There’s a reason this southern city, where food is a quasi-religion, holds the title of “foodie capital of Taiwan.”
STORY AND PHOTOS BY NEIL ARMSTRONG
Few cities in the world are able to perfectly balance the old and the new. Preserving ancient architecture while striving for modernity with gleaming new buildings is tricky. An even harder feat is maintaining traditions while keeping them relevant.
But the city of Tainan in southern Taiwan has struck this harmonious balance perfectly. Ancient temples and modern art museums stand within eyeshot from each other. And around them, on all sides and down every back alley, sit restaurants, eateries, and food stalls. They come in all shapes and sizes – big, small, famous, obscure (except for locals in the know), run for generations by families or started up by young people determined to follow their passion.
A love of food is woven into the fabric of Tainan, Taiwan’s former capital and current cuisine metropolis. There’s no shortage of quality restaurants and food spots – and we’re talking regular places, not restaurants with velvet ropes and a three-month waitlist. Tastebuds trump decor.
Below is an extensive list of Tainan fare you absolutely must try the next time you visit. But first, a quick primer on Tainan eateries: Dishes are cooked at speed in simple kitchens and served on benches or well-worn tables. Convenience is valued almost as much as flavor and freshness.
Before biting into the main courses, we’ll start with some lighter fare. Small dishes, larger than a snack but not large enough to count as a meal (think food portions having a culinary identity crisis), are highly regarded in Tainan. These dishes tend to be a bit sweeter here than in other parts of the island; Tainan used to be the hub of sugar production, and as sugar represented wealth, it was used in abundance.
Found throughout Taiwan, particularly in its many night markets, the oyster omelet (蚵仔煎, kezi jian, or ou a juan in Taiwanese) is a true Tainan original. The ingredients are simple: oysters, eggs, green vegetables, and sweet potato starch. Beansprouts are added for extra crunch, and the dish is blanketed in a sweet red sauce.
The dish is considered to be of Hokkien and Teochew origin in China and was likely introduced to Taiwan in the 17th century when the Chinese general Koxinga led troops to attack the Dutch settlement in what is now Tainan.
Legend has it that Dutch colonizers, who traded from and constructed the still-standing Fort Zeelandia, hid all the rice from the Chinese troops to starve them out. The invaders needed easily accessible food. Ever resourceful, Koxinga found some oysters, which he covered in potato starch, deep fried, and fed to his soldiers. If an army marches on its stomach, Koxinga’s must have been well pleased; they ultimately emerged victorious.
If you’re not keen on eating oysters omelet-style, plenty of other variations can be found throughout Tainan. These include oyster rolls (蚵仔捲, kezi juan), fried oysters (炸蚵仔, zha kezi), and thin oyster noodle soup (蚵仔麵線, hezi mian xian).
Tainan’s Longshan village and Cigu district are home to Taiwan’s best oysters, due in part to the high salt concentration of the local lagoon. Visitors to Longshan village will want to take an oyster farm tour by raft. Cruising the calm waters of these vast aqua acreages, with local guides punting along, is a great way to spend an afternoon. After returning to shore, the best way to enjoy the sunset is to have some freshly harvested oysters shucked in front of you before they’re fried up or served with slices of lemon.
Continuing with the seafood theme, we come to milkfish (虱目魚, shi mu yu), which is so popular in Tainan that it has even prompted the opening of a milkfish museum. The two most common ways to consume milkfish are in congee and soup.
Known for its creamy taste, milkfish can be enjoyed at any time of the day, although in Tainan, milkfish soup is favored in the mornings. It’s prepared with fish balls, sliced milkfish, and fried breadstick, then garnished with chives.
A-Hang (阿憨鹹粥, 169 Gongyuan S. Rd., North District), which serves seafood congee prepared with freshly shucked oysters, is one of the most popular milkfish spots in town.
Tainan rice dumplings
Finding rice dumplings (粽子, zongzi) in Taiwan isn’t difficult. Although these dumplings are all wrapped in dried bamboo leaves, there are important differences between those in the north of the country (steamed) and those in the south (boiled).
Traditional Tainan rice dumplings are stuffed with uncooked glutenous rice and such fillings as cooked pork, mushroom, egg yolk, and peanuts. They make a delicious snack and the bamboo leaves serve as organic packaging. Most importantly, they are as affordable as they are portable.
Winter melon tea
Wax gourd, also called winter melon (冬瓜, donggua), is a vine-grown vegetable native to Southeast Asia and widely cultivated throughout Taiwan. The gourd can be baked, steamed, dried, stir-fried, or sweetened with brown sugar and turned into a drink. Aside from the ubiquitous bubble tea, winter melon tea is one of the most popular drinks in Tainan.
