Foodie road trip in Taiwan
Graze your way around this leaf-shaped island, tasting soft pork buns at urban night markets, prawn and truffle xiao long bao in basement restaurants and pots of honeyed oolong in elegant teahouses
Looking for restaurants in Taipei? Want to know where to eat in Taiwan? Travel writer Lucy Gillmore takes us on a foodie road trip through Taiwan, stopping off at night markets, dumpling restaurants and teahouses.
The Taiwanese don’t cook – they eat out. Well, the younger generation does. Which tells you not just about local culture but about the quality of the food at neon-lit night markets across the Taiwanese capital, Taipei. It’s mouth-wateringly good as well as wallet-friendly.
The alleys between the sizzling, smoking, steaming stalls at the Ningxia night market are thronged with young locals tucking into a tempting smorgasbord. Each stall specialises in a different dish. As well as grazing along the strip, groups huddle around tiny tables slurping braised beef noodle soup.
My guide makes a beeline for some sweet potato balls, deep-fried and dusted with plum sugar or cheese. We cup them in our hands and try not to burn our mouths as the crunchy crust gives way to soft, gooey filling. We share bags of water chestnuts sprinkled with salt, and crispy spring onion pancakes.
At a street-side takeaway, giant oyster omelettes are cooked on a huge hotplate. We gulp down thick, creamy steamed taro ‘milkshakes’, try custard apples (imagine the love child of a banana and pineapple) and deep-fried milk skewers, then break off chunks of spongy quail egg cakes, another sweet treat straight off the griddle.
Stinky tofu, however, is a step too far: fermented, deep-fried and served with pickled cabbage, the acrid stench slaps you in the face long before you reach the stall. It tastes better than it smells but nothing that flays your nostrils should wind up in your mouth.
Night markets traditionally sprang up around temples and universities to feed hungry worshippers and students. Other markets on the menu include Raohe, one of the city’s oldest, and Shilin, a huge covered hall where old men crouch to play mahjong and stalls spill out into the surrounding lanes. The longest queue is for the soft pork buns, blackened as they bake in a wood-fired oven.
Taiwan’s street-food scene is the stuff of gourmet bucket lists, yet surprisingly it’s not on the well-trodden East Asian tourist trail, unlike tried and tested foodie hot spots Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan. But then this leaf-shaped island off the east coast of China, sandwiched between Japan and the Philippines, is a 14-hour flight from the UK. Roughly the size of Switzerland, it’s been under China’s wing for much of its history, with periods under Spanish and Dutch rule during the 17th century, and Japanese occupation from 1895 to 1945.
Along with its emerging culinary scene there’s a mountainous interior to explore (this is where you’ll find the western Pacific’s highest peak, Jade Mountain, dramatic gorges and nine national parks) and vibrant cities that mix ancient Buddhist and Taoist temples, and colonial forts with high-rise cityscapes.
In the capital, one of the country’s most iconic buildings, Taipei 101, was designed to resemble a giant bamboo stalk. At 508 metres high, it was the tallest building in world from 2004 to 2010 until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa stole its crown. On the 85th floor, fine-dining restaurant Shin Yeh offers a modern take on traditional Taiwanese cuisine, with dishes such as steamed baby abalone soup with sea cucumber, spare rib and goji berry.
Down in the basement, meanwhile, there’s a branch of Din Tai Fung serving up its famous dumplings. Founded in 1958, there are now some 100 branches around the world, from Australia to the USA, with a restaurant opening in London last year. The queues are long but it’s worth the wait.
Through a large glass window looking onto the kitchen you can watch as the chefs fold each intricate parcel 18 times (they make 9,000 dumplings a day during the week, 12,000 at the weekend). The secret is precision: every pork xiao long bao dumpling weighs 21 grams and is steamed for four minutes, melting the frozen broth into its signature ‘soup’.
As well as the classic pork dumplings, don’t miss the prawn and truffle version, or the spicy shrimp and pork wontons. And, whatever you do, leave room for the hot molten chocolate dumplings.
Pork knuckle ice cream is more of an acquired taste. After dinner one night at Meimen Garden – a sublimely health-conscious restaurant owned by Lee Feng-San Shifu, a qigong master who has created menus based on the five elements theory of Chinese cooking: think slow-cooked broths and fruit essence drinks, such as detoxifying Emerald made from kiwi, lemon and greengage, or Qi-Flowing Red packed with dragon fruit, dried roselle and jujube – I head to a nearby ice cream parlour for dessert.
