Odd, unusual, or just different, the country’s cuisine is perfectly capable of delighting and surprising in equal measure.
Photos courtesy of Chopstick Travel
Visitors to Taiwan may well have experienced locals gleefully offering them unaccustomed foods, in order to impress and perhaps enjoy a good-natured joke at the guests’ expense.
For example, stinky tofu is a fermented bean curd dish that is often eaten at night markets. Your host will typically order a couple of bowls and adopt a wry expression while watching you wrinkle your nose at the smell, recoil slightly at the bloody-looking sight, and compose yourself for a first taste.
Before tucking in, in order to appear polite, you may have to overcome a gag reflex and your natural inclination not to eat foods tainted by time and bacterial cultures. Having overcome any reservations and done your best to finish the dish, you may find yourself agreeing with your host that stinky tofu is indeed rather good – even if it does taste somewhat like an ammonia cleaning product.
You will then be asked if you would like another bowl, at which point you will likely rub your stomach and say you are full. Show too much enthusiasm and you will be initiated into the delights of ever more interesting dishes that may explore the limits of acceptance, such as black-bone chicken testicles, cockscomb, or freshly harvested hornet larvae.
Before we take a closer look at “Taiwan’s top 10 unique foods,” we should make it abundantly clear that what we are talking about is “different from the usual” – and decidedly not “disgusting,” “freakish,” or “weird.” Odd is just the opposite of what you are used to. Just as an oozing, blue-mold, Roquefort sheep-milk cheese in France is unusual to most Taiwanese, the following dishes may be considered exotic to visitors simply because there is no tradition of eating them in their own country.
On the other hand, there are many adventurous eaters in the world who see travel as an opportunity to explore new foods and flavors. Luke Martin and Sabrina Davidson, two Canadians who taught English in Taiwan while falling in love with the country’s street food, would certainly fit this description.
Their passion has turned into a profession, and the pair are now working fulltime on their YouTube channel, Chopstick Travel, which has more than 110 million views. As social media influencers, they have been invited to South Korea to promote the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, created “unique content” for TripAdvisor, and worked as “talent consultants” for Netflix.
“We started creating videos while we were living in Chiayi” in south-central Taiwan, says Martin, who usually presents, while Davidson films. “Everything was a new experience to us, and we wanted to document it all and share it with our family and friends back home.”
The two immediately fell in love with Taiwan’s culinary spread, in particular traditional dishes and what residents consider comfort foods. “We try our best to keep it as real as possible so that when others travel to the same countries, markets, or restaurants, using our guides, they will have similar experiences,” explains Martin.
Asked about their attitude toward “odd foods,” Martin exclaims, “You’ve got to at least try them!” He and Davidson “hope those traveling to Taiwan for the first time step out of their comfort zone and try all the food Taiwan has to offer, even if you may consider it ‘strange.’ You’ll probably love it.”
With the help of Chopstick Travel and some other international commentators, we now move on to our top 10 list of unique Taiwanese foods:
1. Four Spirits Soup (四神湯)
In the Chopstick Travel guide to Tainan City’s food markets, Martin and Davidson check out this flavorful opaque, white soup. Inside swim bite-sized pieces of small and large pig intestines, along with Chinese yam, fox nuts, lotus seeds, and pearl barley. It’s quite easy to prepare at home by using packets of soup flavoring sold at traditional Chinese medicine stores, then slow cooking the mixture for two hours.
2. Braised Intestines (滷味內臟)
While offal is coming back into fashion in the West, where “nose-to-tail dining” is seen as sustainable eating, more often the innards, gizzards, and intestines wind up discarded. In Taiwan, by contrast, offal never went out of fashion. Braised intestines are often available in traditional markets, where vendors pile up food items on stainless steel trays. Such options typically include boiled intestines; chicken wings, hearts, and claws; a wide variety of meats and vegetables; various kinds of eggs; tofu; congealed blood; fish balls; seaweed; and other delights.
Some of the foods are slightly orange in color, as they have been pre-cooked in a marinade made from soy sauce, crystallized sugar, and a mix of herbs and spices, like ginger and cinnamon, along with traditional Chinese medicine. The cost adds up when you choose a lot of items, and somehow, it’s more than a snack but not enough to be called a meal. A bit salty, it goes down rather well with beer.
3. Duck Tongue (鴨舌)
You can find duck tongues at night markets and stores that sell everything duck. It’s another of those traditional specialties that haven’t gone out of fashion. On the Reformatt Show YouTube channel, the self-described “wacky” presenter takes a bag or two of braised duck parts to the park to eat.
