Taiwanese Food

Taiwan Food.JPG

One of the great images from Graham Greene’s great book The Quiet American is that of anti-hero Alden Pyle spreading vegemite on crackers to avoid eating the spicy local food.

While not nearly as unadventurous as Pyle, I have to admit I’m particular about what I eat. I like to know what it is I am eating and how it was prepared. I don’t like food swimming in oil. I don’t like food that’s been sitting out for many hours uncovered. I don’t like food that’s been cooked long ago and then reheated. (I know, I’m prissy about what I eat. What can I do?)

Taiwan isn’t the ideal place for finnicky eaters. There’s cheap food in abundance here, but I have issues with a lot of it. The photo above is indicative of the inexpensive fast food you can buy on just about any street here, and at the night markets that seem to draw unending streams of young people looking for bargains. The food is pre-cooked (mainly deep fried) and often undefinable, i.e., your guess is as good as mine as to whether it’s animal, vegetable or mineral.

As I walk by these stands, I am frequently assaulted by the stench of food cooking in deep-fat fryers, in oil that apparently hasn’t been changed in months. There are also bubbling cauldrons of soup, huge vats that are often adorned with chunks of overcooked tofu swimming on top. I’m willing to try new things, so I once ordered a bowl. I won’t be trying it again anytime soon.

Defining what Taiwanese food is seems to be nearly impossible. I can describe to you what Beijing food is (same with Shanghai food and Cantonese food and Sichuan food), but I can’t describe Taiwanese food, except to say it seems to be an odd mish-mash with no distinctive flavor that sets it apart.

I’ve lived in a lot of places now, and usually don’t have problems with the local food. I have some problems here in Taipei. There were so many cheap restaurants in Beijing that I loved. In Singapore, I’d go to these little stands where they’d grill fresh stingray served on banana leaf – incredibly delicious. In Hong Kong, I could order cheap roast duck or barbecue pork just about anywhere. I know there must be similar places here, but so far they’re eluding me. Here, all of the budget food seems to be pre-cooked and deep-fried. Or cooked in huge communal troughs.

I’ve had some great meals in Taiwan, including the best dumplings I’ve had anywhere. It’s only the inexpensive local food that gets me depressed. Could it be that I’m just looking in the wrong places? I live near the university, Shi Da, and the entire area seems to be wall-to-wall food stands offering near-identical fare. I’m willing to keep an open mind and to consider the possibility that Taiwanese food is wonderful. Where should I go for proof?

The Discussion: 21 Comments

If you don’t like deep-fried food, you might have to move on to the next island. Or you can eat generic Asian food: plates of greens, Mongolian beef, clams in rice wine sauce, all served at reasonable prices in every backstreet on the island. That food represents the true Taioan, since Taioan as we know it was a Hokkienese colony later invaded by two of its northern neighbors, and with the Hokkienese having had the closest thing to a pan-Asian lifestyle of any pre-industrial Asian tribe, the diverse, generic Asian food on offer in Taipak/Taibei is a genuine outcome of the history, and Taipak is one of THE best places to get it. p/s Have you tried the oyster omelets, referred to as “owajen”? Always made fresh. pp/s The food may get better as you go south, and healthier if you go to the towns on the coast.

December 26, 2005 @ 11:12 pm | Comment

The food is pre-cooked (mainly deep fried) and often undefinable, i.e., your guess is as good as mine as to whether it’s animal, vegetable or mineral.

Don’t worry about it! As soon as you get settled, you will become absolutely sure that it is indeed animal, vegetable, or mineral. ๐Ÿ™‚

I have the same problem with Taiwanese food. I listed some to my wife the other day, and all the stuff I had thought was “Taiwanese” turned out to be Chinese. I think “Taiwanese” food is actually Chinese + Hakka + Japanese in the same way that “American food” is actually Tex-Mex + Italian-American + Europhile Expensive Trash Crap. What makes it Taiwanese is the particular blend, like the poster above said, not the particular constituents.

Michael

December 26, 2005 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

I can live with eating deep-fried foods. What I can’t deal with is food that’s been deep-fried earlier and is now sitting out uncovered in a big pile, with a puddle of grease swimming at the bottom of the tray.

