The Ultimate Taiwan Food Guide: 7 Must-Try Experiences
Taiwanese cuisine is a feast of flavors. Yet it’s very underrated abroad. Here’s my ultimate Taiwan food guide for exploring the island’s hidden treasures.
The bustling night markets are filled with subtle and unfamiliar flavors. Exotic fruit is sold in snack-sized baggies. And ginger scents everything from sugarcane juice to hand cream.
Taiwanese cuisine is full of surprising textures. From the chewy tapioca balls in milky tea to the hamburger buns made of white rice.
It’s street food munched between errands. And it’s oolong poured slowly in a tea house that overlooks green fields.
The flavors of Taiwanese cuisine draw on influences from the southern provinces of China. But there’s also a notable Japanese influence from the island’s period of Japanese rule.
But this unique blend of well-balanced flavors never loudly proclaims itself with spices. It intrigues with subtle seasoning and surprises with quirky textures.
I have many memories from my trip to Taiwan. And many center around food. Whether it’s an incredible meal in the mountains or a downtown fast-food outlet, the small island is an unexplored foodie’s paradise.
Here’s my ultimate Taiwan food guide:
1. Tonghua (Linjiang) Night Market, Taipei
Night markets are one of Taipei’s top attractions. There are more than a hundred loud and bustling markets throughout the country. And they’ve played a vital role in nightlife for more than a thousands years.
I love the Tonghua (Linjiang) Night Market, about a 20-minute walk from Taipei 101. It’s brilliant for sampling street food, browsing racks of trendy clothes, and exploring shops full of Hello Kitty toys.
The delicious sugar cane juice, served hot with a dash of ginger, is perfect on a chilly evening. And the fish patties on a stick are well-seasoned and juicy.
The Tonghua night market offers an authentic experience and local flavors right in Taipei’s ultra-modern downtown. It’s perfect as a budget-friendly alternative to central Taipei’s pricier restaurants. And it’s delicious for a quick meal between sightseeing.
Although it’s tiny on the map, Tonghua offers an endless variety of fruits and veggies, stinky tofu, arcades, and fast fashion versions of Comme des Garcons.
It feels lively and loud. Though Tonghua is less touristy than some of the city’s more popular night markets.
There are stalls for specialties like stinky tofu (fermented in a brine mix) and bubble tea. They’re squeezed between shops with household items that make great practical souvenirs. I buy a wooden set of chopsticks, pins topped with cartoon mushroom heads, and metal candy tins with anime characters.
2. Chun Shui Tang Teahouse, Taichung
The Chun Shui Tang teahouse franchise are the claimed originators of the famed bubble tea. And they have a shop on the grounds of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art. It’s a beautiful spot for traditional tea in a minimalist setting or a tall glass of the country’s most famous beverage.
The “bubbles” are tapioca balls that float to the bottom of the milky tea-based drink. And the varieties are endless. You can have your bubble tea with a variety of syrups, in black, green tea or white tea. Or even blended with ice cream and blitzed into a smoothie.
Liu Han-Chieh, the founder of the Chun Shui Tang tearoom, is widely accepted as bubble tea’s true originator. Han-Chieh says he got the idea for iced tea after seeing cold coffee served in Japan. He later began playing with different syrups and flavors.
But the tapioca balls were added after the teahouse’s product development manager was bored at a meeting in 1988. She reportedly poured her Taiwanese dessert into her Assam tea.
The drink rapidly gained popularity across Asia and abroad. Today, thousands of shops around Taiwan sell endless variants of this quirky beverage.
But there’s something special about Chun Shui Tang. That odd mix of chewy tapioca and silky smooth milky tea is a perfect rest after an afternoon browsing the arts museum.
3. Tung Hakka Cuisine, Taipei
Tung Hakka Cuisine is one of Taipei’s best for Hakka cuisine, a type of southern Chinese cooking that’s virtually unknown abroad.
The restaurant serves home-style cooking or comfort food in a laid-back setting. Plates of tofu, vegetables and seafood make their way around the table on a revolving tray.
Historically, the Hakka people worked the land and created hearty dishes to sustain themselves during labor. Yet in times of poverty, they got creative with any available ingredients.
The cuisine focuses on textures and emphasizes simplicity and pragmatism. There’s lots of seafood and an abundance of vegetables in place of richer meats.
Spice and flavor is applied with a light hand.
The natural flavors of the fish and veggies shine through. And the cuisine offers plenty of options for vegans and vegetarians.
There are no overpowering flavors. But there’s plenty of ginger and garlic.
4. Peng Cheng Tang, Taichung
Peng Cheng Tang is a fun retro eatery for generous portions of traditional Taiwanese food. Families dine amid stacks of vintage toys, old bottles of beer and historic bits of nostalgia.
The entrance looks ordinary enough from the street, but inside it’s a visual feast of curiosities. The restaurant is one of the city’s best for seafood and authentic, no-frills local food.
I have a delectable lunch during my visit to the showroom of Porcelain 1300, who aim to preserve this dying craft.
We feast on sushi and sashimi served on ice that showcases the silky lines of the porcelain. It also testifies to the Japanese influences in Taiwanese cuisine.
6. MOS Burger
This fast-food chain was founded in Japan. But it’s wildly popular across East Asia. They make an incredible Rice Burger with buns made of rice mixed with barley and millet. It’s a much healthier and more interesting alternative to your typical burger.
I had mine with seafood oozing out of the two rice buns. Yet it was surprisingly neat and easy to eat. There are several vegetarian and vegan options available too.
7. Traditional Tea House in the Mountains
Deep in the hills of Miaoli County in northwestern Taiwan, a restaurant overlooks a tea field and serves a fusion of Hakka, Japanese and Taiwanese food with flavorful green tea.
Enormous bonsai trees line the gardens, another remnant of Japanese influence. Groups of businessmen unwind over long meals in a setting worlds away from the city.
Although the island is just some 180 kilometers off the coast of China, the Hakka-style dishes like mochi are worlds away from what many know as Chinese food. An unusual combination of tropical fruits and mayonnaise is wrapped in a layer of mochi, a soft and chewy cake made of sticky rice flour and sprinkled with powdered sugar. A local proverb says that eating one mochi cake is like eating three bowls of plain rice. And it’s a filling dish for a people who’ve faced food scarcities and frequent migrations.
Hakka cuisine is increasingly trendy in Taiwan’s big cities too. And it’s a prime example of the richness of Asian cuisine.
“Those of us who grew up in countries like the USA might not be quick to accept dishes based around internal organs or over-fermented tofu,” says Jonathan Seidman, an American expat. “Once that acceptance takes hold, Taiwan opens up into a foodie paradise.”
For many Taiwanese, it’s more about the balance of flavors than about luxurious ingredients.
“The most delicious food is often prepared from the simplest and least expensive ingredients,” Seidman says. “But its essence is in how those flavors are expressed and arranged together.”
This fun boutique hotel in Taipei is in the pedestrian area of Ximending, a fashion hub filled with cafes, colorful murals and night markets. Known as “little Tokyo,” the district is full of anime posters and shops selling Japanese curiosities.
Amba has a great cafe, a stylish lounge with live music on weekends, and a tasty breakfast buffet with plenty of local food. I love eating noodles for breakfast while leafing through comics.
2. Hotel dua, Kaohsiung
This elegant hotel feels like an oasis in the bustling port city of Kaohsiung. The decor is moody and atmospheric with installations full of green vines and dark wood. I love the breakfast buffet and the sweeping views of the city’s skyscrapers.