Why Taiwan is Asia’s next big food destination
Feature image c/o Zhao!, Flickr
Though it’s often seen as China’s estranged cousin, Taiwan has an identity of its own. Especially when it comes to food. And the international culinary scene is starting to take notice.
Due to its geographic location and political history, Taiwan is home to a unique blend of culinary influences drawn from its Indigenous people, China, Japan and the West. With a sub-tropical climate and plenty of mountainous areas for growing fresh produce, the island is well set up to become one of the world’s premier food destinations. Walking around the streets of Taipei, you’ll often be greeted with a “Have you eaten yet?” This isn’t a local’s invitation for a free feed in their homes (if only), but nonetheless a good sign that culturally, this country has its priorities in order.
From small eats (‘xiao chi’) on the street, to Michelin-starred restaurants and chefs, Taiwan has it covered.
Night markets that will blow your socks off
Image c/o LWYang, Flickr
Though many countries have tried to channel the splendour of a proper night market, nothing quite compares to Taiwan. Coloured lanterns, sizzling hot pots and nattering vendors create an exciting, carnival-like atmosphere. Shilin Night Market, located in the capital Taipei, is the most popular market for tourists and one of Taiwan’s biggest. Though seating is available, the best way to eat is to walk around and snack on the hawker-style dishes. Try the intriguing aftertaste of stinky tofu, have your mind blown by a small sausage inside large sausage, or enjoy the silky textures of fresh oysters. After sampling all the different flavours, finish things off with a bubble tea (born in Taiwan), some sweet lemon aiju jelly or fresh papaya juice.
With heaps of night markets scattered throughout the country, Shilin is really just the beginning. Other good ones to try include Raohe, Keelung Temple and Ningxia – and that’s just in Taipei alone.
Lunch boxes, hot pots and exploding pancakes
Image c/o Hsuanya Tsai, Flickr
Taiwan has mastered the art of one of the world’s tastiest, most ingenious breakfasts: exploding pancakes. Yep, you heard correctly. There are many variations of the dish, but one common method is to season the dough with green onion, add poached egg and serve the pancake rolled up. Due to some magic in the cooking process, the pancakes explode when you bite into them (gentlemen with beards: beware).
Come lunchtime, order yourself a neat lunch box filled with rice, vegetables and meat cooked any way you like (BBQ, satay, fried or grilled). While it’s easy to over-order due to excitement, there’s no need to worry, as a lunch box will only set you back around 70-100 NTD (less than AUD 5).
Chinese buffets can be found everywhere in Taiwan, but there’s more excitement in sitting down to a communal hot pot. For a very affordable AUD 20, you can eat and drink all you want – and by everything, we mean anything. Beef, pork, seafood, intestines… you name it, you can put it in the hot pot.
Have a dinner date…with a cat
Image c/o **Hu**, Flickr
Those kooky Japanese folk across the East China Sea may have stolen all the credit, but the first cat café to ever open was in Taipei. It was called Cat Flower Garden but has since been re-branded to Café Dog and Cats. There are now over 50 cat cafés throughout Taiwan.
Cat cafés vary, but at many you’ll need to pay a cover charge. While it’s tempting to pop in and take a quick picture, this is generally frowned upon. So pull up a seat, order some drinks and cuddle some kitties the way the cat café gods intended.
Image c/o Brian Wu, Flickr
One of Taiwan’s most famous exports is Din Tai Fung dumplings, with many franchises opening all over the world (the restaurant has gained Michelin star status in Hong Kong). Increasingly, cooking heavyweights are choosing to set up shop in Taipei: foodies shouldn’t miss the refined French cuisine at Joël Robouchon’s Atelier or the fare at Yannick Alleno’s swanky S.T.A.Y. in the soaring Taipei 101 tower.
Plus, in July each year, Taiwan hosts the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition – an opportunity to showcase the island’s strength as a food nation. Chefs come from around the world to experience all that’s on offer. There’s also an annual beef noodle festival where you can sample the brothy, melt-in-your-mouth goodness of this special dish (2015’s Beef Noodle Festival was almost cancelled, but thanks to a citizen uprising, it was reinstated – they take their noodles seriously here).