that are a feature of Taiwanese cities. Picture long rows of food stalls set up in streets that are closed to car traffic in the early evening. The streets themselves are lined with open-fronted restaurants, shops, and gaming arcades. As the sun goes down, people stroll along—or shuffle single-file if the market is narrow—grazing on various dishes, chatting, shopping, or picking up dinner on their way home from work.

Weekend crowds at the Ximending night market in Taipei . . .
. . . and at the main night market in the city of Chiayi

We went to two big night markets in the capital city, Taipei: the popular Ximending market, with bright lights and flashing signs in an area of trendy shops near Taipei’s gay district, and the densely packed Ningxia market in a residential area not far from our hotel. Night markets were also our favorite parts of two cities, Chiayi and Hsinchu, that we stayed in en route to and from Taiwan’s central mountains.

The best things we ate in night markets were bao bun sandwiches filled with sliced duck and cucumbers, flaky scallion pancakes (sometimes wrapped around egg, meat, or other filings), steamed pork dumplings, fried chicken, skewers of grilled vegetables, fresh pineapple juice, and peanut ice cream rolls. In a small lunch place near the National Palace Museum in Taipei, we also had very good beef noodle soup (a Taiwanese specialty) with rich stock and tender meat. 

Scoops of purple yam ice cream folded into a roll with crushed peanuts shaved off the big block on the left: Yummy!
We were so excited to find grilled, seasoned vegetables at the market in Chiayi!

Other than that, we found Taiwanese food much less interesting than we’d expected. The seasoning tends to be very mild, without the complex flavors we’re accustomed to in Malaysian Chinese food. There are also fewer types of vegetables and fruits available than in many parts of Southeast Asia, where we’d been traveling before going to Taiwan.

Hot Pot, Soup Dumplings, and 7-11

Our hotel in Taipei was in a district (Zhongshan) with lots of Japanese restaurants, and some of the best food we ate in Taipei was Japanese, including barbequed eel, tempura, and sushi.

Sushi at one of the many good Japanese restaurants we found in Taipei (a legacy of 50 years of Japanese rule in the early 1900s)

Many of the other restaurants in our area (like the one whose sign is at the top of this page) specialize in hot pot, which resembles fondue without the cheese. Customers cook slices of raw meat, seafood, and vegetables in a pot of boiling broth in the middle of their table. Hot pot is hugely popular in Taiwan and other parts of Asia. But we’re not fans—it tends to be better for big groups and can be expensive—so we didn’t participate in the hot pot craze.

One of the best known restaurants in Taiwan is Din Tai Fung, which has perfected the art of making soup dumplings—small steamed dumplings filled with pork (or other meat) and soup broth that create a taste explosion in your mouth. We discovered Din Tai Fung eight years ago through its branch in Penang, Malaysia, and it’s one of our favorite restaurants in Penang. Having just eaten there a few weeks earlier, we skipped Din Tai Fung in Taipei and tried a lesser-known soup dumpling place. It was fine, but not nearly as good as Din Tai Fung. So anyone visiting Taiwan who hasn’t eaten at Din Tai Fung should be sure to try it.

A 7-11 and drink stalls in the mountain village of Fenqihu
This machine at a 7-11 lets you a pick a mystery food or drink from one of various countries

An aspect of Taiwan’s food culture that surprised us is the extent to which people eat at convenience stores. Branches of 7-11 and another chain, Family Mart, are everywhere in Taiwan. They carry a variety of frozen meals and have microwaves for heating them up; some also have cafe areas where patrons can sit and eat. Most 7-11s also have a big vat of boiled eggs soaking in tea, which are a common snack.

So ingrained is 7-11 as a food option in Taiwan that the “included breakfast” at our hotel in the village of Fenqihu was a coupon for 7-11, where we breakfasted on bottled orange juice, dried mango slices, and slightly greasy microwaved pork buns.

Bubble Tea and Oolong

On the beverage front, Taiwan is famous as the birthplace of bubble tea. Typically, bubble tea is a sweet, cold drink made with robust black tea, milk, sugar, ice, and chewy tapioca balls. In other forms, it’s a green tea and fruit drink with tapioca balls or fruit gummies but no milk.

Bubble tea has spread around the world and is one of Melissa’s favorites. In Taiwan, bubble tea shops are as common as coffee shops back home, and Melissa had fun sampling their drinks. She’s learned to order them with 30 percent of the usual sugar to keep them from being teeth-achingly sweet.

Entrance to the Qingtian Tea House in Taipei
Enjoying delicate oolong tea and pineapple cake

Taiwan is also famous for the oolong (“dark dragon”) tea grown on its mountain slopes. Oolong has a mild, complex flavor, too delicate for milk. Melissa loved it, and even though I don’t usually like tea, I found it quite drinkable.

One of our loveliest experiences in Taipei was visiting the Qingtian Tea House near Da’an Park. There, a nice young woman showed us the proper way to brew oolong in a small pot from curled up leaves. Sipping our hot, delicate tea from tiny ceramic cups, nibbling pineapple cake (another Taiwan specialty), and looking at the tea house’s Japanese-style decor and gardens provided a serene interlude in the middle of a day of sightseeing.

Although Japanese and other foreign restaurants provided water or tea for their customers, we were surprised that many Taiwanese Chinese restaurants didn’t offer any drinks. A member of the Taipei Urban Sketchers group whom we had lunch with explained that many Taiwanese people don’t drink beverages with meals, preferring to sip hot soup while they eat. That stems from a Chinese belief that it’s not healthy for your stomach to mix hot food and cold liquid. When Chinese restaurants did have water available, it was usually piping hot. By the end of our visit, we were longing to get back to Malaysia, where the delicious, well-seasoned food is invariably accompanied by hot or cold tea and fresh fruit juice with plenty of ice.

Melissa and two members of Urban Sketchers Taipei (Becky and Terri) after a morning of painting near the Taipei 101 skyscraper

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