By Cyrena Lee for Fathom | A little gem of an island, Taiwan is the ultimate food destination for Asian cuisine. So unless you're lucky enough to already have been introduced, get ready for an eye- and stomach-opening adventure. That goes for vegetarians, too: The Buddhist population in capital city Taipei ensures vegetarian options aplenty. As for the locals, everyone is extremely friendly and helpful. Taiwan is a far less severe a culture shock than China. The Taiwanese have a sense of personal space, and people actually form neat lines while awaiting subway trains. And if you're not a foodie, there are temples, mountains, natural wonders, and hot spring spas to keep you occupied. This food tour centers on Taipei and the nearby highlights, but the food tips apply to the entire island.
As a child, I spent summers in Taiwan visiting my maternal Grandma. The hot, humid memories are relieved by recollections of glorious, air-conditioned food courts in the impressive shopping centers. My father is from the port city Keelung, and my relatives there favor eccentric foods. I was once served a mysterious dish full of white, round balls. I was told with a giggle that they were chicken testicles. I always love going back because the food is unlike anywhere else.
And because the country is so technology-minded and ahead of the fashion curve, there's always something for the trend forecaster in me to discover. How ahead? Well, many of the fashion trends we see in the Western world are actually two years behind what's going on in Asia. Torn jeans were all the rage two summers before they became popular in America. Ditto the socks-and-sandals look.
A WORD ABOUT GPS
Taiwanese addresses seem confusing, but they follow a format: from the most specific location to the most broad. That is: Floor # > # or No. > Alley > Lane > Section > Street Name > District > City/Country > Postal Code > Taiwan. Google Maps is proficient at recognizing and finding addresses.
And now, we eat.
The Taiwanese wake up early for breakfast. Sometimes, I have trouble sleeping just thinking about the endless options that await: sweet or savory soy milk (dou jiang), Chinese fried donut sticks for dipping (you tiao), roasted flatbread (shao bing), turnip cakes (luo bo gao), and water-fried buns (shui jian bao). These treats are easily found in small mom and pop shops and in chain Mei Er Mei, which also offers Western-style sandwiches.
One of my favorite ways to start the day is with a sticky purple rice roll (zi rou mi fan tuan), which is essentially a Chinese churro with pickled vegetables, egg, and dried pork floss. Walk to the side of Yuan Tong Road in the Zhong He district to eat the best dollar breakfast you'll ever have, handmade by a woman who serves motor bikers for their early commute.
For the mecca of breakfasts, the local favorite is Fu Hang Dou Jiang (HuaShan Market Building, 2F, No. 108, Sec. 1, Zhongxiao East Rd., Zhongzheng district; +886-2-2392-2175). Waking up early on your first few days shouldn't be a problem with the inevitable jet lag, and this haven closes by 10 a.m. The large, open-kitchen style offers an up-close view on the action to whet your appetite while you wait in line.
Three words: Beef. Noodle. Soup. Or, as they call it, niu rou mian. Like pizza in New York, there is dissent over which joint serves the best bowl of savory soup with delicious chunks of tender beef and noodles. The main contenders are Ai-Jia Qing Zhen Beef Noodle Restaurant (Ln. 223, Sec. 4, Zhongxiao East Rd., Da'an district; +886-2-2331-8203). It's certified halal and sells out early, so don't show up too late. Others will insist that no-frills Tao Yuan Street Beef Noodle Shop (No. 15, Taoyuan St., Zhongzheng district; +886-2-2375-8973) near Ximending (also known as Laowang) is superior. Yong Kang Beef Noodle (No.17, Ln. 31, Sec. 2, Jinshan South Rd., Da'an district; +886-2-2351-1051) also has a loyal following in queues around the corner.
The indecisive (or greedy) will be happy to find in the basement of the world-famous Taipei 101 building a large food court offering many types of food for a varied sampling. Breeze Center, a nearby massive shopping mall, is also chock-full of choice restaurants and shops.
For tried and true ramen, head to Xin Bei Tou, the hot springs area. At the base of the mountain, you'll find Man Lai Hot Spring Ramen. If you aren't too hungry, have a small snack of delicious eggs soft-boiled in hot spring water.
Taiwanese people love eating, so naturally buffets are popular. Patrons can show up for lunch (from about 11 a.m.-2 p.m.), afternoon tea (2 p.m.-5 p.m.), and dinner (from 5 p.m.) for endless eating — dinner being the most expensive with the most options. Afternoon tea is more refined with fewer options than dinner, but more than your money's worth and then some. Shin Yeh is a family favorite. And because it's Japanese-style, they also serve also unlimited sushi.
One of the ultimate eating experiences is hot pot: a vat of boiling, tongue-tingling broth that steams spices, paired with delicious accoutrements like fresh vegetables, meats, rice noodles, and more. Ding Wang Spicy Hot Pot (No. 89, North Guangfu Rd., Songshan district; +886-2-2742-1166) is a solid to-go — just make reservations well in advance. Adventurous eaters should order duck blood-infused tofu. It's surprisingly tasty.
Addiction Aquatic Development is both a fish supermarket and a restaurant that always draws crowds. The fish is so fresh it could hop onto your plate and so delicious that you won't even mind that you're standing at the sushi bar throughout the meal.
Head to Din Tai Fung for the world-famous soup dumplings that cannot be missed in their native country. The Xinyi location is my favorite; it's fun to weave through multiple levels of crowds enjoying xiao long bao. Underrated dishes include the impeccable and impossibly light fried rice, impossibly flavorful chicken broth, and simply delicious dan mien noodles. Many of the wait staff are multilingual, and the service leaves you wanting for nothing.
