Zongzi is one of Taiwan’s many street-food snacks. // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Like most parts of Taiwan, the popular tourist destination of Sun Moon Lake is recognized for a few signatures dishes. // © 2017 iStock
Taiwan might be known for its boba tea, stinky tofu, night-market snacks and Din Tai Fung soup dumplings, but there’s a lot more to enjoy from the country’s banquet of specialty cuisines. The entire island feels like a year-round market, with regional offerings varying among the towns, villages and bigger cities. Furthermore, Taiwanese people have always valued ingredients that change with the seasons, which, in turn, results in regional delicacies reflecting different climates.
In early 2016, David W. J. Hsieh, then-director general of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, highlighted the country’s incredibly diverse food options.
“From traditional Taiwanese dishes, Hakka food, Hunan cuisine and Sichuan dishes to Japanese and Korean food, as well as famous local delicacies and snacks, the island’s amazing range of delicious cuisine has rightfully earned Taiwan its international reputation as a ‘culinary kingdom,’” he said. “It is, without a doubt, one of the best places in the world for tourists to experience great food, scenery and culture.”
Though the gastronomic delights of Taiwan can be enjoyed anytime of the year, it’s a bonus to start a full-fledged foodie adventure at the awe-inspiring Taiwan Culinary Exhibition.
Organized annually by the nonprofit Taiwan Visitors Association, the latest edition of the expo at Taipei World Trade Center in August had “Pure Time of Taiwan” as its theme. The four-day food fest not only included the yearly International Culinary Arts Invitational Competition, but also a pavilion that featured 48 different chefs each presenting four unique seasonal meals. At the expo, it’s not unusual to find a host of lectures with titles such as “World of Female Chefs” or “Talking About Beef Noodles” while roaming through the Taiwanese Agricultural Hall, the Formosa Railroad Bento Festival and the “Brewing Drinks in Taiwan” area.
But it takes a lot longer than four days to fully digest the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition — just like Taiwan itself.
For example, clients might notice that the pineapple cakes and braised food commonly found in Taipei take a backseat in surrounding New Taipei City, which is all about fried fish crackers, fish balls and vermicelli noodles. In its Shiding District, for instance, is Hsu’s Handmade Noodles Co., a rustic, communal noodle-making operation that harnesses the superior air, water and sunshine of higher altitudes to make delicious hand-stretched, air-dried vermicelli using just sugar, salt and flour.
Meanwhile, a ride on the Taiwan High Speed Rail takes culinary-curious parties southwest from Taipei to Kaohsiung, where a few of the reigning ingredients are papaya milk, honey and taro root. The Meinong district of Kaohsiung is also home to many Hakka people, who collectively comprise about 20 percent of Taiwan’s population. The Hakka first came from southern China to Taiwan in the 17th century. Today, descendants of the once-nomadic early inhabitants of Taiwan have built upon a legacy of drying and preserving ingredients for long periods of travel, which is why Meinong has so many lei cha tea shops. The tea is more of a nourishing broth or gruel made with nuts, herbs, sesame seeds, tea leaves and puffed rice. Traditionally served with sweet and savory snacks, lei cha has a completely distinctive flavor that generally won’t be found outside Hakka communities, unless it’s at the street-food section of the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition.
Thirty miles northeast of Kaohsiung, in the municipality of Tainan, it’s a different food story. Local products here include pomelo, lotus seeds and preserved fruit. One of the more experiential destinations in Tainan City is Jingzaijiao Tile-Paved Salt Fields, originally established in the early 19th century as a naturally hospitable salt mine, due to its ideal location on the coast. The salt here isn’t edible — but it works great as an exfoliant, and visitors are encouraged to take some home for baths.
After observing the breathtaking sunset at the salt fields, travelers can find another food-inspired experience nearby at Ten-Drum Cultural Village. Formerly a century-old sugarcane factory, the area is now a hub for Taiwanese drum culture but still serves up yummy raw cane juice. Also in Tainan, local eateries offer tasty dishes such as tofu pudding, fried shrimp and dumplings and sweet, crunchy scallions.
