There are nations which eat to live, and nations which live to eat. Like the French, the Taiwanese are most certainly one of the latter. Major cities have thousands of restaurants; every budget and market demographic is catered for. Thanks to the influx of mainland Chinese after 1949, Chinese regional cuisines are well represented: spicy Sichuan (Szechuan) food is widely available, as are Cantonese and Shanghai-style delicacies.
Eating out is so convenient and inexpensive that few single people bother cooking. In families where both the mother and father work full-time, meals are usually takeouts or put together by a grandparent. Because of the influence of Buddhism, I-Kuan Tao and other sects, vegetarian cuisine is found everywhere.
Taiwanese people are passionate about local cuisine, but that doesn’t mean they’ve no interest in what’s served up in other countries. Japanese food has long had a place in the hearts and stomachs of Taiwanese. In Taipei, there’s a smattering of halal restaurants, while Taichung has some good Indian eateries. Dig around, and you’ll come across Turkish, German Spanish and other cuisines.
Taiwanese tea is justly famous, but in recent decades the island has developed a serious caffeine habit. Coffee shops can be found everywhere, and good coffee is grown in the south.
Taiwanese cooking is a branch of Chinese cuisine, so meals tend to be based around white rice, while pork is the most commonly eaten meat. Chicken is common; beef is enjoyed, except by the small portion of the population who for traditional (rather than religious) reasons never consume it. Noodles made from wheat or rice flour are also popular. Thin soups are served with almost every meal. Taiwanese food is seldom very spicy.
Most of the rice eaten in Taiwan is grown on the island, with certain parts of Hualien and Taitung being renowned for the quality of their grains. Taiwan also grows an immense range of vegetables. Cabbage is a staple. Considered a rather dreary leafy green by many Westerners, in the hands of Taiwanese cooks it becomes a delicious stir-fry with garlic. Cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, eggplants, carrots and potatoes are widely consumed. Taros and sweet potatoes are minor sources of carbohydrates. Bean sprouts are actually the sprouts of mung beans – the beans themselves are turned into semi-sweet desserts and drinks – and they’re stir-fried or added to noodle soups. Brussel sprouts aren’t common, but imported celery and lettuces grown indoors are widely available.
As you’d expect on an island, Taiwanese people eat a lot of seafood, especially tilapia, mackerel, tuna, squid and shark. About a quarter of the fish eaten – milkfish and eels in particular – are farmed rather than caught from the sea. In many seafood restaurants, diners can choose what they want to eat from large tanks where live fish, lobsters and other sea creatures are kept. Ports are especially good places to enjoy Taiwan’s seafood, yet you needn’t go further than the nearest night market to savour an oyster omelette. These snack-sized delights are cooked on hot plates by adding leafy greens, starch and a sweet-and-sour sauce to eggs and oysters.
During winter, Taiwanese people like to gather around hot pots. Somewhat like fondues, these contain hot broth in which you simmer slices of meat, vegetables, mushrooms, mussels, chunks of tofu and other delectables until they’re done just as you like them. Dozens of different hot pots are available, including super-spicy and vegetarian variants, milk-flavoured broths, and soups packed full of medicinal herbs.
Taiwan’s indigenous people have their own ways of cooking, and the food they serve up is highly rated. Among Western visitors impressed by aboriginal delicacies was Andrew Zimmern, who sampled high-mountain bees and a specialty known as damamian during the Taiwan episode of his TV Bizarre Foods. It’s a mixture of raw pork, rice, and salt fermented in a jar for a fortnight – and it tastes way better than it sounds.
There are 16 tribes and thus several indigenous cuisines. Even within tribes there are distinct culinary customs. Inland Amis clans, for instance make use of mountain plants and animals; but for those living on the coast, seafood and seaweed are staples. Generalizations can be made, however: Aborigines eat a lot of meat, and those who live in the mountains get much of it by hunting. Roasting and barbecuing are popular. Small fish and shrimp caught in mountain creeks are eaten alongside foraged vegetables. In the past, millet, yams, and taros were more important than rice to Taiwan’s indigenous people. If you attend a tribal festival, you’ll likely see millet-based dishes such as ahvai (a Paiwan dish made from fermented millet and pork). Naturally, animals that roam Taiwan’s mountains – Reeve’s Muntjac, wild dove, mountain boar and mountain chicken are some examples – often appear on the table during aboriginal feasts.
Aboriginal restaurants can be found in many parts of Taiwan, including the Alishan region.
Vegetarians do very well in Taiwan. Because of religious traditions, many Taiwanese don’t eat meat two days each lunar month, while a significant number are full-time vegetarians. In addition to not consuming animal flesh and offal, Taiwanese vegetarians typically also avoid onions, leeks and garlic, which they believe overstimulate the senses. There are few vegans in Taiwan.
Taiwanese vegetarian fare is delicious and can be enjoyed in dedicated restaurants in every neighbourhood. In addition to the usual white rice, these places often provide noodles and whole-grain rice as options. Many dishes are fried, but an even bigger surprise awaits those who don’t eat meat because they simply dislike it: Many vegetarian restaurants offer ‘fake meats’ made from tofu and other non-animal proteins. Among them are pink hams, ribs and even juicy steaks.