I went to Kaohsiung a few years ago and loved the food. I even remember buying Beijing kaoya on the street, where it was cooked in this enormous metal oven – it was superb. How come I don’t see Beijing kaoya being sold on the street in Taipei?? It’s not fair.

aBat, thanks for your insights. Do you think it’s possible to define what flavors make Taiwan food “Taiwanese”? Most national foods have some defining characteristics, whether it’s tomato-based sauces, garlic, curry, lemon grass, salsa, oregano or yak butter. Here, the only tie that binds seems to be the fat.

December 27, 2005 @ 12:28 am | Comment

(So funny to see all the google ads for cookbooks and online recipes that have popped up in this post/thread.)

December 27, 2005 @ 12:29 am | Comment

Richard and Michael,
Alas, you certainly have been looking at the wrong places, and the biggest problem is, the “wrong places” are every where in Taipei!! Taipei, in fact, has the least sophisticated endemic culinary culture on the Island. Surprising? No. For “Taiwanese” cusine, sorry, you need to go south, where history and nativism are much better revered. Taipei, as in the case of Tokyo, New York…, is another trend-setting city where people come to make dreams and set aside their hometown memory.

That said, it’s not necessary to give up on searching good “Taiwanese food” in Taipei. I agree, oyster pan cake ( a.k.a. eh-ah jian) or oyster vermicelli soup (eh-ah mee sua), bowled rice cake (wa-ge), Taiwanese burger (Gua-bao), pork bisque (bah-gee)…etc are unique to Taiwan and not at all deep-fried. For the mentioned above, your best bet is Yuan-huan (location of a former traffic round-about in the Yan-ping North Road area). It’s a night market sort of place, just so you know.

Since you are near the Normal University, you are relatively close to Yongkang Street, where you can find great Niu-rou mian (beef brisket noodle soup) and dan-dan noodle- sure, they are not “Taiwanese”, but they beat out any similar attempts by the Chinese these days. Along this “wai-sheng” (foreign provincial) theme, you can find the BEST soy milk, pita bread with friters and sweet rice roll under the elevated transit tracks on Fuxing South Rd, between Ren_Ai and Xin-yi Rd. Yong-he Shi jie is my personal favorite out of a handful of eateries that carry the same items. These are among the cheapest food you can ever get in Taiwan and taste rather good. They open 24 and 365.

You also find excellent vegan buffet restaurants run by the Yi-guandao faith about town. Ming-de (brightened virtue) Su Cai off Yanji Street, right south of Ren-ai Road is a great place to chow down dozens of vegi and soya items. Nearby, you find the best lime-lemon beverage stand of the city (Hong Tang Shui). Behind Ming-yao department store, Tainan duxiao-yue franchise restaurant sells Dan-zai noodle and other snacks of Tainan-the cullinary heart of Formosa. This place is cheap, clean and close to the subway, Dingtai Feng soup dumplings, cafes and Eslite, in case you care. In the vicinity, you find “Hsin-Yeh” restaurant on Zhongxiao East Rd. It’s on the second floor, across from Ding-hao shopping plaza. At Hsin-yeh, you find very decent, medium priced Taiwanese dishes that are fresh, clean, and actually delicious, served politely. You go there with your friends of 4.

East of CKS Memorial on Xin-yi Rd, you can find Fuzhou Dumb-Ass noodle (Sha-gua mian) for breakfast. WHy such name? Well, you’ll just have to find out yourself.

Let me know if you have other aspiring needs regarding food in Taipei anytime.

December 27, 2005 @ 12:46 am | Comment

Strange, one of my best memories of my one trip to Taiwan (15 years ago)was eating budget food in and around major train stations.

December 27, 2005 @ 12:52 am | Comment

Thanks Chester; are you here in Taipei?

I live right by Yongkang Jie, and the restaurants there are great. But not, as you note, for Taiwanese food. (Cello Pasta is, for the money, the best deal in town.)

