The Taiwanese are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to round-the-clock eating. There's a lot to love about Taiwanese food, and a lot of it to love. Follow the sound of lips smacking and let the food extravaganza begin.
The Taiwanese love to eat out and you won't go hungry if you start by 8pm; many restaurants tend to wind down by 9pm. Booking a few days to a week in advance is only necessary at more upmarket establishments.
- Night markets A cheap and boisterous experience of everything from snacks to sweets and seafood to noodle soups.
- Restaurants Asian cuisine, particularly Japanese, dominates, along with local fare.
- Cafes Growing rapidly in number, offer almost ubiquitously good brews along with homemade cakes and pastries.
Meals Not to Miss
- Auntie Xie's, Taipei Taiwanese homestyle cooking in unpretentious surroundings.
- Yongkang Beef Noodles, Taipei One of Taipei's best beef noodle restaurants in the hóngshāo (red spicy broth) variety.
- Addiction Aquatic Development, Taipei Fresh seafood in a chic environment. Opposite the Taipei Fish Market.
- Dou Sang, Hualien Homestyle Taiwanese cooking (made with no concern for your waistline) in a rustic, Japanese-style house.
- Cifadahan Cafe, Matai'an Gourmet indigenous food such as 18-vegetable salads, mountain boar, and hot pot on heated stones.
- Daybreak 18 Teahouse, Tainan Tea art in a 1930s Japanese-style wooden structure.
- By the Sea, Donggang Unusual seafood galore, such as sea grapes and mullet roe.
Dare to Try
- Stinky tofu (臭豆腐; chòu dòufu) The classic Taiwanese snack that – figuratively speaking – separates the men from the boys.
- Chocolate and meat Chocoholic likes to dress its steaks and chicken breasts with liquid chocolate sauce.
- Medicinal drinks Try Herb Alley in Taipei for Chinese traditional medicinal drinks – the bitter tea is quite horrific.
- Iron eggs Braised and dried eggs with a black rubbery consistency.
- Coffin cake (棺材板; guāncái bǎn) Tainan's fat, deep-fried-in-egg toast planks, hollowed out and filled with a thick chowder of seafood and vegetables.
- Jiāng sī chǎo dàcháng (薑絲炒大腸) Hakka-style stir-fried pig intestines with ginger.
- Fried sandworms (炒沙蟲; chǎo shāchóng) A speciality of Kinmen; best served hot.
- Night market Visit any in Taiwan for a filling meal that's light on your wallet.
- Steamed pork sandwich (刈包; guā bāo) Lan Jia in Taipei sets the standard.
- A-gei (阿給; Ā gěi) Fist-sized pouches of fried tofu filled with crystal noodles and served in hot broth.
- Sweet peanut soup (花生湯; huāshēng tāng) A speciality of Ningxia Night Market in Taipei.
- Taiwan bubble tea Sweet, milky tea with giant tapioca balls, available throughout the country.
- Danzai noodles Ever-reliable noodle snack, served with pork in shrimp stock in Tainan.
- Beef soup A Tainan speciality, served mostly between 4am and 9am, when the meat is at its freshest.
Taiwanese cuisine can be divided into several styles of cooking, though the boundaries are often blurred: there's Taiwanese, Hakka, Fujianese and of course the gamey fare of the indigenous peoples. Most regional Chinese cuisines can also be found as well, the most popular being Cantonese.
Taiwanese cooking has a long, storied and complex history, with influences ranging from all over China mixed with a rather unique indigenous/Polynesian base. In general, food that you see people enjoying at roadside markets and restaurants tends to emphasise local recipes and ingredients – seafood, sweet potatoes, taro root and green vegetables cooked very simply are at the heart of most Taiwanese meals. Xiǎoyú huāshēng (小魚花生; fish stir-fry with peanuts and pickled vegetables) is one example of a Taiwanese favourite.
Chicken rates second in popularity to seafood, followed by pork and beef. Kézǎi (蚵仔; oysters) are popular, and kézǎi tāng (蚵仔湯; clear oyster soup with ginger) is an excellent hangover cure and overall stomach soother.