Roadside food vendors have been a feature of Taiwanese towns since time immemorial. Often, they gathered in front of busy temples. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that sprawling night markets, each with a hundred or more stalls selling hot, ready-to-eat food, appeared. Migration was a major factor. Many of the Chinese mainlanders who fled to Taiwan in the late 1940s were penniless and took up hawking as a way to survive. At the same time, industrialisation brought swarms of country folk to the cities. These blue-collar families typically lived in cramped tenements, so places where they could enjoy cheap entertainment and tasty snacks were hugely popular.
Two generations on, Taiwan is an affluent society – yet Taiwanese people haven’t lost their taste for food-stall delicacies like stinky tofu. In case you’re wondering, stinky tofu doesn’t really smell any worse than cheese, and has a delicious savoury taste. In every night market, there are famous stalls which have been in business for decades. Customers sometimes have to queue to enjoy these must-try specialties, but even these seldom cost more than a few dollars. In fact, almost everything sold in Taiwan’s night markets is very inexpensive, meaning they’re not only fascinating for adventurous eaters, but also great places to go if you’re hunting for souvenirs or little gifts.
Taiwan’s biggest evening bazaar is Fengjia Night Market in Taichung.
Taiwan’s premium teas
Tea has been a cash crop in Taiwan for more than 300 years, and in the final quarter of the 19th century it was the island’s first major export to the West. Tea fanatics in the USA and Great Britain snapped up ‘Formosa oolong’ as quickly as expatriate businessmen based in Danshui could package and ship it.
In recent years, Taiwan’s tea industry has emphasized quality over quantity. Output is lower than it was in the 1970s but the reputation of Taiwanese tea has never been higher. It’s now a premium product auctioned for high prices and relished by connoisseurs. If you buy a cup of ‘bubble milk tea’ (also known as ‘pearl milk tea’) the tea element of the concoction will likely have been imported from Vietnam or Sri Lanka.
Almost with exception, Taiwanese teas – be they black, green or oolongs – are made from the leaves and leaf buds of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, a subspecies of the tea plant native to south China. (By contrast, Indian teas are produced from Camellia sinensis var. assamica, also known as Indian or Assam tea). Green teas are produced from leaves which have undergone minimal oxidation; these infusions are increasingly popular in North America and Europe for health reasons. Black teas are fully oxidized, while oolongs are withered under the sun and allowed to oxidize in part. Oolong varieties include pouchong and Oriental Beauty. Packets of dried tea (and also tea bags of all kinds) are available throughout Taiwan and make excellent, lightweight souvenirs.
Tea is grown in many parts of the island, including the outskirts of Taipei and near Sun Moon Lake. If you drive up to Alishan, you’ll pass through an important and scenically beautiful tea-growing district.
Few people outside the island know it, but Taiwan produces excellent arabica coffee in addition to its superb teas. A British trade company introduced the first coffee seedlings in 1884, and during the Japanese colonial period output grew steadily. However, when World War II broke out, almost all of Taiwan’s coffee plantations were cleared so food crops could be planted, and during the grim post-war period coffee-growing was neglected. In 1958, an assessment by the United States Department of Agriculture concluded that coffee grown in Taiwan’s hills was every bit as good as Central American arabica.
Per capita coffee consumption has increased every year since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that coffee was once grown in significant quantities in Taiwan, mostly 500 to 1000 m above sea level in the south. Even now, for every tonne of coffee grown in Taiwan, more than 30 are imported. Coffee-growing regions such as Tainan’s Dongshan District and Yunlin’s Gukeng have become popular with caffeine-loving tourists who soak up gorgeous rural scenery while sipping lattes.
Alcoholic drinks in Taiwan
Taiwan produces a wide range of alcoholic beverages, including beers, wines made from grapes and other fruits, whisky, and some very potent liquors.
Until the 1990s, Taiwan’s alcohol industry was controlled by a single, state-owned company, TTL. It still makes Taiwan Beer (you’ll see the white-and-blue cans in shops throughout the island) plus Gold Medal Taiwan Beer, a more expensive variant that has won prizes in international competitions. Slightly sweeter than many Western beers because of the rice added to the fermentation process, it goes very well with seafood and spicy dishes.
The alcohol market is now open to all-comers; in addition to a greater choice of imported drinks – Scotch whisky is currently cheaper in Taiwan than in the UK – dozens of wineries and microbreweries have set up shop. One of these startups, King Car Kavalan Distillery, garnered a lot of attention beyond Taiwan when it won a 2010 blind-tasting contest against some well-known Scottish whiskies. In early 2015, Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique was named the best single malt whisky on Earth at the World Whiskies Awards.
Several of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes have alcohol-making traditions, and in most cases the liquor they produce is based on millet. Usually cloudy and quite sweet, it’s best enjoyed as an aperitif or a digestif.
Taiwan’s single most famous liquor is called Kaoliang. This clear, drink is made from fermented sorghum (a type of grain), and some versions are 58% alcohol. Several brands are available, the most famous being produced in Kinmen and the Matsu Islands. One Matsu brand is named Tunnel 88, after the former military base where the liquor is aged for five or more years.
Rice wine, cheap but seldom drunk by itself, is used in a lot of Taiwanese stews, especially those consumed during the winter. During folk rituals, tiny cups of rice wine are offered to the gods.
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