December 27, 2005 @ 1:21 am | Comment

R-
I was at Cello Pasta last month after I picked up a new pair of Birkenstocks for my friend. Funny.
Try Yongkang Jie Niou Rou mian sometime. Their “fen zheng pai gu” or steamed breaded ribs are very good. Spicy.
Just remembered: Jun-yue Pai-gu has the best and cheap Pork Chop plater in town. I know they have a franchise restaurant on Ren_Ai Rd sec. 4 between Yanji and Guang-fu South Rd. $5/meal and yum.
I will be in Taipei next month. We should go eat, if you fansy!

December 27, 2005 @ 2:08 am | Comment

Let me know when you’ll be in town; I’m one block away from Cello Pasta.

It seems niu rou mian is the national staple food here. It’s, um, okay but I can’t say I love it.

December 27, 2005 @ 2:12 am | Comment

Oh yeah, I agree that those deep-frying vending carts with blood pudding, rice wieners and chicken butt cheeks are simply abominable!

December 27, 2005 @ 2:18 am | Comment

Oddly enough, the picture you have put up is of a luwei stand. While the same selections you see above can be fried, most stands offer it boiled in broth. The broth may be salty, but depending on what you choose, you can get a rather tasty and relatively healthy snack that is low in fat and high in protein. I actually think you can eat quite well in Taipei. The key is to put a little more care into selecting your foods, and ask what everything is.

That aside, I agree that the food in Taipei is, in general, not the healthiest in the world. But you can certainly do pretty well if you try.

December 27, 2005 @ 9:07 am | Comment

Oh man,
I have to restrain myself with the reply because I am Taipeiese and therefore very biased ๐Ÿ™‚ In my opinion, there is no better food city in the world than Taipei. In fact, that’s something I’m really looking forward to when I move back to Taiwan.

Having gotten that out of the way, advice that might actually help you…

1) There is a proper, distinct Taiwanese cuisine, but it is a tiny subgroup of the food available in Taipei which accounts for your failure to detect a coherent pattern from the food you ate. As other commenters pointed out, Taipei is a cosmopolitan city with an insatiable appetite for variety. Many many restaurants are opened by the mainlander diaspora after the 2nd world war. It will be worth your while to seek out indigenous Taiwanese food which is actually considered “light and simple”. Order stir-fried young loofah, oysters in black bean sauce and eat it with sweet potato congee. That’s my favorites anyhow

2) If you are sqeamish about the conditions under which your food is prepared, stay the hell away from the mobile stalls. Obviously established restaurants have, in general, higher standards of hygiene. If you want something that bridge the gap between local interest and greater cleanliness and order, go to one of the department store basement food halls.

3) Keep digging. The difference between the best preparation and a generic example of any particular food can be enormous. I won’t eat oyster vermicelli anywhere except at this tin-roofed stall next to the Breeze department store (丁記), for instance.

December 27, 2005 @ 10:54 am | Comment

To Clarify,
丁記 is the oyster vermicelli place. The Chinese name for the breeze center is 微風廣場.

December 27, 2005 @ 11:05 am | Comment

Richard,

I’m no expert, but most Taioanese, like Battlepanda, say that Taioanese food is light and simple. The greasy food you see on the street is just the Taioanese version of the N. American hamburger and hot dog: fast food.

A word of caution. The word Taioanese is often used to refer to the Holo-Taioanese (or Hokkien-Taioanese) tradition, the same way “American” is equated with “Anglo-American.” Hakka food, for example, is a distinct cuisine in Taioan. You owe it to yourself to swing by one of the new, retro Hakka gourmet restaurants that are coming up in Hakka country. (Oily but very very good.)

I can’t say exactly what flavors set Holo-Taioanese food apart, or even just how it’s related to the food you’d find across the Straits. One trademark ingredient is pig intestine. Another is pig liver. Notice the use of basil (probably a recent thing; the Holo word for it is a modern Chinese loanword). Notice the use of cilantro. Notice the many uses of the little oysters called o’a (=uh-ah). (Some of the best seafood I had was on the street in front of the Matsu temple in Lokkang/Lugang.) Notice how the Taioanese sometimes eat watermelon with salt. All in all, though, there is no “higher tradition” in Holo or Hakka food; and, at least with Holo-Taioanese food, what the people actually eat most of the time is actually pretty generic for Asia.

