Let's face it: People go to Taiwan to eat.
No surprise there considering it's the land of bustling night markets, barbecue street vendors, and decades-old hole-the-the-wall eateries serving up delicious, affordable grub.
From iconic local foods like slurp-worthy Taiwanese beef noodles and old-school breakfast fare, to the best roadside snacks to indulge in between shopping breaks, here is a list of must-eat Taiwanese delights - with tips on how to enjoy them like a true local.
Try not to drool while reading.
Dan bing (egg crêpe roll)
Around 6 AM, local breakfast vendors open up shop. One item that's always on the menu? Dan bing. It's like a simple Taiwanese version of a breakfast burrito. An egg, beaten with slivers of spring onions, is fried on an iron griddle, then a thin crêpe is thrown on top. Once the egg-crêpe (or egg-pancake, as some call it) is cooked, it's rolled and sliced into sections, drizzled with sweet chilli or soya sauce, and ready to serve.
That's the plain version - but we recommend opting for fillings such as ham, pork floss or sweet corn.
Local tip: Dan bing pairs well with cold soya bean milk or mi jiang, a velvety, thick sweet rice peanut milk with the aroma of roasted peanuts.
Lou rou fan (braised pork rice)
Fluffy steamed rice topped with savoury braised meat sauce that's bursting with flavour, lou rou fan is an iconic Taiwanese comfort food. Each spoonful is heaped with glistening, tender morsels of fatty pork (totally worth the calories) and fragrant minced shiitake.
The sauce varies: Some consist of pork belly chunks for that melt-in-your-mouth goodness, while others include a mix of lean minced meat and fat for varied texture, as is the case at the popular Huang Ji Braised Pork Rice in Taipei.
Common toppings include a bright yellow slice of Japanese pickled radish and soy sauce egg. At another crowd favourite, Taipei's Jin Feng Braised Pork Rice, the dish is served with a slice of bitter melon.
Local tip: A simple bowl of lou rou fan by itself is delicious, but it's even better when paired with a bowl of light, savoury soup. We recommend bamboo shoot soup, which is widely available at lou rou fan eateries.
Taiwan-style grilled corn on the cob
You know it's the real deal when the vendors wear knit safety gloves. Grilled over glowing red embers, each corn on the cob is slathered with coat after coat of garlicky soy paste and sweet spicy sauce. A delicious smoky fragrance wafts up your nose as the kernels blacken and the sticky sauce caramelises. The result is charred, savoury, garlic-buttery sweet corn, sprinkled with white sesame, emitting an aroma so intoxicating that you begin to salivate immediately.
What's special about Taiwan corn on the cob is the type of corn used: nuo mi (glutinous) corn is beloved for its gummy "QQ" texture. It's firmer than regular sweet corn, with more of a bite.
Local tip: Many locals also enjoy the steamed version, which is brushed with salt water before serving. Travelling with kids? You can get the grilled corn and let them have the steamed version (since it's not spicy). Local kids love twisting the individual kernels out of their sockets before popping them one by one in their mouths like candy.
Small sausage in big sausage
Walk into any night market and you're bound to find this popular snack, which we'd gladly break our diet for. Juicy, smoky Taiwanese sausage is barbequed on a charcoal grill, and then stuffed into a stodgy glutinous rice sausage. Artery-clogging and carb-loaded? You bet. Your lips will be glossy from all the grease - that's how sinful this snack is - but its tasty factor is through the roof. It's even better with salted vegetables and slices of raw garlic wedged inside.
Local tip: Bring on the breath mints. If you don't have them, guzzle some fresh watermelon juice (another night market staple) to chase away the intense meaty garlic breath.
You can smell it before you see it. Love it or hate it, no trip to Taiwan is complete without trying stinky tofu at least once.
Emitting its trademark, overwhelming stench (think burning garbage and dirty wet socks), fermented tofu assaults the nose but pleases the taste buds. The deep-fried version is usually served with a side of crunchy pickled cabbage and cucumbers, which you can heap onto the tofu cubes along with dollops of garlic sauce and chili. Sink your teeth through the tofu's crispy, crackling skin into its soft centre and savour the intensely flavourful juice that gushes out with each bite.
Widely celebrated as Taiwan's national snack, there is no other street delicacy that packs such a smelly punch; but then again, the outcome is surprisingly tasty - if you're brave enough to try.
Local tip: Other than deep-fried, stinky tofu can also be stewed, barbecued, or simmered in a tongue-searing mala broth with congealed duck blood. If you're a newbie to stinky tofu, start with the barbecued version, which is less pungent.
Bawan (Taiwanese meatball)
If you like soon kueh and chai kueh, you have to try bawan, a Taiwanese meatball nestled inside a deliciously springy, sticky glutinous skin that's steamed first, then fried, and drenched in sweet-and-savoury gravy. The filling typically consists of pork, diced bamboo shoot and mushrooms. There are several styles of this UFO-shaped meatball dumpling, but Chuanghua City is said to have the best bawan. If you're there, Bei Men Kou Achang Rouyuan is a must-try.
