I haven’t had all the items on the top 40 list, so to view them all, check out “40 Taiwanese foods we can’t live without.”
Here are 15 things I’ve eaten, in no particular order.
1. Beef noodle (牛肉麵)
I’m not a fan of pork or red meat, though I will eat red meat from time to time. When I lived in Hsinchu, people said I had to try out Hsinchu’s famous beef noodle soup. The soup is made from stewed or braised beef, beef broth, vegetables, and very tasty noodles. There are many variations of beef noodle soup around Southeast Asia, and Taiwan has a style all its own. Beef noodle is considered a national dish in Taiwan and every year Taipei will hold its beef noodle fest, where chefs compete to see who can cook up the best beef noodle in the country.
My verdict: I say people should definitely try this when visiting Taiwan. I enjoyed the soup and didn’t find the beef overwhelming, though I probably only had it a couple of times while I lived in the country.
2. Oyster omelet (蚵仔煎)
The oyster omelet is a staple at many a Taiwanese night market. These omelets are extremely easy to find. Oyster omelets are basically omelets filled with small oysters. Potato starch is often mixed into the egg beater and the omelet may be fried in pork lard. Variations on the oyster omelet exist, but most are served with a spicy sauce.
My verdict: This is one of those dishes in Taiwan that can either be really good or really, really bad, depending on where you pick the omelet up. I enjoyed them and hated them at different times so my best advice would be to try oyster omelets from a few different vendors before deciding if you like them or not.
3. Bubble tea (珍珠奶茶)
Bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea, was invented in tea shops in Taichung during the 1980s. It is a tea-based drink often combined with fruit, milk, or syrup. The main feature of bubble tea is the chewy tapioca balls (or pearls). Many, many variations of bubble tea are available. Some drinks may be more smoothie-like in consistency, others are made from straight tea with the bubbles plopped in. One of the most popular forms of bubble tea in Taiwan is bubble milk tea. The milk teas are created using mainly powdered dairy or non-dairy creamers. Chunks of jelly and fruit also are often added to the teas. Bubble tea shops are popping up all over the world and are wildly popular in many parts of Southeast Asia.
My verdict: I absolutely love bubble tea and jump at the chance to get in anywhere I can here in the states. My favorite version however, was plain green tea (moderately sweetened, not too much sugar) infused with the tapioca balls. A giant cup of green bubble tea before work every day definitely helped rev me up before teaching! I started out loving bubble milk tea, but after awhile it can be hard on your stomach. Most forms of bubble tea are truly grand though. Experiment!
4. Coffin bread (棺材板)
It has been said that coffin bread, originating in Tainan, was created by combining french toast and chowder. The bread is hollowed out, toasted, and filled with seafood (or other) chowder. It was named obviously due to its appearance.
My verdict: My first year in Taiwan, I was a little spoiled as my boss at the school I was teaching had dinner prepared for the staff every night. The chef made coffin bread on a few occasions. I don’t really have much to say about it. Though it was tasty, it was a little strange.
5. Gua bao (割包)
Gua bao is a Taiwanese-style hamburger. Sometimes the steamed bun is filled with braised pork belly, chinese cabbage and powdered peanuts, but I also had variations with chicken.
My verdict: A simple, quick, and tasty snack.
6. Pineapple cake (鳳梨酥)
Pineapple cakes are a favorite snack of locals and tourists alike. Rumor has it the pineapple symbolizes Taiwan and wealth. People often buy the cakes as gifts or souvenirs (note: do not try sending any overseas, they will dry out even more). The pineapple was and is one of Taiwan’s most important cash crops.
My verdict: I ate these frequently while living in Taiwan as they were pretty cheap to buy at the supermarket (versions at the airport, etc., will be much more costly). The cake is a little dry but still pretty good — the pineapple filling is sweet but not overpowering. I did try bringing a box back with me on a visit home to the states and found the cakes dried out even more, so be careful when shipping.
7. Stinky tofu (臭豆腐)
And now we come to stinky tofu. Stinky tofu is another one of those dishes in Taiwan you will either love or absolutely despise. The dish isn’t hard to find — people will often smell it long before they see it. What exactly is it? I have written extensively about stinky tofu in the past, but to make a long story short, it’s basically tofu marinated in a mixture of rotten vegetables and shrimp. The snack can be found at night markets and street food vendors all around the country.
My verdict: Go for the stinky tofu at Shilin Night Market but beware of versions found at other locations. The first time I had the dish, it was pretty good. Other experiences were not so nice and even downright putrid.