The flavor is sweet, and the tea has a slightly grassy smell. Tainan residents often squeeze in fresh lime juice, thus subduing the bitterness of the gourd, to make a zesty thirst-quencher.
Ready for mains yet? Here are some restaurants, which all started as family kitchen enterprises, perfectly representing the variety and unrivaled quality of Tainan’s plentiful food offerings.
Fu Lou (福樓)
No. 300, Yonghua Rd., Section 1, West Central District, Tainan
Tel: (06) 295-7777
From a roadside barbecue stall in 1992 to today’s renowned restaurant, Fu Lou is a haven for foodies searching for fresh and delicious food at a reasonable price.
Fu Lou’s shrimp rolls (蝦捲, xia juan) are handmade with fresh shrimp and cilantro. The latter enhances the shrimp’s seafood flavor before it’s wrapped in tofu skin.
Fu Lou expanded its business in 2005 due to the increasing number of customers. The restaurant has become synonymous with Tainan fare by combining barbecue and Japanese cuisine. Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, and Japanese culinary influence resonates throughout the country, particularly in Tainan. Fu Lou is recommended by the Michelin Green Guide Taiwan.
Yi Ge Beef Soup Restaurant (億哥牛肉湯)
No. 574, Yunong Rd., East District, Tainan
Tel: (06) 260-2990
Yi Ge Beef Soup Restaurant uses fresh Taiwanese beef. For “still-warm” beef soup, maintaining freshness from abattoir to restaurant is paramount.
The owner reminds each customer that after pouring the hot soup over the sliced beef, they must eat the beef within 10 seconds to fully experience the fresh flavor. The soup is accompanied by a small dish of sweet soy sauce, ginger strips, and a bit of spicy bean paste. Dip a piece of beef in the sauce and pop it in your mouth to delight in the sweet and savory flavor. Enjoy it with a bowl of white rice, a serving of tender fried cabbage, and hot beef soup. Perfection lies in the details.
A Sha Restaurant (阿霞飯店)
No. 7, Lane 84, Zhongyi Rd., Section 2, West Central District, Tainan
Tel: (06) 226-1418
Founded in 1940 and passed down through three generations, A Sha Restaurant is as much a cultural institution as it is an icon of Tainan cuisine. Starting with a humble dim sum stall selling assorted noodles, the family members grew their passion into the A Sha Restaurant, where they serve numerous signature dishes. Among them, and quite possibly the ruby in the crown, is the Crab Migao (紅蟳米糕, hongxun migao), sticky rice topped with minced pork and crab.
While this dish looks humble – similar to a pile of fried rice with some crab nestling on top – it’ll make your taste buds wonder what they’ve been missing. Fragrant but not greasy, the flavors are wonderfully complex.
Ahui Eel Noodles (阿輝炒鱔魚)
No. 352, Ximen Rd., Section 2, West Central District, Tainan
Tel: (06) 221-5540
When it comes to quality fried eel, freshness is key. The most important part of preparing eel is to bleed it; if this process is not carried out properly, the eel will have a fishy smell. The eel is cooked on high heat for about 20 seconds to best retain freshness and is often served with a light sweet-and-sour sauce and tender noodles.
Ahui Eel Noodles is recommended by Michelin’s Green Guide. Its unpretentious and delicious dishes make it a spot that locals flock to.
You’re not telling me you’re still hungry after all that food, are you? That’s okay; in Tainan, hunger is never a problem.
With the possible exception of rice, you’re unlikely to find a more versatile ingredient than tofu. Tainan is the birthplace of tofu pudding (豆花, douhua), which was initially served by street peddlers (the original Uber Eats) from two heated wooden buckets carried on bamboo poles.
The earliest pudding recipe is as simple as it is stomach-warming. Take a bowl, fill it with douhua, add peanuts and brown sugar water, and you’ll have yourself a comfort dish that spans generations. It can be served hot in winter or cold in summer.
These days toppings have expanded to include red and green beans, tapioca pearls, taro, honey, and pretty much anything you want. Tainan’s Anping district has the highest density of douhua eateries, among them Mao’s Anping Black Sweet Tofu (茂記黑豆花大王, 409 Minzu Rd., Section 2.), Shou An Peddler Tofu Pudding (修安扁擔豆花, 157 Guohua St., Section 3), and Tongji Anping Bean Jelly (同記安平豆花, 383 Minzu Rd., Section 2.).
Eight Treasure Shaved Ice
For a dish with such a grandiose title, Eight Treasure Shaved Ice (八寶冰, babao-bing) is refreshingly straightforward. The “treasures” are green and red beans, red kidney beans, pineapple, taro, glutinous rice balls, and peanuts for topping. All are served in an eye-pleasing, layered stack of colored goodness, arranged on a mountain of shaved ice in summer or stirred into a warming soup in winter.