You can check out http://www.foodiseverything.com. It was put up by a friend of mine who served in the Republic of China Coast Guard a few years ago and was assigned to the kitchen for several months.

What the Taioanese did to Japanese food maybe best captures the essence of Taioanese eating. There’re a couple of Taioanese-style Japanese restaurants on Semngteng (Ximending). Twice the food for half the price, and you can order a “Tianwang”-sized beer—about 2000cc? Maybe more.

aBat

December 27, 2005 @ 3:49 pm | Comment

Breeze Center: Wei Feng Guang Chang.

December 27, 2005 @ 4:24 pm | Comment

Oh my. Reading this post was like getting punched in the stomach. I spent three summers in Taiwan and have never eaten so well. I think of Taiwan as the feasting capital of Asia — delicious, inexpensive and wonderfully varied. After the last summer, I didn’t know what the hell I would eat after getting back to the States. Yes, I am probably more adventurous than many, but there are lots of better-looking outdoor stalls than the one in your picture. One of the things you might be missing is a food-crazy local friend to guide you around. I suggest that you find someone to take you to the Shih-lin night market for some fresh crabs, a bowl of seafood congee, some Taiwanese tempura, danshui fish balls in broth and a big 500 cc papaya milk to finish it off. O-ah-jian (an oyster omlette fried up with a chewy corn starch batter) and chou doufu (nowhere is it made as tasty as in Taiwan) are my personal favorites — these are a bit odd at first but once you get the fever, forget about it.. Even if you don’t like the street food, get someone to take you to Keelong for a seafood feast.. What hurts me most about your post, is that the only time I can get the Taiwanese goodies that I crave is when I go back to New York for vacation. Beijing doesn’t even get close.. Oh yeah, while you’re at Shih-lin you can try Lv rou fan, wagui (taiwanese).. Don’t get me started on the niurou mian, Tainan dandan mian or Taiwanese breakfasts. Also, the non-Taiwanese food that you can get in Taipei is pretty ass-kicking too.. Mmmm..

So hungry, so sad.

Phil

December 27, 2005 @ 8:08 pm | Comment

I haven’t been to the Taiwan for several years — are the beer houses still around? I remember that places like the Indian and the Dinasour had some pretty great Taiwanese dishes, I’m thinking of Three cups chicken (san bei ji) and baby clams in black bean sauce..

I’m so hungry now.

Phil

December 27, 2005 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

Niu Rou Mian all the way ๐Ÿ˜€

December 29, 2005 @ 7:05 am | Comment

It kinda reminds me of any number of foreigners living in any number of foreign countries not liking the food.Open your minds people! Food is a hallmark of that culture and like it or not that is a very important aspect of that culture. I’ve lived many,many places and have always enjoyed the food from the get go.But I’m an American!Famous for this sort of thingy!

January 4, 2006 @ 5:15 am | Comment

Taiwanese food does have a defining characteristic, and very little oil is used in the cooking. I spent 3 months overseas, trust me here. While some dishes have been influences by the Japanese (from the time when Japan controlled Taiwan), the dishes are still a form of Taiwanese food. There are going to be regional differences in cooking, flavors, and even diffrences among the same dish from region to region. Buffalo Wings are made a certain way in Buffalo, NY, and no mass chain has been able to make them they way they are in Buffalo or independent pizzeria’s for that matter- I’m from Buffalo, NY- I know what I’m getting at. Taiwanese food, while having similarites to Chinese food is different and distinct. The real Taiwanese food has a certain refinement that food from China lacks. I’m half Taiwanese and know what I’m talking about. If you disagree with me, take a trip to Chinatown or better yet, head over to Taiwan and you’ll see what I mean. Also, even fried Taiwanese and Chinese food’s better for you than American fast food- taste’s better too

January 10, 2006 @ 10:27 pm | Comment

I’m in Taipei. Meet me here and show me!

January 10, 2006 @ 11:15 pm | Comment

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