I would like to add to the collective chorus of people who will tell you that Taiwanese food is some of the best you will ever eat. I do, however, want to take my recommendation a step further and actually provide you the details of why this foodie destination is worth the flight across the Pacific.
For me, Taiwan was everything I hoped China would bebut wasn’t. The city of Taipei was incredibly easy to travel through, and the melange of cultures there contributed to a strong food scene. When you touch down in Taiwan, you’ll be greeted with an endless cascade of options of where to eat. Personally I was glad to have been greeted with a time-honored tradition of smoked duck. At most restaurants everything is ordered family style, with large plates coming for the whole table. So go hungry and go with friends.
Duck has been smoked in Taiwan for generations. Once smoked, a duck can last for a year without refrigeration. My favorite way to have this duck prepared involved a chef slicing it into bite size slivers and tossing them with shallots, hot peppers, and chopped onions. This mixture was then dressed with a healthy dose of sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar, and rice wine. It was then served as a salad. The rich flavors of the smoked duck and sesame oil were cut by the acid of the vinegar and the peppers. Each bite said, “Welcome to Taiwan, please stay forever.”
Another very traditional way to taste Taiwan is to take a bite of oyster omelette, or “oya jians.” Imagine all the best hangover food you can, fried on a griddle that has been basted with pork lard. The oyster omelette is a mainstay of Taiwanese culture and can be found in just about every night market. From our experience it seemed to be more a late-night food than a breakfast concoction. Most of the omelettes were made the same way: A handful of oysters were fried up into the middle of a light batch of eggs, then slathered in a dark savory sauce and seasoned with a mixture of lime and pepper juice. The result was the ultimate food to cap of a night of drinking.
Viewfinder Tip: Head to the Shilin Night Market to sample some of Taipei’s best culinary delights.
I am compelled to tell you about my absolute favorite dish we ever had in Taiwan, a dish so amazingly good, Tawny and I ordered four plates of it at a dinner with friends (remember, family style) and I ate three of them. The dish: minced pork with pickled green beans. The green beans were of a very slender variety, almost like haricots verts. The pork was minced fine and then cooked to perfection. Magically, the beans kept their crunch despite being pickled in vinegar with garlic and hot pepper. Once the beans were standing at the wok-shaped alter, your chef sanctified the marriage of pork and bean with a baptism of sesame oil, diced garlic, and a celebratory bouquet of pepper. Generally, this amazing meal is supposed to be served on top of white rice. I, however, preferred to eat it plain, as if I had just survived three months adrift at sea.
It would be truly cruel of my to leave the Taiwanese staple of hot pot out of this article. Hot pot is a general term that covers the wide array of meals served in Taiwan with a boiling pot in the middle of various broths, in which you can dip your plate of food. Most of the time your meat will come out raw and you get to cook it by dunking it into your hot pot. The continued cooking of marinated meats eventually leads to a well seasoned broth. A great example is drunken chicken hot pot. So called because the broth contains a healthy level of rice wine, it also offers onion, ginger, salt, mushroom, Chinese herbs, carrot, garlic, pepper, anise and of course, chicken. As the chicken simmers away in the hot pot you can dunk vegetables and dumplings in the broth as an appetizer.
Taiwanese shaved ice is unlike the Hawaiian shave ice to which we’re accustomed. Referred to as zue hua bing, the Taiwanese name for shaved ice literally translates to, “snow flower.” The flavorful shaved ice of Taiwan is as delicate as a rose; the mountain of ice (or, in come cases, frozen ice cream) is so finely shaved that it almost has a silky texture. There are a variety of flavors from which to choose, including green tea, taro, mango, and sesame. Most bowls are decked out with a layer of mochi, chopped fruit, boba, or condensed milk, as well. Grab a friend and head to our favorite haunt, Ice Monster, for a heaping portion of creamy shaved ice.
Locally known as fend ll su, these bite-sized pineapple-filled shortbread tea cakes are so addicting you can’t eat just one. Wrapped in fancy packaging and perfect for gifting to friends and family back home, the cakes are one of the best sweets we’ve ever tasted. Tangy pineapple jam fills the center of the flaky, buttery outer layer. Our favorite pineapple cakes came from the Chia Te Bakery in Taipei. If you go, prepare to stand in a queue as the place is a popular spot among locals and tourists alike.
Black pepper buns
Black pepper buns, or hujiao bing, can be found at the Shilin Night Market, and are not to be missed. The piping-hot bun comprises ground red meat (typically pork) and scallions encrusted in a warm, doughy shell. The best part of the black pepper buns is how they’re cooked: They are adhered to the side of a high-heat clay cylinder, which bakes the buns in a matter of minutes. Be careful of your first bite, as the juices within the bun are extremely hot and tend to run down the side of your mouth (and, in my case, your shirt).
What are some of your favorite destinations for great food?