Taiwanese Cuisine: An Incomplete Catalog of Deliciousness

I crave Taiwanese food for years at a time. I can keep it somewhat at bay by eating by grabbing a bowl of minced pork over rice at Mee Sum or ordering some xiaolongbao at Jade Garden, but it’s nowhere near the absolute glory that is real Taiwanese food.

炸酱面 (zha jiang mien) is a dish of noodles, ground pork, soybean sauce, fresh cucumbers, and more.
Zha jiang noodles, made with ground pork, soybean sauce, fresh cucumbers, and more.
Fried porkchop with rice. A Taiwanese staple.
Fried porkchop with rice. A Taiwanese staple.
Various Taiwanese drinks. Including my all-time favorite (leftmost), iced wintermelon tea!
Various Taiwanese drinks. Including my all-time favorite (leftmost), iced wintermelon tea!
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A spread of Taiwanese delights at Formosa Chang, a now famous and busy restaurant that started as a little street cart.

The most exquisite parts of Taiwanese cuisine are the fruits and vegetables. As much as I adore so many aspects of American food, Americans do not know how to prep vegetables. In my experience, American veggies come in one of two forms: bland as a piece of paper or slathered with butter & microwaved. Both are awful. I dream of Taiwanese greens: pumpkin leaves, cabbages, a-chai, mustard greens, kong xin vegetables (translates to empty heart/hollow stem veggies, but I’ve seen it in English as “water spinach” or “swamp cabbage/morning glory”),  bok choy, bean sprouts, mei gan greens… And loads of garlic and green onions on everything.

Shopping for veggies at an outdoor market.
Shopping for veggies at an outdoor market.
A bowl of rice with a plate of savory, mouthwatering Taiwanese cabbage. Cabbage is the last thing to deserve those adjectives in the states, but trust me--Taiwanese cabbage is soooo addicting, all garlicky and flavorful. I can eat platefuls and platefuls!
A bowl of rice with a plate of savory, mouthwatering Taiwanese cabbage. Cabbage is the last thing to deserve those adjectives in the states, but trust me–Taiwanese cabbage is soooo addicting, all garlicky and flavorful. I can eat platefuls and platefuls!

Taiwanese fruits are integral to the Taiwanese meal. Just as the Italians end their repasts with espresso, the Taiwanese end with fruit. When I was growing up, my family had fruit every single night. I still love fruit as an evening snack, but alas, Washington apples and pears and cherries can’t compare to the perfection of Taiwanese fruits. (not pictured: mangoes… my favorite.)

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Dragonfruit on the vine.
Dragonfruit on the vine.
Eating guava straight from the tree!
Eating guava straight from the tree!

One of my favorite Taiwanese things is tie ban shao, “iron griddle cooking,” which is Taiwanese style teppanyaki. Because the island was colonized by Japan for so long, there is a powerful Japanese influence in our food. The typical tie ban shao meal is founded on your order of a saucy main entree of your choice (chicken, beef, pork, lamb, seafood, tofu, etc) grilled to perfection with typical Taiwanese ingredients (combos of soy sauce, rice vinegar, oyster sauce, 5-spice, etc, and always with piles of garlic). It comes with rice, soup, two or three types of veggies, and Taiwanese sweet red tea (which I could write ballads about, honestly).

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Chefs at work. Also: veggies, rice, soup (with bread tops!), and red tea!

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Other Taiwanese fare with Japanese influences:

Lala mien (pull-pull noodles, named for the way the noodles are handmade)
Lala mien (pull-pull noodles, named for the way the noodles are handmade)
The spicy version of lala mien. I usually always go for spicy, but in this case, original is best.
The spicy version of lala mien. I usually always go for spicy, but in this case, original is best.

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Mochiko chicken, yum.
Mochiko chicken, yum.

Another favorite of mine: steaks! I really don’t care for steaks in the states, no matter how fancy. I don’t have a sophisticated palate for meat. I think Taiwanese steaks are wonderful though. Mostly because of the amazing sauces, especially the black pepper steak sauce. Steak meals are a lot like tie ban shao in that they include everything. The steak and oyster dish pictured below came with: three drinks (plum tea, red tea, and a choice of juice/milk tea/coffee/soda/etc), a choice of soup, a choice of salad, a shrimp appetizer, and a choice of dessert. All delicious, and all for NT$570 (US $17).

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Okay, so I have a lot of favorites. 🙂 Here are more:

Xiaolongbao (little dragon buns) at a night market.
Xiaolongbao (little dragon buns) at a night market. One of the best street foods in a country full of dazzling street foods.
Taiwanese potstickers are a must. Also order hot and sour soup and soy milk!
Taiwanese potstickers are a must. Also order hot and sour soup and soy milk!
Oyster noodles. This particular bowl was not the best... but oh well.
Oyster noodles. This particular bowl was not the best… but oh well.
Beef noodle soup! My ambrosia! Always top with loads of mustard greens.
Beef noodle soup! My ambrosia! Always top with loads of mustard greens.
More beef noodle soup! I love it a lot, okay.
More beef noodle soup! I love it a lot, okay.
Shui jian bao (water-fried buns), golden-bottomed and juicy. Filled with either pork or cabbage. Both are amazing. Plus one of Taiwan's most ingenious brainchilds: BUBBLE MILK TEA.
Shui jian bao (water-fried buns), golden-bottomed and juicy. Filled with either pork or cabbage. Both are amazing. Plus one of Taiwan’s most ingenious brainchilds: BUBBLE MILK TEA.