Hakka dishes are very rich and hearty, sensible for a people who historically made their living as farmers and needed plenty of energy to work the fields. Dishes are often salty and vinegary, with strong flavours. Pork, a favourite of the Hakka, is often cut up into large pieces, fried and then stewed in a marinade. Our favourite Hakka dish is kèjiā xiǎo chǎo (客家小炒; stir-fried cuttlefish with leeks, tofu and pork).
Hakka cuisine is also known for its tasty snacks, including zhà shūcài bǐng (fried, salty balls made from local mushrooms and flour), kèjiāguǒ (客家粿; turnip cakes with shrimp and pork) and kèjiā máshǔ (客家麻糬; sticky rice dipped in sugar or peanut powder).
Much of Taiwanese cuisine has Fujianese roots, as the earliest wave of Han Chinese immigration to the island in the 18th century comprised primarily Fujian mainlanders. Fujianese cuisine particularly abounds on the Taiwan Strait islands of Matsu and Kinmen (both of which are a stone's throw away from Fujian province), but you'll find Fujianese cuisine all over Taiwan.
One of the most popular dishes is fó tiào qiáng (佛跳牆; 'Buddha Jumps Over the Wall'), a stew of seafood, chicken, duck and pork simmered in a jar of rice wine. Allegedly the dish is so tasty that even the Buddha – a vegetarian, of course – would hop over a wall to get a taste.
Cantonese is what non-Chinese consider 'Chinese' food, largely because most émigré restaurateurs in other countries originate from Guangdong (Canton) or Hong Kong. Cantonese flavours are generally more subtle than other Chinese styles – almost sweet, with very few spicy dishes. Cantonese cooking emphasises the use of fresh ingredients, which is why so many restaurants are lined with tanks full of live fish and seafood.
Cantonese diǎnxīn (點心; dim sum) snacks are famous and can be found in restaurants around Taiwan's bigger cities. As well as chāshāobāo (叉燒包; barbecued pork buns), you'll find chūnjuǎn (春卷; spring rolls), zhōu (粥; rice porridge) and, of course, jī jiǎo (雞腳; chicken feet) – an acquired taste.
Travellers who visit Taiwan without sampling the dishes of the tribal peoples who called the island home millennia before the first Han sailor ever laid eyes on Ilha Formosa are definitely missing out. The product of hunters, gatherers and fishing people, indigenous dishes tend to be heavy on wild game and mountain vegetables, as well as a variety of seafood.
One must-try dish is tiĕbăn shānzhūròu (鐵板山豬肉; fatty wild boar grilled, sliced, and grilled again with onions and wild greens). A staple that’s easy to carry and an excellent source of calories to bring along on a hike is zhútŏng fàn (竹筒飯; steamed rice – with and without meat – stuffed into a bamboo stalk); these bamboo-inspired energy bars are a speciality of the Tsou tribe in Alishan, who are also known for their love of bird’s-nest fern, tree tomatoes and millet wine.
Over in Sandimen, millet is the staple of the Rukai diet, while qínàbù (奇那步), or taro and meat dumplings, and grilled wild boar with papaya (木瓜拌山豬肉; mùguā bàn shānzhūròu) can also be tasted in many Rukai villages. The Baiyi in Cingjing, who originally came from Yunnan, infuse their mushroom and meat dishes with herbs such as mint, chillies and stinging ‘flower peppers’.
Taiwanese vegetarian cuisine has plenty to offer any traveller, vegetarian or not. The country’s Buddhist roots run deep, and while only a small (but still sizeable) percentage of Taiwanese are vegetarian, a fair chunk of the population abstains from meat for spiritual or health reasons every now and again, even if only for a day or a week.
Buddhist vegetarian restaurants are easy to find. Just look for the gigantic savastika (an ancient Buddhist symbol that looks like a reverse swastika) hanging in front of the restaurant. Every neighbourhood and town will generally have at least one vegetarian buffet. The Taiwanese are masters at adding variety to vegetarian cooking, as well as creating ‘mock meat’ dishes made of tofu or gluten on which veritable miracles have been performed.
