I have been traveling to Mainland China since 1984. I spent time there as a student, have led several study abroad groups as a professor, have attended academic conferences, and so on. I’ve traveled all over the Mainland, from North to South, and East to West. I lived in Hong Kong in the early 80’s and have traveled to Macau. But in all these years, I had never been to Taiwan. I have friends and colleagues from Taiwan, and many of my students have spent time there, but I guess I never felt overly compelled to go there. Maybe I didn’t believe all the hype about how great Taiwan was. A year and a half ago my daughter moved to Taiwan. Suddenly I had a great deal more interest in Taiwan.
Earlier this month I finally made it to Taiwan. I am working on a new book on Chinese culinary culture (basically a foodie’s guide to China), and practically everyone that I talked to told me that I couldn’t possibly do a book on Chinese food without including at least a section on Taiwan, especially Taiwan’s famous snack food. So, after spending a couple weeks in Guangzhou and surrounding areas researching Cantonese food, I stopped in Taiwan for six days to check out the culinary scene. And I was not disappointed.
In addition to meeting up with some former colleagues and a friend or two, I spent most of my time eating. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it, as the saying goes.
Here are some of my initial observations about Taiwan, mostly compared with the Mainland.
1. Taiwan is really clean, neat, and orderly. Even the traffic is well behaved and I didn’t feel like I was going to get run over. In fact, I had bus drivers actually wait for me while I crossed the road. That’s pretty rare in the Mainland.
2. Taiwan people are generally friendly, polite, and eager to chat with a foreigner. Coming from China, and a socialist attitude toward customer service (i.e. non-existent), this was really surprising to me. At one night market I sat down at a tiny table to eat some delicious 甜不辣 tiánbúlà and since it was a bit quiet, the lady running the stall sat down with me and we chatted for a half hour or so. She kept giving me more food to try, on the house.
3. Taiwan is very Westernized. I guess this was not too surprising. There are lots of foreigners in Taiwan. I saw them all over (at least in Taibei). It is evident that Taiwan is heavily influenced by Western ideas, fashion, food, etc. There is also a very noticeable Japanese influence as well.
Overall, I had a very nice time in Taiwan and will definitely be back. I originally planned on going down to Tainan to try some of the famous snack food down there, but I ran out of time. I spent time in Zhongli, Taibei, and an evening up in Danshui.
Below are just a few of the delicious dishes I sampled at some of the night markets. I spent time in the Shilin Night Market, The Shida Night Market, and the Danshui night market.
I went to Taiwan with a list of about 40 or so things I wanted to try. In the end, after 6 days I was able to try about 22 items on my list. The food was fresh, delicious, and quick. Next time I really need to get down to Tainan as I have heard the food there is pretty amazing as well.
I really wanna go to Taiwan, cause…I’ve heard that there are tons of amazing xiaochi!
The Orient and the South East Asian countries have so much of food culture that it can be really overwhelming. Enjoyed the food pics as well as the post very much:)
甜不辣 actually means “tempura,” a word that you may be familiar with if you frequent Japanese restaurants. Having had 甜不辣 in Taiwan myself, I can attest that the literal translation of the name doesn’t make much sense for the food, since, although truly not spicy (不辣), it isn’t sweet either (甜).
Thank you for that Joseph. Now that you mention it, I did hear that somewhere. This dish, however, is quite different from what we normally associate with tempura here in the West. That being breaded and deep fried vegetables.
Tainan is a must to visit for food! There are great dishes that are specific to the area. Did you get to try different 肉圓? There are slight differences in the dish from different areas of Taiwan. Two popular ones are 新竹肉圓 and 彰化肉圓.
Unfortunately no. I was only there for a couple days and was trying to sample as many different dishes as possible. Next time.
Matt, I love reading your blog posts and seeing your great photos, but lately all these food posts leave me craving Chinese food! And late at night in SE Idaho, there’s not much I can do do mitigate this problem!
I was in Taiwan for business 3 months ago – had a couple of the items pictured here – Went to eat 热炒 and loved it. Not sure how to translate 热炒 but it is kind of like a Taiwanese, stir fry bar-food equivalent of dimsum, but at night. Your picture of the 蚵仔煎 would be an item you can get at rechao…
Hi Ben. What you are referring to is pictured above.
thousands great artistic dishes hidden in many restaurants too, I strongly suggest you next time when you go back to Taiwan, not only try the “little eat”, be sure reserve some stomach for more formal Taiwanese cuisine, I ensure you will be even more surprised
The segment you mentioned about the public social attitudes in Taiwan versus mainland China seem to be generally what I have also picked up on. Due to Taiwan’s history with Western cultures, it appears as though they are much more open arm approached to Western cultures than Mainlanders are. Perhaps the courtesy may also be due to a much smaller number of people, but the social differences are certainly there.
Taiwan is a very popular country in my country as one of the best travel countries because of its great foods!!!!!
Everything looks so amazing! I have always wanted to go to Taiwan, I think it is interesting that you didn’t mention anything about the use or impact of traditional characters while you were there. The idea of snack foods though reminds me of Spanish tapas! I can’t wait to one day go to Taiwan though to try it all myself.
Taiwan has been on my bucket list of travel destinations for quite some time. I hope one day to live in Taiwan, Shanghai or Hong Kong. I think perhaps I feel most comfortable setting my sights on these destinations because of the rumored “westernized” cultures that exist. This post reconfirmed that thought.
After reading the article I’ve learned a lot after reading this article about the many magnificent foods in taiwan. The many hidden gems and also how much the flavour is different and also how much the flavour is similar. Taiwan is a clean place that serves amazing food, it makes it ever more pleasing and delicious. The culinary palette is essentially a more southern plate with dishes such as tianbula, rouyuan, and etc.
The pictures of all the different foods presented in Taiwan are truly mouthwatering. I would especially love to try the 筒仔米糕. It is amazing to see the Chinese and Japanese influence that shapes the cuisine in Taiwan.
I would love to visit Taiwan some time! I have a friend whose parents are from Taiwan and I hear a lot of great things about it. I”m often told that it is a little different from mainland China, especially in the foods and accent. I would love to go see for myself. Judging from the pictures in the post, I can tell I’ll still like the food regardless of the differences.