Last October, we set out on a 10-day journey across Taiwan. Our trip started from Taipei City in the north and we clubbed the towns of Jiufen & Shifen (northeast) on one of our day trips. Next, we travelled to the west coast (Taichung) and passed through the hill towns of Sun Moon Lake & Cingjing Farm, before reaching the high mountains of Hehuan and the breathtaking Taroko Gorge. Towering mountains gradually flattened to the stunning Qixingtan Beach (Hualien) on the east coast of Taiwan. En route, we got countless opportunities to taste the eclectic local cuisine and observe the makings of a diverse culinary palate.
Eating at a buffet style Taiwanese restaurant is a practical choice for a meal and can be budget friendly without compromising on taste. The buffet has an interesting spread of seafood, meat, soup, and generous portions of green leafy veggies. You can go healthy (like most locals) and choose boiled veggies, black rice, and a clear soup. Or indulge in sinful oil and opt for their deep fried fish, chicken, and other meat. Payments are made, at the counter, after loading your plate with what you’ve selected.
It’s hard to resist dumplings in Taiwan. They’re more chewy than mandoo (Korean dumplings) and are made in bigger portions. What’s the best part? If you’ve had your fill of meat for the day or if you’re vegetarian, a dumpling can come to your rescue. You can savour juicy cabbage dumplings (my personal favourite) or have a sweet dumpling for desert. Taiwanese dumplings are quite filling and are perfect for a light evening meal.
Bubble tea is a big hit in Seoul. Strangely, unlike Basil and my Korean friends, I could never acquire a taste for bubble tea in Seoul. I was ambivalent about the taste of the chewy bubbles (tapioca balls), also called pearls, in the tea. I like my teas without milk, unless it’s a ginger-masala chai of course. In Taiwan, I had to submit to the craze. And now I’m a convert. I’m a fan of bubble milk tea and can’t resist buying one when I pass a local shop. I believe: customisation is the key to the success of bubble tea. You can choose your sugar, ice, milk, and also the size/quantity of the pearls in your tea. Bubble tea is the perfect example of what ‘Q’ means to Taiwanese cuisine.
Live Cooking Counter
We had hours to kill before our last check-in in Taipei. Ximendi is perfect to let the clock tick and tap into Taipei’s buzz. Weekends can be pretty crazy though and we had to wade through a sea of cool hipsters to find a place to eat. There’s a reason why Ximendi is one of the coolest hangouts in Taipei. It’s perfect for shopping and eating. We found a local restaurant with a live counter. We ordered king mushrooms, grilled fish, and meat. The sugarcane juice was perfect for a hot day in October. Starters included stir-fried sprouts, cabbage, and soup. It was more pricey then our other meal options, but it was our last day and we didn’t mind the splurge.
Taiwan Tea & Deserts
Green tea and Oolong tea shops line the packed markets of Ximendi. Most tea shops will offer a sample of the blend before you buy it. Prices vary according to the location of cultivation (Alishan Tea is quite popular) and the process of making the tea. Pineapple cake is a popular savoury to take back home. But our favourite was the ‘sun biscuit’ — a soft crisp pastry with a divine filling inside it.
Quirky Eateries & Cafes
Ximendi is probably one of the most happening hangouts in Taipei City. Every nook has a quirky cafe or eatery. We spent the last hour in a quiet cafe with a colour burst theme. In the evening, the music was low and we could have a conversation over an interesting combination of fruit drinks. Although, once daylight dimmed, places like these cafes would turn the music and the party on.
We had our last dinner near Taipei MRT Station. We were stuffed and were looking for a light meal. Instead, we binged on glass noodles and risotto rice. Places like these are more popular for weekend drinking rather than eating. So, if you don’t order many drinks, you end up binging on food to cover the minimum cost requirement.
Night markets spring to life after sunset. There are many scattered all around the city. We didn’t have an opportunity to explore the eating options because we were always in a hurry to get back to our hotel and we barely had 2 days in Taipei.
The narrow lanes of Jiufen are lined with savouries, local delicacies, and interesting challenges for the intrepid foodie. The slow crawl — through hordes of tourists and undulating terrain — is rewarded with one of the most tantalising experiences in gluttony.
The creme puffs in Taiwan are sublime. The consistency of the creme is smooth and light without being overwhelmingly sweet.
Peanut Ice cream Pancake
Peanut ice cream is such an interesting concept. A thin sheet of pancake is coated with peanut crumbs and a dollop of ice cream is dumped at the centre. I was skeptical about the taste and didn’t believe that contrasting elements would work together. One bite and I was a believer in the ingenuity of this creation.
Waffle Ice cream
It’s easy to lose focus in Jiufen. There’s so much happening around you and your senses are at an elevated level. At lunch time most meal stalls are packed. We found an eatery that had a stunning view of the coast below. We ordered seafood and glutinous meatball soup. I’m not sure about the local names of these delicacies.
It isn’t humanly possible to try out everything in Jiufen without having a gastronomical overload. After we reached our threshold, we played the role of observers in a food paradise.
Sun Moon Lake
Sun Moon Lake has an eclectic mix of popular Taiwanese and local tribal (Ita Thao) cuisine. Being a pseudo-vegetarian (I’d eat meat if I have to), it was hard for me to find options to my liking. Travellers who don’t mind experimenting with unusual meat would feel right at home here.
Gua Bao (pork belly buns) is a local delicacy in Taiwan. Interestingly, the street vendors at Sun Moon Lake also sold fried fish and fish buns. There was a small line of excited tourists waiting to try these appetisers. Back then, I didn’t know how popular these items were. I didn’t have the stomach to experiment with meat or fish — without knowing names. Basil didn’t think twice and ordered one of the buns. His verdict: the taste was worth the hype.
Ita Thao Cuisine
Eating options reduce after dark at Sun Moon Lake (Shuishe Pier). We decided to take the plunge for dinner. We found a small eatery offering Ita Thao (local tribal) cuisine. We ordered a hot pot of mushrooms, baby corn, chicken (on request), and fish cake — cooked in a broth. The accompanying sauce was spicy and quite unique in taste. It balanced the blandness of the soup with the perfect blend of flavour and pungency.
Cinjing Farm (Qingjing Farm)
I had lost all hope of finding vegetarian eating options as we cut deeper into the heart of Taiwan. I was pleasantly surprised in Cingjing Farm. Who would’ve thought it was possible to find a wholesome meal without meat or fish. The local vendors sold stir-fried vegetarian noodles among other delicacies. The bamboo rice was a surprise discovery. Its ingenuity lies in the simplicity of thought. The bamboo flavour penetrates the rice and adds a delicious earthy taste to a simple meal.
The eating options at most scenic spots (Hehuanshan, Qixingtan Beach, Taroko Gorge), in Taiwan, can be scarce. We had most of our meals at local convenience stores. I was tired of instant noodles and microwave dinners. At Qixingtan, we experimented with beach rolls (sausage or egg) and it was nice to break the monotony of eating the same meal twice.
Black pizza is quite common in Seoul. I’ve never tried it because I’m not sure if squid’s ink is something I’d like. On our last day in Hualien, we found a nice eatery for a meal. Basil ordered a black burger and I ordered chicken. I’m not sure what the Taiwanese black burger is made from, but Basil was quite happy with his meal.