A Culinary Tour of Taiwan

A good way to become more familiar with Taiwan’s geography is to acquaint oneself with the specialty food items of places around the island.

A number of Taiwanese foods are closely associated with particular cities or towns, even if they can now also be found in other sections of the country. Join us on a round-the-island familiarity tour of these specialties, starting from the Taipei area and proceeding clockwise on the map.

Photo: Mark Caltonhill

Shenkeng (深坑)

New Taipei City’s Shenkeng District is known for its bean curd, especially the “stinky” variety. Many explanations have been offered for that development: purer water, better beans, mountain air, and so forth. But the cause may be rooted more in economic history than in quality.

In the late 19th century, tofu maker Chen Wu-han is said to have migrated to Taiwan following a severe drought in his native Fujian Province. Taipei’s main commercial districts already had established tofu industries, so Chen followed immigrant tea workers to the then-frontier town of Shenkeng. His products sold well, but when the tea industry hit a downturn, many competitors entered the trade, so it was necessary to find a new business model. He hit on stinky tofu, which seems to have been invented not that much earlier.

One story attributes the dish to a failed Qing-dynasty imperial examination candidate who remained in Beijing and set up making tofu. He apparently wasn’t very skilled at that either. His product didn’t sell fast enough and started to go off, so he ate it himself – and decided it tasted pretty good. Whether he was right or not is still hotly debated by customers in Shenkeng’s “Old Street.”

Keelung (基隆)

The port city’s “Temple Entrance Night Market” (廟口夜市) has long been a major tourist attraction with specialties such as its “pot-edge pancake soup” (鼎邊銼), soybean-noodles (豆簽羹), and crabs sautéed in butter (奶油螃蟹). But it’s the tempura that carries the city’s name to other night markets around Taiwan. The cuisine derives from the Japanese dish of seafood and vegetables fried in batter. In early 20th-century Taiwan, then Japan’s poorer colony, it was just the batter, mixed with fish paste, that was deep-fried. The simpler version continues to be the basis of Taiwanese tempura.

Jiufen (九份)

While balls of taro and flour are commonly eaten as an addition to shaved ice in summer, when they appear anywhere in Taiwan as a stand-alone snack – albeit sometimes mixed with sweet potato- or mung bean-flavored balls – they are invariably labeled as Jiufen taro balls. Some say the dish was invented in this Japanese-era mining town now turned tourist destination, while others say the location was nearby Ruifang. 

Jiufen taro balls

Fulong (福隆)

Take a train in Taiwan and you will be invited to buy an onboard lunchbox. This wasn’t always the case, and especially on long, slow journeys up and down the east coast, local vendors would sell foodstuffs of varying quality through the train windows. Fulong lunchboxes (福隆便當), although simple – usually just a portion of pork or chicken, vegetables, egg, white rice, and a slice of bright yellow pickled turnip – gained a reputation for acceptable quality, making Fulong the preferred point of purchase in northeastern Taiwan.

Yilan (宜蘭)

An Yilan (宜蘭) specialty is marinated-and-smoked duck, pronounced A-hsiew (鴨賞) in the northeastern county’s unique dialect of Taiwanese Hokkien. Yilan also has more rainfall than anywhere else in Taiwan, as well as a sizeable difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures, which are ideal conditions for growing scallions. Yilan onion-oil pancakes (蔥油餅) proclaim the county’s name islandwide. Sanxing Township, regarded as the nation’s “scallion capital,” is home to the Spring Onion Culture Museum (青蔥文化館), where visitors can take DIY pancake-making courses or sample such fare as scallion ice cream.

Yilan onion-oil pancakes

Hualien (花蓮)

Hualien (花蓮), on the east coast, is known for its wan ton (known locally as 扁食, bianshi), Aboriginal-style bamboo-tube rice (竹筒飯), and muaji (麻薯), glutinous rice flour pouches filled with peanut, sesame, or bean pastes. But it is Hualien shu (花蓮薯) that carries the region’s name. This confectionary, made from sweet potato and egg and coated in pastry, apparently won imperial plaudits during the Japanese colonial period.

Chishang (池上)

Taiwan’s best rice is said to come from Chishang Township (池上鄕) in Taitung County’s East Rift Valley, known for its water quality. Shops selling Chishang lunchboxes can be found throughout the island. In the township itself, the Chishang Lunchbox Museum has rice-farming-related exhibits upstairs, a food outlet downstairs, and an old railway carriage outside where customers can sit to eat their food as if rattling along between Taitung and Hualien half a century ago.

