It’s been a long time coming for a food-related post to make its way here. Afterall, Taiwan is well-known for its variety of great food, but surely like me, you also want to know what other delicacies Taiwan has to offer other than niu rou mian (牛肉麵 Taiwanese beef noodles) or Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao (小籠包 soup dumplings). So now that I’ve had time to savour Taiwan’s street food, it’s time to share some of my favourite delectable morsels, so unassuming that most people would often stick up their noses and walk right on by without giving them a chance. Most of them look displeasing to eat. Even the names don’t sound appetising. But I think it’s important to remember that our sense of disgust when it comes to food is also culturally moulded. And what better way to understand a new culture than to challenge our ready-formed perceptions?
1. Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐 Chou Dou Fu )
No surprises here but there’s a reason why it deserves to be mentioned over and over again. That stench you smell when walking around night markets and the occasional Taiwanese eateries is fermented tofu. What I especially appreciate is that there is no fixed formula on how it is made, which means there is a wide representation of flavours depending on regional and individual taste. Furthermore, how it is prepared to be eaten can also vary greatly… Steamed, grilled, deep-fried, stewed or even served uncooked.
I have come to love this beast of a fermented dish, probably because not only is it actually tasty, I get a great sense of satisfaction once I overcome the smell and in discovering that eating different preparations at different locations provide me with different taste experiences. It’s a little adventure for my tastebuds! If you haven’t tried it already, most of what you find really isn’t bad at all. The smell usually dissipates once you take that first bite and you will be rewarded for your bravery with deliciousness.
2. Chicken Butt (雞屁股 Ji Pi Gu ) & Chicken Skin (雞皮 Ji Pi )
Of all the seemingly most useless parts of any animal to eat, the rear end and the skin it comes in probably hits the mark. I used to walk by these without a second glance because I didn’t see any value in eating them. Stewed bits of fat that are then thrown into hot oil for some deep frying sounds like a journey towards a very unhealthy waistline. But trying new things and getting to know local flavour will always win over counting calories for me. Moreover, it really is worth the while! Chewy and slightly sweet and sticky from the sauce it’s stewed in, makes a winning combo. And to be perfectly honest, it’s pretty genius that they think of such delicious ways to serve what is assumed off-cuts and inedible. I highly recommend you grab a bag of these and accompany them with some light drinking with friends! Just make sure it is made fresh to order because nothing is worse than trying to swallow cold lard.
3. Intestines Stuffed with Garlic Chives (香酥大腸 Xiang Su Da Chang )
At the first encounter, this street snack is glaringly alarming to look at. Large intestines stuffed with long lengths of chives does not give the impression that it would be delicious, but as with the chicken bits and bobs mentioned above, this bewildering street snack provides you with all the textural pleasures in one bite. Done right, it’s crispy yet chewy, soft, but also has a slight bite. Combined with that savoury sweet stickiness you can easily associate with any honey-glazed dish, it is sure to delight you if you can look past its appearance. It’s one of my favourite go-to-snacks when I feel like indulging, because this doesn’t come cheap like the others. One tiao 條 (length) will set you back about 100NT, which is easily 3-5 times more than your other stewed and deep fried goods. But it is that yum! Again…makes an excellent pairing with your alcohol of choice.
4. Oyster / Intestine Flour-Rice Noodles (大腸/蚵仔麵線 Da Chang / He Zi Mian Xian )
Besides congee, this is my happy meal when I need something warm and comforting in Taiwan. This modest noodle dish originated from Fujian (福建), a province located just across the way in China. When migrants from this region settled down in Taiwan about 300 years ago, they continued to make their poor-man’s dishes. Though unremarkable as it may seem, Mian Xian is undoubtedly one of the signature dishes of Taiwan, and for good reason. The iconic small and delicate rice and wheat-based noodles are suspended in a thick soupy broth made from oysters or intestines or both, giving it a natural umami flavour. Served with coriander, sometimes basil, but always piping hot, this humble meal would be sure to help soothe that cold or warm you up on a drizzly day.
5. Preserved Eggs in Every Style
I love eggs. Who doesn’t? But when you venture into the world of preserved eggs, it’s a whole different story. I can’t imagine not pairing my silken tofu or congee with the occasional century egg. Or what a shame it would be if I had never tried iron eggs with its complex layers of flavours. I didn’t think preserved eggs were anything weird until a fellow westerner told me she couldn’t wrap her head around salted egg in a sweet (ie: moon cakes). But then, how different really is it to salted caramel tarts? Both use salt to enhance the sweet flavours, and there’s egg. Perhaps I break down food into their simplest forms too easily, but I have grown to accept preserved eggs as a fact of life. Afterall, they have stuck around from millennias ago.
6. More Innards!
I eat like a local whenever I can, because these dishes are usually the freshest around. And that includes slurping down a bowl of pork liver soup which I’ve come to love. There are small eateries all over Taipei where you can have your choice of offal soup to complement your meal. Kidneys, stomach, tripe, hearts…what have you. Poor man’s food, is good hearty food, and you can find locals lining up at some places just to get their hands on one of them fresh bowls. Disgusting? no. Just smart and economical. And delicious.
7. Bawan ( 肉圓 – Taiwanese Meatballs )
Despite its literal translation is meatballs, this one looked so strange to eat that I didn’t taste test it until about a month ago. And I totally regret not giving it a go earlier, because these are amazing! The meat (almost always pork) is actually contained inside either a soft or chewy layer of glutinous rice flour (I prefer the soft ones). They are then either steamed or fried with a healthy serving of various sauces for consumption. Sometimes you see them as almost translucent with a reddish centre when they are cooked through. Either way, they are not the gluggy mess I assumed them to be, and make a quite filling snack. Vegetarian options are available.
8. Gaozha 糕渣
Last but not least is a sweet snack that I came across when travelling through Yilan. I’m not exactly sure how to classify this dish because despite being subtly sweet to taste, it is made of potato starch and chicken broth to create a creamy consistency. Left to cool, then diced before going into the deep fryer, it is crisp on the outside but has a soft, gooey, and yet melt-in-your-mouth centre. Imagine hot moist mochi with a bit of a crunch. Being rightfully unique, gaozha demands some patronage and you can expect to find lines for it at Luodong Night Market (羅東夜市)
That’s it for now, but I’m sure I’ll be able to find more weird and wonderful food to report on. I hope this post has rendered you both hungry and adventurous! Next time you find yourself at such small eateries, just try them out. Bridge that gap between your own perceptions and what is actually, perfectly, deliciously edible. Remember the pie also had such humble beginnings.