That said, eight decades old Taichung Bawan in Taichung City is a contender with their secret gooey sauce (from its milky white hue you'd never guess it's chilli sauce), topped with fragrant coriander. The restaurant is not air-conditioned but well ventilated and always packed, even though it only has three items on its menu: bawan, fishball soup and vermicelli soup (all worth trying, by the way).
Local tip: If you order soup, pour the soup into your empty bawan bowl and slurp it up with the residual sauce and filling. Shiok!
Taiwanese beef noodles
A big bowl of piping hot broth with slippery, "QQ" noodles and thick chunks of succulent, melt-in-your-mouth beef. Who can resist? Beef noodle soup, or niou rou mian, is arguably Taiwan's national dish. There's even an annual Taipei Beef Noodles Festival devoted to it.
Tender braised beef and gelatinous tendons are thoroughly infused with the richly flavoured stock, slow-simmered for hours with bone marrow and onions for ultimate heartiness. The red roasted (hong sau) beef broth boasts a fragrant soya sauce base laced with nose-prickling peppercorns, star anise and other tantalising spices.
There are several soup variations, from spicy and clear to tomato based with juicy tomato chunks adding an acidic umami kick. Don't forget to heap on some suan cai (salty preserved vegetables) for added crunch.
In Taipei, we recommend the family-run Yong Kang Beef Noodle shop, founded in 1963, and Lin Dong Fang, another no-frills beef noodle specialist that lives up to its three-decade-old reputation. Lao Fu Zi Beef Noodles Shop in Taichung is another must-try, touted for its free flow chilli padi suan cai and deliciously cheap appetisers (xiao cai). A plate of spicy baby squid for S$1? Yes please.
Local tip: The secret to amplifying the taste of hong sau beef noodle soup even more is adding a few drops of white vinegar.
Taiwan-style fan tuan might look a little, well, boring. From the outside, it appears to be an unremarkable oblong rice roll - but all the delectable goodies are on the inside. Breakfast vendors offer various fillings. The gold standard is a combination of crispy you tiao, pork floss, crunchy suan cai (pickled vegetable) and egg, all tightly wrapped in sticky nuo mi (glutinous rice) and sprinkled with fragrant sesame seeds. It comes in a plastic sleeve - perfect for on-the-go eating.
Local tip: White nuo mi is the most common but if there is the option, opt for purple nuo mi instead, which contains antioxidants thanks to its dark pigmentation, or a mix of both.
Shao bing you tiou (deep-fried dough stick in flatbread)
Shao bing is a flaky, fire-roasted Asian flatbread topped with white sesame. The best shao bing is soft on the inside, and so crispy on the outside that when you eat it, paper-thin shards of dough fall onto the plate.
A traditional Taiwanese breakfast, shao bing you tiou consists of a golden deep-fried dough stick sandwiched between the flatbread for a crunchy double whammy. Sometimes you can even hear a loud crackle as you bite into it. This dish is best paired with a bowl of savoury soya milk (more on that later).
Local tip: This is something you'd want to scarf down right on the spot to enjoy it at peak crispiness. Sure, you could da bao, but the longer it sits in the takeaway bag, the sooner it will get soggy and limp.
Salty soya milk
Generations of local Taiwanese grew up enjoying xian dou jiang. At traditional breakfast joints, aunties and uncles stand behind enormous vats of fresh, hot soya milk, ladling it into bowls. They are seasoned with dried shrimp, spring onions, chye poh (dried radish), sesame oil and red chilli oil, and topped with you tiao bits. Nothing warms the belly like this quintessential Taiwanese breakfast drink, which is akin to a creamy soup. When paired with the aforementioned shao bing you tiao, it's even more divine.
Local tip: Some people add a dash of white vinegar to balance the saltiness. The vinegar causes the soya milk to curdle, and while this appearance is a turn-off for some, we think the acidity injects a multidimensional taste. Chalk it up one of those "tastes better than it looks" moments.
Oyster lovers, this one's for you. Orh ah mee sua is Taiwanese wheat vermicelli in a thick, velvety soup with juicy oysters and braised pork intestines. This simple local dish is teeming with deliciousness, thanks to the stock that's typically flavoured with bonito flakes, chicken stock and dried cuttle fish.
What makes Taiwanese mee sua stand out is the silky smooth texture of the soup, coupled with plump oysters that burst in your mouth. That said, for our friends who dislike oysters, fear not: You have the option of ordering plain mee sua, which is just as slurp-worthy.
Local tip: Mee sua goes best with a bit of black vinegar and chilli. Some might even say that the chilli is what sets the best mee sua apart from the rest. Case in point: The wildly popular Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodles in Xi Men Ding, Taipei, is fiercely protective of their chilli oil recipe, which elevates the taste of mee sua like nothing else.
This article was first published on Her World Online