If you can't sleep, go out and eat. That's likely the unspoken motto behind the bustling night markets of Taiwan, which are always full of plenty to eat, see, and buy. There are many to choose from, but ShiDa Night Market is one of the biggest, and popular with students. Hundreds of tiny stands sell everything from clothing to electronics and multiple varieties of both savory and sweet snacks. Kids can play fair-like games (popping balloons, catching goldfish with paper nets) to win prizes.
One of my favorites is Keelung Miaokou Night Market, located in the port city a half hour from Taipei. This is the best night market for food, and it's situated right by a temple. Ask anyone where the miao kou is, and they'll point you in the right direction. Locals line up for Western-inspired egg, cheese, and ham sandwiches, but skip that and try he zi jian (oyster omelet), niu rou mian (beef noodle soup), paopao (shaved ice dessert) and, of course, bubble tea.
Xiao Chi, or "little eats," are small snacks, the side dishes of life that make it all the sweeter. My short list includes: Hu Tu Mian (No. 11, Ln. 22, Wenzhou St., Da'an district; +886-2-2366-1288) for to-die-for noodles. For the best bubble tea, take the subway to the Gongguan MRT station exit 4. Follow the street north and turn left when you reach a large cross street. At the first corner, you'll see the long line for Chen San Ding (Alley 8, Ln. 316, Luosifu Rd., Zhongzheng district; +886-2-2367-7781) bubble tea. Nearby is a fried chicken stand which you can identify by the smell. Those who haven't tried ice desserts (bao bing) should go to Ice Monster. The mango ice is ace on hot days. Pineapple cakes are indigenous to Taiwan and one of their prize treats. Go to Chia Te Bakery and bring a few boxes home for friends that you truly love. Then try to make it through the long flight back home without eating them yourself.
A note on Stinky Tofu
Chou tofu certainly is stinky. Most foreigners are hard-pressed to believe that anyone would want to eat such a pungent treat. But once you get past the smell, you'll be glad you did. The taste is hard to describe: at once tangy and savory. But definitely recommended.
IN BETWEEN MEALS
If you're looking to walk off your food coma, start the day with a visit Yang Ming Shan National Park. In the spring you'll find cherry blossoms; year-round you'll find hiking trails and hot springs to bathe in.
Tough love is a blind massage. It's painful and slightly difficult to endure, but at the end you'll feel much, much better for it. Head to the DongMen MRT station and look for the spot near the hair salon at the bottom of the stairs at exit/entrance 5. About $7 gets you a solid twenty minutes.
You'll pass certain establishments and find yourself wondering why a bunch of Taiwanese people are sitting around a giant tank of water drinking beers. Now you'll know: They're shrimping for truly fresh grub, which they'll grill or fry after they catch it. It takes time and patience (they leave your bait on the bottom of the pool), so it's pretty much the opposite of fast food. Fishes the Shrimp Field (No.13, Sec. 3, Zhishan Rd., Shihlin district; +886-2-2841-3225) is a good place to bring kids and curious adults.
There are interesting stores all over Taipei, but Wu Fen Pu clothing market in the Xinyi District is my favorite for cheap and trendy clothing. You can find uber soft Korean-made sweaters that you'll want to live in. Creative Life Store Hands Tailung in Breeze Center is a Japanese import that embodies why Taiwanese people are so obsessed with their former colonizers. With unbearably cute and sophisticated housewares, art supplies, technology accessories, and beauty and make-up products, this is a one-stop shop for souvenirs.
Betel Nut Beauties
You'll run across young girls in short skirts on the roadsides, peddling cigarettes and betel nuts, areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves. And nearby you will also find old men chewing these nuts, their blood-red, cavity-filled mouths the giveaway.
Ask Buddha for Your Fortune
If you go into most Buddhist temples in Taiwan, you'll notice — through all the incense smoke — people throwing two crescent-shaped wood blocks on the floor. They're asking the divine spirits for advice, and there is a particular set of rules one must follow to do so. You don't necessarily have to be Buddhist to do this. I like to view it as a free public advice forum. But you'll want to do it right. Here's how to ask Buddha for your fortune. Lungshan Temple (take the MRT to Longshan Temple Station) and Xing Tian Temple (get off at Xingtian Temple MRT Station) are popular and easily accessible temples in Taipei. There will most likely be an English-speaking employee who can help.
WHERE TO STAY
San Want is the hotel I've been going to for years. It's central, super clean, and has extremely comfortable beds and reliable WiFi. There is a drink shop across the road behind Starbucks. Go and ask for the tarot milkshake drink. It will blow your mind.
Ghost hunters stay at the allegedly haunted five-star Grand Hyatt, built on a former execution ground. There are two large, beautiful painted scrolls in the lobby with words written specifically to ward off bad spirits. I've heard weird stories of encounters there, but am too afraid to go myself.
W Taipei is trendy and luxurious. You might spot foreign celebrities, especially if you're really into K-pop. The bar on the top of the building has expensive champagne, but the atmosphere is a bit dull.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
See all the locations mentioned in this story. (Google Maps)
WHEN TO GO
Taiwan can be hot and humid during the summers, so it's best during late fall around February, when you can also catch the festivities around Chinese New Year.
The metro and bus systems are excellent. They're pristine (absolutely no eating or drinking allowed) and clearly marked with English signs.