Other favorites on our trip:

Cast-iron pot grilled chicken, eaten on the way up the mountains in Nantou.
Cast-iron pot grilled chicken, eaten on the way up the mountains in Nantou.
Lamb chops!
Lamb chops!
Ai yu (love jade) jelly, made from the seeds of a kind of fig. The drink is sweet, refreshing, and lemony.
Ai yu (love jade) jelly, made from the seeds of a kind of fig. The drink is sweet, refreshing, and lemony.
Taro & pork fried rice, goes well with a cup of Taiwanese beer.
Taro & pork fried rice, goes well with a cup of Taiwanese beer.
Fried squid from the night market in Kaohsiung.
Fried squid from the night market in Kaohsiung.
Tiny islands know how to do seafood.
Tiny islands know how to do seafood.
Crab.
Crab.
Sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes.
Minced pork noodles, a yummy plateful of greens, and wintermelon soup. (By the way, this is from a mall food court. Only US $3 and far better than American food court fare.)
Minced pork noodles, a yummy plateful of greens, and wintermelon soup. (By the way, this is from a mall food court. Only US $3 and far better than American food court fare.)
Peanuts! We hand-peeled and then roasted them at the farm of a family acquaintance. When my dad was in elementary school, he used to pick, peel, and sell peanuts on the streets.
Peanuts! We hand-peeled and then roasted them at the farm of a family acquaintance. When my dad was in elementary school, he used to pick, peel, and sell peanuts on the streets.
Sugar cane juice!
Sugar cane juice.
Clams with pasta.
Clams with pasta.
This fall-off-the-bone pork was one of the best things I've ever eaten, truly. It was PERFECTION.
This fall-off-the-bone pork was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, truly. It was PERFECTION.
Grass jelly, so nostalgic.
Grass jelly, so nostalgic.
Mango shaved ice. Those crappy American things can't even compare (they're literally smashed ice cubes with saccharine artificial flavors poured on top). Taiwanese shaved ice is so finely ground that the texture is softer than snow, and sweetened with condensed milk. So good.
Mango shaved ice. Those crappy American things can’t even compare (they’re literally smashed ice cubes with saccharine artificial flavors poured on top). Taiwanese shaved ice is so finely ground that the texture is softer than snow, and sweetened with condensed milk. So good.

Last bits of interesting things about Taiwanese cuisine:

  • Taiwanese folk are all about that QQ texture! QQ is what we call that bouncy, springy, chewy texture of certain noodles, as well as things like mochi, tang yuen, and the bubbles/boba/tapioca in bubble tea.
  • If you want the real Taiwanese food experience, go to a night market and just have a little bit of this and little bit of that. Taiwanese vendors specialize in xiao tsi (small eats).
  • Taiwanese people mostly eat out or get take-out (in the form of bian dang, Taiwanese lunchboxes). However, many families do cook meals at home. If you’re invited to a Taiwanese home for dinner, you’re in for a treat! Be sure to learn the important Mandarin phrases though. The first Mandarin words I taught my husband were “That’s enough,, thank you! I’m full!” 😉
  • If you see a long line for something… GET IN IT. You will not be disappointed.
A family meal at my grandparents' house.
A family meal at my grandparents’ house.
A super long queue for Hot Star fried chicken fillets.
A super long queue for Hot Star fried chicken fillets.

One last-last note! There were loads of other foods we had that I didn’t take pictures of… mostly because we ate them too fast. This is by no means a comprehensive catalog of Taiwanese cuisine. Despite the ridiculous length of this post, there’s still more to be said and tasted.

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14 thoughts on “Taiwanese Cuisine: An Incomplete Catalog of Deliciousness

  1. This made me so hungry!

    When I saw that picture of the fried pork chop, I thought that it looked like something I would have eaten in Japan (tonkatsu) – then when you mentioned the Japanese influence, it made sense (I hadn’t even thought of that)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, I think most national cuisines consist of many diverse and complex “outside” influences! The way food evolves over time is really quite cool. (For instance, how pizza changed from its origin in Napoli to the modern American version of pizza.) Taiwanese food is a conglomerate of Mainland influences from all over China (but mostly Fujian), Japanese elements, and aboriginal elements! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I love Boiling Point! And Facing East in Bellevue. Nothing beats the real stuff, but I feel lucky that at least the PNW has some acceptable substitutes! 🙂 Have a lovely day, Lena!

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  2. I don’t know a lot about Taiwanese food, but Din Tai Fung is Taiwanese, and I love their xiao long bao:) The noodle soups look a lot like the Japanese ramen, which I’m really craving now:)

    Like

  3. Just got back from my vacation in Taiwan, and boy, did I miss the foods already, After pampering my palates for three good weeks, I can say the Chinese restaurants here in Dallas area are just plain awful, the price, the ingredients, the presentation are just not up to par.
    I’m seriously considering retirement in Taipei. There are three meals you have to take care of EVERY day, might as well make it enjoyable.

    Like

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