It’s almost a cliché to say that one of the best reasons to visit Taiwan is the diversity and quality of its eating experience. But there is actually a lot of restaurant and night market food that is made at home by many Taiwanese themselves. Here is just a sampling of some typical dishes that have made their way from the home kitchen to the local food stand.
By Stuart Hill
From high-end restaurants to modest road-side stalls, Taiwan really is a bit of a food lover’s paradise. Eating is a form of local entertainment, an excuse for social interaction, and above all a relatively cheap cultural experience too.
Taipei is not just a melting pot of different international food styles, it’s also a smorgasbord of Chinese delicacies. One result of the huge influx of Chinese after the Chinese Civil War was also the subsequent influence of various forms of cooking from across the whole of China.
In Taiwan you can find dishes from all corners of China’s vast reach — yet with a slightly lighter interpretation to many of the heavier flavored versions you will find these days across China, Hong Kong and parts of South East Asia.
While many of the most “famous” places to eat specialize in a few signature dishes, in fact many typical menu items are meals that families prepare for themselves at home.
Here are just a few of the hundreds of dishes you will find on the street or in restaurants that you can actually try yourself at home.
Beef Soup 牛肉湯 (niu rou tang)
Typically on the street it will come in a number of varieties: either a heavier braised beef or a lighter clear broth style. And it’s very common to include a freshly “shaved” fettuccine-style noodle or a thinner spaghetti-style noodle.
To make it at home you can use a rice cooker to simmer the soup until the meat is tender and falls off the bone. And various vegetables to your liking — or not!
Fried Rice Noodles 炒米粉 (chao mi fen)
You often find a plainer version of this dish in Taipei night markets, with fewer vegetables and longer noodle strands. First boil the dry noodles and then fry them in a wok, adding shallots or onions and bits of pork mince, satay sauce, or fish paste to your own taste.
Egg “Pancake” 蛋餅 (dan bing)
Variations on this breakfast dish are ubiquitous across the whole of Taiwan and while the preparation and presentation can be slightly different the ingredients are basically the same. You might eat it plain, with egg, with bacon, with or without soy-based sauce, with or without chili sauce. It’s often simply fried or rolled or “scrunched”. In any case, you can find the frozen pastry in your local supermarket freezer.
Fried Radish Cake 蘿蔔糕 (luo bo gao)
Another very common breakfast specialty is fried radish cake. The standard street-food version can be a bit of a let down, and if you are not familiar with the flavor seems to resemble a kind of failed hash brown. But made with fresh ingredients, and lightly fried, it’s a classic people’s food that is relatively healthy and pretty filling too.
Dumplings 水較 (shui jiao)
There are still places in Taipei — try local morning markets — where dumplings are made fresh and packed in batches of 15-20 for you to take home yourself to cook. But you can actually make them yourself by combining pork or beef (or lamb) mince with chopped cabbage and a bit of ginger. The dumpling “skins” can be bought from the supermarket. You’ll find there are actually many dumpling flavor combinations available. Cooking can be a bit tricky, best attempted in a deep wok, which you add water to while bringing to the boil twice.