Chishang rice

Wanluan (萬巒)

Wanluan (萬巒), a predominantly Hakka village in Pingtung’s foothills, owes its reputation as the capital of pig trotters (豬腳) to a visit by President Chiang Ching-kuo on January 2, 1981. Having walked through the old-town market, he stopped at Haihong Restaurant (海鴻飯店). Word of mouth did the rest: culinary tourists flocked in, restaurants proliferated, and in 2004 the Pingtung County Government launched Wanluan Pig Trotter Street (萬巒豬腳街). The special quality and distinctive taste are said to come from only selecting meat from pigs’ front feet and marinating it in a “special formula” of more than a dozen Chinese medicinal herbs.

Wanluan pig trotters

Kaohsiung (高雄)

Buy a milkshake in Taipei’s Shilin Night Market and more than likely it will be called a Kaohsiung papaya milkshake (高雄木瓜牛奶) after the southern Taiwan port city. The name reflects the popularity of the beverage served by Mr. Zheng, a postwar immigrant from China whose fruit and vegetable shop at the Liuhe Night market started selling milkshakes in the 1960s. The Zheng Family stall is now run by his three sons.

Kaohsiung’s northern district of Gangshan (崗山) is so associated with goat meat (羊肉; the same character is used for sheep and goats) that nearly every establishment in Taiwan specializing in that protein will promote itself with reference to the area. Japanese-era statistics show that goats were raised in northern Kaohsiung from the 1920s because the land was too poor for cultivation. Located on a main highway and later on the railway line, Gangshan became a natural center for the slaughter, sale, and distribution of the region’s goats.

Tainan (台南)

The rural Guanmiao (關廟) district of Tainan is named for China’s third-century military leader turned deity Guanyu (關羽), but is better known for its “three treasures” of pineapples, bamboo shoots, and the eponymous Guanmiao noodles (關廟麵). Local recipes include salted and pickled pineapple, chicken cooked with pineapple and bitter gourd, and pineapple cakes. These – or just whole pineapples – are popular gifts and temple offerings at Lunar New Year because the Hokkien pronunciation of the fruit, Ong-lai (鳳梨), sounds like 旺來 (“prosperity has come”).

Guanmiao noodles

The most obvious feature of Guanmiao, however, are the dozens of noodle shops and restaurants. Formerly, when transportation was slow and refrigeration scarce, fresh noodles spoiled quickly, especially in Taiwan’s humid south. Local producers innovated a method of sun-and-wind drying that also gave their noodles a distinctive texture. Word spread and their popularity grew.

As the site of Taiwan’s early capital and cultural center, Tainan claims many other classic foodstuffs, some prefaced with Anping (安平), the city’s oldest section, or Fucheng (府城; “government city”). Anping douhua (安平豆花) is a sort of soybean pudding, and Fucheng coffin bread (府城棺材板) is rather like a chowder cooked in a deep-fried bread bowl. There is a popular myth that it had been handed down since the city was a 17th-century Dutch settlement, though in reality it probably dates from the 1940s.

The place name Tainan appears in Tainan shoulder pole noodles (台南擔仔麵), which refers to the bamboo poles used by itinerant hawkers, usually fishermen in their slack season. The noodles are flavored with shrimp, bean sprouts, minced pork, coriander, and garlic.

The Madou (麻豆) district of Tainan is said to grow the tastiest pomelos (柚子, youzi). Since they are harvested around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival and because their Mandarin name sounds like 佑子, the talismanic protection of deities distributed by temples, their consumption has become a central part of the festival’s observance. In Taiwanese the fruit is called bwundan (文旦), which some say is derived from the name of the boat captain who introduced the fruit to Japan – a remarkably similar story as to how the pomelo got its alternative English name of shaddock.

Fancy a marinated duck head? If so, it will certainly be marketed as Dongshan duck head (東山鴨頭) after another rural district of Tainan. Why Dongshan, and why the head and not the marinated neck, tongue, chicken’s feet, or various entrails also on sale, is less clear. Every stallholder seems to have a secret recipe used for their own particular marinade. These are based on soy sauce and/or malt sugar, plus various medicinal herbs.

Chiayi (嘉義)

Chiayi chicken on rice (嘉義雞肉飯) is a basic snack at shops and stalls across the island, but back in the southern county itself, it is a much fancier affair that includes green vegetables, a slice of pickled turnip, and a choice of either lean or fatty turkey (火雞; huoji) meat rather than the few bits of stringy chicken found elsewhere.

Xiluo (西螺)

Xiluo (西螺) Township in Yunlin County is said to be the source of Taiwan’s best soy sauce. The largest producer is Wuan Chuang Soy Sauce (丸莊醬油), which dates back to 1909 and came to prominence in the 1930s as a joint venture with the Japanese authorities when wartime restrictions were imposed on various items. When its “made in Xiluo” slogan became popular, other businesses set up there: over 40 at the peak and still around a dozen today. The original Wuan Chuang factory is open as a visitor center.