How to Eat & Drink
When & Where
Most breakfast places open at about 6am and close by 11am or noon. A traditional breakfast in Taiwan usually consists of watery rice with seaweed (鹹粥; xián zhōu), clay-oven rolls (燒餅; shāobǐng) and steamed buns (饅頭; mántóu), served plain or with fillings; the meal is generally washed down with plain or sweetened hot soybean milk (豆漿; dòujiāng). Other popular breakfast foods include rolled omelettes (蛋餅; dàn bǐng), egg sandwiches (雞蛋三明治; jīdàn sānmíngzhì) and turnip cakes (蘿蔔糕; luóbo gāo).
The Taiwanese generally eat lunch between 11.30am and 2pm, many taking their midday meal from any number of small eateries on the streets. Zìzhù cāntīng (自助餐廳; self-serve cafeterias) are a good option, offering plenty of meat and vegetable dishes to choose from.
Dinner in Taiwan is usually eaten from 5pm to 11pm, though some restaurants and food stalls in bigger cities stay open 24 hours. Taiwan's cities – especially the larger ones – all have a fair-to-excellent selection of international restaurants. Don't be surprised to run into a small Indonesian, Indian or even Mexican eatery on a back alley.
The most important thing to remember in Taiwan when it comes to food is that some of the best eats are found on the street – gourmands know that some of Asia’s best street eats are found in night markets in and around Taiwan’s cities.
Bars often keep long hours in Taiwan, opening in the afternoon and closing late at night. Most bars offer a limited menu, while some offer full-course meals. Expect to pay at least NT$150 for a beer, NT$200 and more for imported or craft beer.
Etiquette for Dining Out
- In restaurants, every customer gets an individual bowl of rice or a small soup bowl. It is quite acceptable to hold the bowl close to your lips and shovel the contents into your mouth with your chopsticks. If the food contains bones, just place them on the tablecloth (it’s changed after each meal), or into a separate bowl if one is provided.
- Remember to fill your neighbours' teacups when they are empty, as yours will be filled by them. You can thank the pourer by tapping your middle finger on the table gently. On no account should you serve yourself tea without serving others first. When your teapot needs a refill, signal this to the wait staff by taking the lid off the pot.
- Taiwanese toothpick etiquette is similar to that of neighbouring Asian countries: one hand wields the toothpick while the other shields the mouth from prying eyes.
- Probably the most important piece of etiquette comes with the bill: although you are expected to try to pay, you shouldn't argue too hard, as the one who extended the invitation will inevitably foot the bill. While splitting the cost of the meal is fashionable among the younger generation, as a guest you'll probably be treated most of the time.
Nocturnal Food Fun
One Taiwan experience you can't miss out on is eating at a night market. Though Taipei's night markets are arguably the most famous, all cities in Taiwan have at least a few of their own, and even a medium-sized town will have a street set up with food stalls selling traditional Taiwanese eats late into the night.
So what kind of food can you expect to find on the fly in Taiwan? Some items won't surprise people used to eating Asian food back home. Taiwanese shuǐjiǎo (水餃; dumplings) are always a good bet, especially for those looking to fill up on the cheap. Stuffed with meat, spring onion and greens, shuǐjiǎo can be served by the bowl in a soup, and sometimes dry by weight. For a dipping sauce, locals mix chilli (辣椒; làjiāo), vinegar (醋; cù) and soy sauce (醬油; jiàngyóu) in a bowl according to taste. Other street snacks include zhà dòufu (炸豆腐; fried tofu), lǔ dòufu (鹵豆腐; tofu soaked in soy sauce) and kǎo fānshǔ (烤番薯; baked sweet potatoes), which can be bought by weight.
Probably the most recognisable Taiwanese street snack is chòu dòufu (臭豆腐; stinky fermented tofu). This deep-fried dish is something of an acquired taste, like certain European cheeses: generally speaking, people either love the stuff or they can't stand it. Another strange food to look out for is pídàn (皮蛋; 'thousand year eggs'), duck eggs that are covered in straw and stored underground for six months – the yolk turns green and the white becomes like jelly. Other interesting snacks available at markets include jī jiǎo (雞腳; chicken feet), zhū ěrduǒ (豬耳朵; pig ears) and even zhū jiǎo (豬腳; pig feet).