Anna King Shahab finds the best street eats in Taiwan
Forget reservations or waiting for table service; there are so many delicious (and some challenging) casual ways to dine in Taiwan. The island country's cuisine is diverse, drawing on its indigenous cultures, the cuisines of Hokkien and Hakka immigrants from China, and both Japan and the US which have had a big influence at certain times. From brightly lit night markets to bubble tea shops and dine-and-dash city joints, here's an introduction to some of Taiwan's standout street eats,:
Technically not street food, at least when I tried it, as we climbed to the second level of an inconspicuous building to sample the delights of one of Taipei's favourite breakfast spots, Fu Hang Soy Milk. The fresh, hot soy milk (dou jiang) that is the signature dish here is ubiquitous at breakfast time across the country. At the neon-lit counter, staff busily make up takeaway and dine-in orders from steaming vats – the soy milk is made fresh and served piping hot and sweet.
Also popular at breakfast, and very good for dunking into your hot soy milk, are a range of breadish things. Deep-fried dough sticks (read: doughnuts for breakfast – thanks!), called youtiao, are perfect for dipping and are also used as components in other dishes. There are various takes on bing (baked or pan-fried bread). Crepe-like dan bing wrap fillings of scrambled egg, spring onion, youtiao, and sometimes beef. Thicker doughs are cooked in a cylindrical oven not unlike a tandoor (in peak summer 38 degrees, I felt for the cooks), like the plump, sesame-encrusted hu jiao bing, with a filling of black pepper and pork mince.
I had to try the oxymoronic sounding fried milk, and found a great spot on the edge of Raohe Night Market hawking that one dish. A batter made with sweetened condensed milk is chilled and wrapped on skewers; when you order, the skewers are deep-fried, and the batter transforms from pasty white squares to crisp golden circles - magic indeed. I'm not a sweet-tooth and had already filled my tummy to the point of bursting, but these are sublime skewers: the crisp shell giving way to a smooth, sweet custardy interior.
It's impossible to walk past the enticing aroma of an oyster omelette sizzling on a butter-slicked hot plate, even when you're not technically hungry, as our group discovered on a stroll through Taipei's Ximending pedestrianised precinct, which pulses like a little Tokyo and is home to excellent casual eateries as well as being the heart of the city's LGBT scene. The oyster omelettes in question are cooked at a stand outside the restaurant. About $5 buys a big plate of ohr luak – silky just-cooked egg studded with plump oysters and spring onion, and drizzled with a sweet chilli sauce.
Use Your Noodle
Arguably the country's national dish, there's a certain artistry to cooking up hong shou niu rou mien, slow-braised beef noodle soup, which came to the island with the retreat of Sichuan Kuomintang from the mainland. You can, if you like, opt for a lighter take which is a bit fashionable these days, but I'd always go for the fuller, dark version, which boasts myriad herbs and spices in the broth, and, as well as tender hunks of beef shank and unctuous morsels of tendon that do their best to evade chopsticks at every step. This favourite can be found at any night market or along any busy street throughout the country.
Taiwan is the birthplace of bubble tea, the beverage that is currently taking the world by storm. You'll find infinite iterations of this mash-up (originally, between a tapioca dessert and iced tea, but now with many more possible elements) wherever you go in Taipei, but I recommend making a pilgrimage to the OG, Chun Shui Tang, which has dozens of branches throughout the country. Pick your prefered tapioca pearls, type of tea and sweetness – at many places, half sweet is plenty but Chun Shui Tang I anxiously let the staff convince me to stick with the full, original sweet level which they correctly described as just right.
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Fan tuan are rolls or balls made by shaping sticky rice around fillings – a bit like sushi rolls without the seaweed wrapper. A traditional combination is pieces of youtiao, preserved radish, boiled egg, pickled mustard greens, and pork floss. But options are many: purple rice is popular, as well as fillings like nori, kimchi, cheese, bacon, or sweet versions with brown sugar. They're especially popular at breakfast time so you'll find them in the many soy milk cafes, and at street carts.
Not one to feel okay about missing out on something, I knew I had to try stinky tofu (chou tofu). It's sure earned its name: tofu is left to ferment in a concoction that generally features milk and juices from decaying vegetables, and sometimes from meat. The fermented tofu is then prepared in various ways; I tried one of the most popular – cubes of tofu deep-fried to light golden, served with chopped spring onion, pickled radish and carrot and a sweet chilli sauce. This dish, which I snapped up at Dongdamen Night Market in the city of Hualien, looked entirely innocuous, tasty, even – although the smell emanating from the stall haunted a decent radius, an effect common to every market in Taiwan, where this dish is generally served (a practical move, the aroma and four walls not being a happy marriage). It's said that its vicious bark is worse than its bite. With washed rind cheese or with durian, I concur with that description, but the stinky tofu I'd bought for a grand sum of $2 a plate bit me deep, real deep. It took determination to swallow just one piece. Perhaps my chosen specimen was extra potent, but I wasn't rushing to test that theory with another offering, even if this beloved dish is thought to be particularly probiotically gifted.