A couple of weeks ago, D saw this article on Matador Network – 9 Foods You Have to Try in Taipei, Taiwan – and he was infuriated. Really?? Wontons?? Where are the stinky tofu and the pork belly rice? Both quintessential Taiwanese eats. Or even beef noodle soup? Only the dish that Taiwan is known for! Did the author only spend 2 days in Taipei and deemed the few meager snacks she had as must-eats? And seriously half of that list is bakery/dessert items. This is the kind of thing that makes me so mad about what passes as travel writing.
Anyway, I digress. D challenged me to write a better guide, and well, challenge accepted!
We only spent two weeks in Taipei and I don’t pretend to have tried all there is to eat, but we do have a passion for seeking local specialties. And not to mention that D’s mom’s side of the family comes from Taiwan so he’s very familiar with the cuisine. So I think I do have some clout to be writing this guide.
So here is my guide for things to eat in Taipei (in no particular order, frankly because everything is good!). All are very traditional Taiwanese. This is called Vol. 1 because I plan on discovering a lot more eats when I return to Taipei later this year.
Egg pancakes ( Dan Bien | 蛋餅)
Let’s start with breakfast! The egg pancake is a classic Taiwanese breakfast item. Basically, it’s a flour crepe made with a thin layer of beaten egg on top, and sprinkled with chopped green onions. The whole thing is rolled up with the egg side in. Additional meats can be added inside as well (my favorite is dried pork floss!). Clean and simple.
Pork belly rice (Lu Rou Fan | 滷肉飯)
This was our go-to breakfast item! This dish of chopped fatty stewed pork belly over rice can be found in almost all traditional Taiwanese eateries. It’s rounded out with pickled mustard greens and a braised egg. I also like to add a large scoop of chili sauce, and then mix everything together. This dish may be simple but it is absolutely delicious. The porky juices steep into the rice while the pickled greens provide a cooling crunch. The one pictured above also has shredded chicken.
You can also get this with the entire slab of pork belly! Though I prefer it chopped so I can mix everything up. :)
Taiwanese sausage (Xiang Chang | 香腸)
The Taiwanese sausage is not your average tube of forcemeat. This sausage is cured until it’s very dry and the added sugar makes it a little bit sweet. You can find a sausage stand at almost any night market. They make the perfect walk-and-eat snacks.
And oh, notice the large bowl of garlic cloves in front? If you want to do as the locals do, then gobble it up with raw garlic bites on the side. It’s not as gross as it sounds (though I may be biased as I’ll eat garlic with just about anything). The sweet and fattiness of the sausage goes perfectly with the spice of garlic.
Gua bao (割包)
This sandwich uses a fluffy steamed bun as the bread, sliced open and filled with tender braised pork, pickled mustard greens, crushed peanuts and cilantro, and topped with a gentle sprinkling of sugar. Most likely, you will be asked if you want fat or lean meat in the sandwich. We like a mix.
I think of it as kind of a Taiwanese sloppy joe. The filling explodes with every kind of flavor and texture: salty, sour, sweet, soft, crunchy. The super airy bun soaks up the juices nicely. This is one of my favorite street foods!
I hear gua boa is not a very commonly found street item anymore. We chanced upon a stall by the National Taiwanese University, by the MRT Gongguan station.
Stinky tofu (Chou Do Fu | 臭豆腐 )
I briefly mentioned it in my Taipei intro post, but I can’t possibly leave stinky tofu off this list! The famous stink is a result of fermentation of the tofu, but don’t worry, it’s much better than it tastes (or looks). It’s usually served cut into small cubes and then deep fried fresh. A perfect one is soft and airy on the inside while crispy on the outside. Eat it with hot sauce and pickled cabbage to cut the grease.
The best way to find this dish: follow the smell. If you’re at a night market or a food street, then no, it is not the sewer. It’s most likely a delicious stinky tofu cart!
And if you’re feeling super adventurous, try the ma-la stinky tofu!
Ma-la literally translates to numbing-spicy as the pepper used gives off a strange numbing effect on the tongue. It’s very popular throughout China and can be found in many dishes. Ma-la stinky tofu is a little different as the tofu isn’t deep fried and is stewing in a bubbling pot of red hot broth.
Pork blood cake (Zhu Xue Gao | 豬血糕)
I’ve never heard of this until D made me try one at the night market. At first, I refused. Pork blood cake? Ummm… no thanks! I’ve had enough of blood sausage to last me for life.
Then D explained that these cakes are made with sticky rice and pork blood. Now, I do like sticky rice… so I took a bite. Not too bad! The blood taste does come through a little bit, but if you didn’t know what it was, you probably wouldn’t notice it at all. We tried a couple of variations and the most palatable one is this pictured: pork blood cake smeared with a sweet sauce, then dipped into a sweet crushed peanuts crumble, and topped with cilantro.
Oyster omelettes (Oh Ah Jian | 蚵仔煎)
The Taiwanese sure likes to put oyster into a lot of their dishes, including omelettes. This dish can be found at almost any night market and are made fresh to order. This omelette is about half flour + water batter and half eggs, and of course, a lot of small oysters. Finally, a light sweet sauce is poured on top. This is one of the most popular street snacks, though it’s not my favorite because I’m not a fan of oysters.
Baked black pepper buns (Hu Jiao Bing | 胡椒餅)
Beijing has steamed buns, Shanghai has soup dumplings, and Taiwan has baked buns! You can literally see these buns stuck onto the side of a cannister oven thing and baked until the exterior is browned and crispy. The filling is a mix of the meat of choice + black pepper + other spices. The bun itself should be crispy on the outside and still a bit doughy on the inside. The filling should be tender and juicy with strong spice notes.
One of the most famous hu jiao bin in the city is the bun stand at Raohe Night Market. From the temple side (right next to MRT station Songshan), it is the first stand going into the gate. You won’t miss the line of people.
Beef noodle soup (Niu Rou Mian | 牛肉面)
It’s not a Taipei foodie guide without a mention of beef noodle soup, practically the national dish! A good bowl must have perfection in all three areas: flavorful broth, tender meat, and chewy noodles. There are two varieties of beef noodle soup: 1. with a heavy, spicy red broth, and 2. with a light, fragrant clear broth. I personally prefer the red broth variety as I tend to like all my food spicy!
I went on a search for the best beef noodle soup in the city, and pitted a super famous international chain against a locally beloved little shop. Check out the findings!
Dessert: warm tofu pudding (Dou Hua | 豆花)
Tofu pudding isn’t unfamiliar to me as in China, we eat it with some soy sauce, chili oil, and preserved veggies as a savory breakfast item. In Taiwan, they turned it into a dessert as well.
This dessert consists of silky fresh tofu in a light sweet syrup and various boba and/or taro balls. It can be served either iced or hot. D’s uncle took us to get this after dinner one night. It was a cool, rainy evening, so a warm version of this dessert came in perfectly.
Most food courts will have a dou hua stand, but a popular one is Eastern Ice Store (東區粉圓), located at No. 38, Lane 216, Section 4, Zhongxiao E Rd, Da’an District.
Taipei is a surprising foodie destination. Along with Hanoi, Vietnam, Taipei has been my favorite city to eat in. The lively night markets, the street stalls… Taipei makes eating fun. And not to mention: the price is most definitely right. Every single item on this list will set you back only US$1-$3.
I didn’t include these, but of course bubble milk tea and bakeries are a must in Taipei. You’ll find those just about every corner and you really can’t go wrong. Strolling through a night market, a cup of bubble milk tea in one hand, and whatever food I can hold in the other, is probably my favorite thing to do in Taipei.