At Snow King, the experimental range of 70-odd ice cream flavours is less geared towards healthy eating (although the basil is pure pungent herbiness and oolong tea deliciously delicate) but the pork knuckle feels as though it’s slithering down your throat on a mission to clog your arteries.
To learn more about Taiwan’s food culture I join a walking tour of Taipei’s historic Dadaocheng neighbourhood. An important trading port during the 19th century, merchants once haggled here over rice, spices and tea. Today, in Yongle Market, locals queue for tubs of sticky rice and packs of sun-dried red mullet caviar. Along Dihua Street I wander in and out of spice and traditional Chinese medicine stores, stopping at one stall for a moreish peanut ice cream crêpe, sprinkled with fresh coriander and grated peanut brittle.
This is also where you’ll find Le Zinc, an old longhouse now housing an artisan ceramic store and café-bar on the ground floor and, upstairs, an elegant teahouse offering gourmet tasting sessions.
The first Taiwanese tea plantations can be traced back to 1717 and the country is famous for its teas: black, green, white and oolong, a semi-fermented tea that includes sought-after High Mountain Oolong. Upstairs at Le Zinc a line of teas has been laid out. White-tip Oriental Beauty is a heavily fermented oolong tea with notes of fruit and honey. WenShan Pouchong, an oolong from the north, has a floral fragrance and is lighter, more like a green tea. Ruby Red No 18 is a mix of wild mountain tea and Assam. It’s woody with candied marmalade and a hint of garden mint.
Old teahouses are also one of the draws of the old gold-mining town of Jiufen, a popular day trip a short drive into the mountains from Taipei. Jiufen Old Street is crammed with street-food kiosks serving dumplings and noodles. One of the most famous teahouses is touristy A-Mei but I squeeze down a hidden alley to lunch in the old Taiwan Taro and Sweet Potato Teahouse. This ancient wooden dining room serves tea-inspired dishes such as a silken tea-infused tofu with garlic, ginger and spring onions, preserved plum with tea leaf and bitter tea oil noodles.
High in the hills above renowned beauty spot Sun Moon Lake, meanwhile, at the family run Hugosum tea plantation you can learn how to make your own tea, leaf to cup. Taiwan’s largest lake (roughly the size of Ullswater) is a three-hour drive south of Taipei in the forested foothills of the Central Mountain Range. It’s a fertile fruit-growing area that also produces shaoxing rice wine, and tea.
At Hugosum they have been making black tea for 60 years. The altitude and the humid, sub-tropical climate create ideal conditions for Assam, I discover, as I hike with a guide along a dirt track through the mist-wreathed, palm-tree-threaded plantation before my tea-making workshop and tasting.
Rolling the green tea leaves in a large shallow straw basket with the palm of your hand (quite a workout) aids the fermentation and oxidation process. The leaves are then dried to create a wonderfully malty black tea.
Before heading back to Taipei my road trip takes me to the country’s former capital, Tainan, on the island’s south-west coast. Today, along with its fortresses and temples (including the 18th-century Chihkan Tower, built on top of an earlier Dutch fort) the city is known for its food – and its population’s sweet tooth.
Adding sugar to a dish was, once, a way of showing how rich you were – and Tainan was a wealthy city – so dishes tend to be sweeter here (although thankfully not the local breakfast speciality, raw slithers of beef cooked in a ginger-laced soup).
The area around the city’s Confucius Temple is famous for its pork buns, meatballs, shaved ice and eel (stir-fried with noodles and sugar). On Fuzhong Street I watch a vendor stirring coloured sugar over a stove to make honeycomb cookies. Nearby, dough is churned for sweet and squidgy steamed pork buns. I grab a roadside table for a plate of shaved ice topped with three types of beans (mung, azuki and kidney) and condensed milk.
Taiwanese millennials might not cook – but at the CookInn culinary school you can learn how to make xiao long bao and, on my final afternoon in Taipei, I sign up for a class. Adding jellied chicken stock to the minced pork, I learn, is the secret to creating a juicy filling.
Another Taiwanese speciality is taught in the class: bubble milk tea. This intensely sweet milky drink – made with black tea, milk powder, heaps of sugar and tapioca pearls – is about as far from an elegant oolong as you can get. But, like those night market snacks and experimental ice cream flavours, it’s a big hit with the younger generation.
Words by Lucy Gillmore
For more information see taiwan.net.tw
Photographs by Getty Images, Lucy Gillmore, Din Tai Fung