About 100 miles north of Tainan is Taichung, home of suncakes and butter shortbread. It’s adjacent to Nantou county, which is known for its yellow Shaoxing rice wine. Nantou’s crown jewel is Sun Moon Lake, a popular tourist destination and one of the best places to witness Taiwan’s stunning scenery. The area has also earned the well-deserved reputation as a black-tea capital, thanks to its fertile hillside soil and subtropical climate.
For an authentic, fully immersive foray into Sun Moon Lake’s heavily steeped culture of black tea, there’s Hugosum, which cultivates tea leaves and operates a museum and tasting facility. Originally created during Japanese occupation as the Chi-Mu Black Tea Factory, the business was first managed by Shih Chao Xin and then inherited by his daughter. In 2015, the tourist-friendly Hugosum Black Tea Garden was established to help educate the public about its varieties of black tea, which carry exotic names such as Emerald, Ruby and Rose Quartz Black Tea, as well as Jade, Jaipur and Assam Black Tea. Hugosum offers a range of do-it-yourself activities such as spicing, judging, tasting and packaging teas, along with tea-infused soap-making. Hugosum’s mission, with its newly formed garden-cum-visitors center, is to provide a primer on the whole tea-making process, from plucking, withering and rolling to fermenting and drying.
So pervasive is Sun Moon Lake’s black-tea culture that it has even inspired a signature dish called the Ah Po Tea Leaf Egg. It’s an egg boiled in black tea leaves with mushrooms and spices, a process that helps infuse the egg whites with a smoky flavor and color. The eggs were popularized by a woman in her 80s, affectionately dubbed “Grandma,” or “Ah Po.” According to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, her success goes back to Taiwan’s famous leader, Chiang Kai-shek, who loved Ah Po’s eggs so much that he personally gave her a permit to operate her business. It remains the only officially sanctioned food establishment at the Xuanguang Temple Pier on Sun Moon Lake.
So, it should come as no surprise that the modest little tea-egg stand continues to attract long lines, with Ah Po still hard at work making her famous snack inside.
Speaking of snacks, Taiwan is full of tasty street-food treats that are local to different areas across the country. The northwestern municipality of Taoyuan is known for its bean curd and candy, while the provincial city of Hsinchu is famous for pork balls and meat cakes. About a one-and-a-half-hour drive south, Changhua City dishes out Taiwanese meatballs and deep-fried mud shrimp, while Yilan County in the northeast offers visitors lots of preserved fruit, fried broth and duck smoked with sugarcane. There really seems to be no end to the varieties of street food in Taiwan, but one must-try dish is zongzi, a glutinous rice dumpling made with meat and rice and then wrapped in bamboo. Yet even the style of zongzi varies in Taiwan according to the type of bamboo that’s native to a particular region.
An ideal way to experience all of Taiwan’s local delicacies is by combining as many as possible in a unique dish of one’s own. Back in Taipei, chef Ivy Chen has been teaching expatriates and foreign travelers how to cook Taiwanese dishes for nearly 20 years, and she continues to invite visitors into her personal kitchen to learn how to make a tasty Taiwanese home-cooked meal. It all begins with a stroll through the local grocery to pick up ingredients such as Taiwanese basil, Himalayan pink salt, braised pork slices and chicken legs. Then, back at Ivy’s Kitchen — Chen’s place in the bohemian Shilin District — Taiwanese-food newbies learn how to make dishes such as chicken with ginger and garlic, as well as spicy cucumber salad, steamed buns and steamed fish with preserved plum cordial.
Taiwan’s seemingly endless array of food offerings bring to mind a local custom that involves people stamping little booklets to document all the places they go in the country. Whether it’s a temple, a garden or a boutique, just about any establishment offers a custom stamp for visitors to fill their booklets with, providing impressions to take home (stamps usually feature some sort of unique mascot, too).
But when it comes to food, it’s clear that each region has another type of “stamp” of its own, in the form of a culinary delicacy. Like an ink stamp, the memory of a Taiwanese dish or snack can serve as a reminder of what’s special about that particular area.