Changhua (彰化)

Changhua meat circles (彰化肉圓) are another food item nearly always referred to by the Hokkien pronunciation ba-wan, even when speaking Mandarin. Ba-wan recipes vary, but the version from the central Taiwan county of Changhua – made with sweet potato starch and rice flour stuffed with pork, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms – is said to be the original. According to local accounts, this snack can be traced back to August 1898 when torrential rains left large areas flooded and people were unable to prepare their usual offerings for Ghost Month. Possessed by a deity, spirit medium Fan Wan-ju is said to have written out a recipe for people to distribute as famine relief. Reportedly, his descendants still sell ba-wan locally.

Changhua meat circles

Taichung (台中)

Whether any residents of the central Taiwan city actually eat Taichung suncakes (台中太陽餅) anymore is unclear, but whenever people from other places visit there, they are sure to bring some back for their family or coworkers. With its flaky dough and sweet maltose fillings, the pastry got its name from the round shape and yellow color.

Taichung suncakes

Penghu (澎湖)

The middle of the Taiwan Strait is a long way to go for cake, but Penghu brown-sugar cake (澎湖黑糖糕) is a must-try for visitors to the windswept archipelago. Its original name of Ryukyu cake (琉球糕) suggests it may have been brought by Okinawan immigrants during the period of Japanese rule. Nevertheless, innovations since then have made this a truly local product, as testified by the many Japanese tourists who also sample it.

Hsinchu, Miaoli, and Taoyuan (新竹、苗栗、桃園)

Hsinchu, Miaoli, and Taoyuan counties in the northwest are known for their Hakka (客家) cuisine, like parts of Pingtung and Kaohsiung counties in the south. Of the few Hakka dishes bearing distinctive geographic names, Hsinchu rice noodles (新竹米粉) and Meinung plank noodles (美濃粄條) in Kaohsiung are probably the best known. Hsinchu’s low rainfall and strong winds are said to be beneficial to the cultivation of rice and manufacture of noodles. Rice noodles can be fried directly after soaking and do not need boiling first.

Hsinchu rice noodles

Taoyuan County is famous for Longtan peanut candy (龍潭花生糖) and Daxi dougan (大溪豆干), whose “superior taste” is said to derive from the softness of the town’s water. It is made by drying and compressing tofu, marinating it with star anise, cumin, or five-spice, and simmering it in brown-sugar syrup.

Taoyuan peanut candy

Taipei (台北)

Taipei has relatively few place-named foodstuffs, but its suburb of Yonghe (永和) has become synonymous with soymilk (豆漿) – not just in Taiwan, but around the world. China even has a chain of copies called Yonghe King (永和大王). One story holds that the original stall, later shop, in Yonghe was founded by two ROC soldiers who relocated from Shandong to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek’s retreating forces in 1949, and so missed their hometown fare that they set up shop (now known as World Soy Milk King (世界豆漿大王) while they waited for Chiang to take them home. In the meantime, other doujiang restaurants popped up around them in Yonghe, just over the bridge from Taipei.

Shilin chicken steaks (士林雞排) is an interesting example of the ongoing evolution of this kind of branding. Until recently, night market vendors tended to refer to their deep-fried battered chicken steaks merely by adding the adjective “fragrant” (香雞排). But when Taipei’s Shilin night market got listed in various backpacker tourist guides, young travelers from Japan, Korea, and beyond began queueing around the block, and the snack is often called Shilin chicken steaks elsewhere in Taiwan and even at outlets overseas.

Tamsui (淡水)

Tamsui (淡水) on the northern coast is the probably the only place in Taiwan to find a snack called A-gei (阿給). Said to have been invented about half a century ago when a stallholder combined various leftovers and offered them to a hungry customer, a-gei consists of a stewed hunk of deep-fried tofu hollowed out and stuffed with green-bean “glass” noodles (冬粉) that have been fried with ground pork, then sealed with fish paste. The name comes from the Japanese for fried-and-stewed tofu: aburaage.

Tamsui is also famed for its fish-flavored crackers (魚酥) and its “iron eggs” (鐵蛋) that have been repeatedly cooked in spices and then left out to dry. Their invention is said to have been an accident when a Tamsui stallholder’s regular stewed eggs failed to sell and had to be cooked repeatedly.

Kinmen (金門)

The most famous product of the offshore archipelago of Kinmen (金門), distilled sorghum liquor, is a relatively recent innovation. Located just a couple of kilometers off the coast of China’s Fujian Province but almost 200 from Taiwan proper, Kinmen was on the frontline of the ROC’s standoff with the PRC. The islands’ windy weather and dry sandy soils were unsuited to rice cultivation but were fine for drought-tolerant crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and sorghum.

Starting in 1952, with the help of the military, the sorghum was used to produce the fiery liquor kaoliang (高粱酒), a traditional drink of northern China. It became the economic mainstay of the islands, with over 40 million bottles sold each year, contributing some NT$4 billion in taxes and providing almost 1,000 jobs.