8. Sweet potato (地瓜)
The sweet potato is special in Taiwan as the country itself is shaped like a sweet potato. Taiwanese sweet potatoes are cooked many ways. Sometimes they are added to soup or roasted and sold as street vendor snacks.
My verdict: I don’t really like eating sweet potatoes in general. However, I did think Taiwan’s sweet potato fries were fantastic.
9. Shaved ice mountain (刨冰山)
Taiwanese shaved ice is an extremely popular warm weather treat. Ice shavings are crushed and piled onto a plate. Endless toppings can then be dumped on, with everything ranging from syrup, fruit and peanuts, to taro, jellies and even beans. The whole thing is finished off with condensed milk or cane syrup water.
My verdict: I loved shaved ice and even wrote about it here. It’s an amazing and somewhat low-fat treat. Beware of the versions with beans though.
10. Din Tai Fung Dumpling House (鼎泰豐小籠包)
Din Tai Fung is a world famous restaurant specializing in xiaolongbao (small steamed buns). The main branch can be found in Taipei and there are also locations in Southeast Asia, Australia and the United States. The pork soup dumpling is one of the most popular menu items. The dumplings have extremely thin skin but somehow manage to contain a decent amount of soup combined with filling. Travel writer and famous TV personality/chef Anthony Bourdain recently raved about them in his show “The Layover: Taipei.”
My verdict: I only visited the Taipei location once but all I have to say is WOW. For someone who does not eat pork regularly, those little dumplings were extremely tempting. There are other delectable items on the menu as well, including fare for vegetarians.
11. Mochi (麻糬)
Mochi is said to have originated in Japan. It’s a cake made of glutinous rice, pounded into a paste, and molded into shape (basically, a blob-like shape). The cakes can also be prepared with a sweet rice. Flour is mixed with water until it becomes a sticky, elastic glob. Mochi balls are then filled with sweet things like red or white bean paste, custard, fruit and more.
My verdict: I hated mochi. I tried on more than one occasion to eat the treats but I found the sticky texture a little too nauseating. Many people do love them though.
12. Tube rice pudding (筒仔米糕)
Also know as bamboo tube rice, tube rice pudding consists of sticky rice and Chinese mushrooms fried with seasoning and steamed in a bamboo tube with pork and egg. There are variations of this in traditional aboriginal Taiwanese cooking.
My verdict: I sampled aboriginal style bamboo tube rice once while visiting an aborigine village. I found the taste a bit earthy, but pleasing. Definitely an interesting dish to try.
13. Hot-star Large Fried Chicken (豪大大雞扒)
According to the list on the CNN Travel site mentioned at the beginning of this post, Taiwanese devour more than 250,000 fried chicken cutlets every day. Apparently Hot-star chicken is the best place to find an original oversized chicken cutlet in Taiwan. The fried coating contains various spice powder and pepper.
My verdict: I only had this once but I’m not even sure it was from Hot-star. I didn’t really think it was anything special and found the breading too dry and crumbly.
14. Spicy hotpot (麻辣火鍋)
During cooler months, a favorite Taiwanese pastime is sitting down with one’s friends or family and enjoying a hot pot lunch or dinner. Hot pot restaurants are a lot of fun. A wide selection of frozen or raw vegetables, tofu, frozen raw meat, and sauces are available for selection. People pile their choices on top of a plate and heat up little pots of water placed in the center of their dining tables. Temperature controls are available. As the broth and water simmer, the vegetables and meat are tossed into the pots and cooked at one’s leisure. After the food is cooked, it’s often dipped into savory sauces. A variety of broth options also are available, from mild to spicy.
My verdict: Oh, how many days I spent sitting alone in hot pot restaurants, hovering over my personal little stew. I love Taiwanese hot pot and really enjoy the dipping sauces as well. Numerous desserts (often including chocolate fountains) are also featured at hot pot restaurants.
15. Anything with cuttlefish
Barbecued Taiwanese cuttlefish and squid can be found on nearly every street corner. Be prepared for the stinky stench. Barbecued cuttlefish are one of the hottest snacks around, though cuttlefish is often added to soup dishes.
My verdict: I didn’t really care for cuttlefish in soup and it took me more than a year before I was brave enough to sample a barbecued squid (not a cuttlefish, but similar) on a stick. While it wasn’t one of the best things I’d eaten in Taiwan, it definitely wasn’t one of the worst.
There are many, many wonderful Taiwanese dishes I haven’t talked about here, nor are they listed on CNN Travel’s top 40 Taiwan foods. To really understand and enjoy Taiwanese cuisine, you’ll just have to pay the country a visit yourself!
Has anyone else eaten any of the top 40 Taiwanese foods? Feel free to share your thoughts!