He shows the viewer how to suck the tongue from the duck’s throat to eat it separately. “The duck tongue was very strange,” the presenter adds in his introduction. “I felt like I was French-kissing a duck while eating it, but the meat is actually really good.”
4. Spicy Duck Blood Stinky Tofu Soup (麻辣鍋鴨血豆腐)
If you think offal is awful, then congealed duck blood is probably not going to float your boat. However, it is undeniably good for you, as it rich in proteins, minerals, and vitamins (especially iron), but low in fat and sugar. According to traditional Chinese medicine, animal blood will cleanse the blood vessels and make the skin glow.
As with many of Taiwan’s famed dishes, the recipe originally came from China, specifically Nanjing or Shanghai, depending on which story you prefer. In Taiwan, the dish contains stinky tofu, duck blood, pig intestines, garlic sprouts, and a spicy soup base, with cabbage and vermicelli. It’s a warming concoction for the winter months.
5. Chicken Butt (雞屁股)
Moving on from ducks, plenty of locals would like to convince you the best part of the chicken is the butt because it’s both fatty and cartilaginous, a perfect combination of tasty and chewy.
Since “chicken butt” may not sound all that appetizing, there have been attempts at a makeover by renaming the food as “seven-mile fragrance” (七里香). As the name suggests, it really is fragrant, but only in the realm of imagination can it be smelled from seven miles away.
6. Iron eggs (鐵蛋)
Sticking with fowl, numerous egg recipes are enjoyed in Taiwan, but the iron egg deserves special mention because it originated in New Taipei City’s Tamsui District.
Made from chicken, pigeon, or quail eggs, the story goes that it was a slow business day on the seafront when vendor Huang Zhang-nian recooked and dried out her eggs in a sweet soy sauce broth, which shrunk the eggs and soaked up the flavor. She marketed them as “Grandma’s iron eggs,” and their fame has since spread as far afield as Africa and the Middle East.
Apparently it’s a myth that another eggy favorite, century or hundred-year-old eggs (皮蛋), were cured in horse urine. Instead, chicken or duck eggs are buried for up to 60 days in a clay and ash mixture, along with alkaline elements, causing the white of the egg to turn dark brown and the yolk a greenish-black.
7. Pepper Wonton, Pepper Fish Noodles, and Pepper Buns
Handmade pepper-filled wonton (胡椒手工餛飩), handmade pepper fish noodles (胡椒手工魚麵), and pepper buns (胡椒餅) are said to showcase a Fujian Province identity, the area of China that spawned sustained emigration to Taiwan hundreds of years ago. In the Taiwanese dialect, pepper (胡椒) and the Fujianese capital, Fuzhou (福州), sound the same.
While pepper is obviously the dominant seasoning in all three dishes, the big, hot oven that cooks the meat-and-vegetable-filled buns in concentric circles is an interesting innovation in itself.
8. Hornet Larvae (大黃蜂幼蟲)
Entomophagy, aka eating insects, has gone on for thousands of years all over the world, and once more insects are being seen as a viable protein alternative and possible solution to a looming food crisis.
The Taiwanese-American food writer Clarissa Wei has written about the delights of eating hornet larvae, and a few years back there were sweet-and-sour hornet larvae mooncakes that were dipped in rum. Indigenous tribes also feature larvae in some of their dishes.
9. Goat Testicles and Brain Omelet
Another of Luke Martin’s “finds” on his Taiwan travels was a restaurant that sold goat meat dishes, plus all the other goat parts that are edible. These included “massive” goat testicles and a brain omelet.
The “goat balls” are dressed with ginger and are described as “super creamy and bitter.” The brain cooking in the wok smelled “incredible” and “was ridiculously creamy, like butter…an extreme texture,” Martin reports.
10. Ice Cream Burrito (花生糖冰淇淋潤餅)
We conclude our banquet with Anna, who runs the travel blog Slightly Astray. While visiting a Taipei night market, she came across a local delight that combines the run bing (潤餅) – similar to a Mexican flour tortilla – with shaved peanut brittle, cilantro, and three scoops of ice cream in flavors she says tasted like vanilla, taro, and lemon.
She says the combination works by mixing sugary nuttiness, a thin tortilla, and cold, sweet ice cream. “This is one of the most unique desserts,” she says, “And I’m pretty sure it’s only found in Taiwan.”