Foreigners in Taiwan: Tasting the Differences Between Singapore and Taipei

Writer, music publisher, and outspoken foodie, Johnson Ong (王祚森) has written two books about the pleasures of eating in Singapore. An avid blogger about things cultural — pop and otherwise — for a few years in the 90s Johnson was a Taipei resident. These days, he often returns to catch up with friends and explore the Taiwan food scene. Here he shares his Taiwan experiences. 

By Stuart Hill

Eating in Singapore

Author of two books on eating in Singapore, Johnson Ong was a resident of Taipei during the late 90s. He returns regularly to sample Taiwan’s latest flavors.

SH: In terms of popular culture, what part does Taiwan play in Greater China or Asia…?

JO: Taiwan is an undisputed powerhouse in popular Chinese music, and has influenced a lot of people across several decades. In that way Taiwan occupies a very special position in the Chinese music scene world-wide. In much the same way, you can see a similar impact within the world of food, and looking ahead, Taiwan has a lot of space to develop its influence there. On its own, Taiwan has the right conditions and the necessary ingredients to innovate a completely new cuisine, a kind of “culinary miracle”.

SH: How do you think Taipei has changed over the years? How does it compare to changes in Singapore?

XiMenDing in Taipei

Many sections of Taipei were under construction in the 90s, especially in areas where the MRT was being built. This photo was taken in the late 90s of the main entrance to XiMenDing.

JO: Compared to the Taipei of the 90s, the place has become a lot more convenient. You have the [extension of the] MRT which is a huge change in the way people get around. Also, compared to the chaotic Taipei that I lived in, a lot of places have become significantly cleaner. Although you could say Singapore is better at city infrastructure, the human elements and the quality of the cultural side to Taipei are something that Singapore has failed to grasp, and seems unable to replicate.

SH: When was the first time you visited Taipei; how long did you live in Taipei, and how often do you come back?

JO: I first came to Taiwan in 1992 – just for fun! But from 1995 to 1999, I was working for a Hong Kong company (PolyGram Music Publishing) that placed me here. However, since then, I’ve been back many times to see old friends. Right now, I’m planning my next visit for the end of this year.

SH: If you were recommending Taiwan to other Singaporeans, what would you highlight? What do you think they would get from visiting?

JO: Taipei will feel pretty familiar to many Singaporeans. However, it worries me that the only focus is on visiting night markets and [well-known] JiuFen, eating local snacks, releasing sky lanterns, these kind of activities. In fact I rarely hear Singaporeans talk specifically about looking at pottery in YingGe, exploring YangMing Mountain, taking a hot spring in BeiTou or appreciating MaoKong’s locally grown tea. How about finding one of Taipei’s coffee shops, hidden in a back alley? And there’s literally no-one who ever mentions they’ve found or bought [Chinese] books at one of Taipei’s bookstores.

ShiLin Nightmarket Taipei

The heart of the famous ShiLin night market was a pavilion of food stalls. Since this photo was taken in the late 90s, the night market has expanded, modernized, and the food stalls shifted to upgraded premises.

SH: How would you describe the differences in tastes and interest in food between Singaporeans and Taiwanese?

JO: Where food is concerned, Taiwanese understand how to savor what they eat, while Singaporeans tend to just eat. In fact, whether its Taiwanese food, Japanese cuisine, western steak, or even food you get on the side of the road or small street or alley, Taiwan has some great restaurants. Both countries tend to prefer strongly flavored foods. However, Taiwanese have more sophisticated tastes, while Singaporeans with their fascination for spicy food don’t seem to appreciate lighter flavors.

SH: What would be your “top 5 must eat dishes” for people visiting Taiwan?

JO: These are just my personal preferences, not really recommendations: dumplings or pot stickers with sour and spicy soup, (hot) herbal jelly (燒仙草), “rice skin” soup (鼎邊銼), hanamaki sushi, goose meat, beef teppanyaki, Taiwanese vegetarian, Taiwanese fried scallion pancake (台式蔥油餅), and pickled horse-radish omelet (菜脯蛋). I have a bit of a soft spot for beetle nut flowers, either in a cold dish or stir-fry, and many of these dishes you can’t really get in other parts of Asia.

Taiwan cold side dishes

Many Taiwanese restaurants offer a selection of cold side dishes, such as sliced pigs ears (pictured), green beans, tofu, seaweed, among many others.

SH: So what did you miss about Singapore while you were living in Taipei?

JO: I missed Hainanese Chicken Rice from Singapore and Earl Grey tea… It was so expensive during that time!

More About Johnson Ong:

Useful Links about Taipei:


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