Travel gives such a small glimpse into the substance of any locale, so I’m afraid of doing the streets of Taipei injustice. But here’s our skin-deep take on the culinary spirit of this bustling metropolis, where food seems to be the driving force that makes everything tick.
You’ll find sprawling malls, both in the new and old parts of town. Whether they’re ultra high-end or a little outdated, there will be shiny, renovated floors dedicated to what we’d call a food court.
But an American food court they are not. This is where business is done. The other floors filled with designer fashions and cosmetics are like ghost-towns compared to the one or two stories lined with food vendors.
It’s in these sensory-seducing halls where you find fried croquettes, ramen, teas, baked goods, curries, shabu shabu, noodle soups, the list goes on. At Shin Kong Mitsukoshi, for instance, the family tried spicy ramen with a peanut soup base. It can kill you, but how can you resist.
It’s a similarly dichotomous vibe at the Taipei Train Station, TRA. It’ll seem like any good old mass transportation hub until you ride up to the third floor and you’re hit with bright lights and a thousand aromas. I mean, if Penn Station here were anything like that, it’d put Gotham West out of business.
It was in TRA that Jay found curry heaven. The floor is divided into sections by dish-type, so one wall was dedicated to curry specialists hailing from Japan, Nepal, India and more. There’s also my mom’s hometown of Tainan specialty: milkfish belly in rice noodle soup. It’s fairly light in flavor and goes so well with a dash of black vinegar.
If you’re adjusting to the scene and want to try something more “exotic” — and no Taiwan experience is complete without doing so — move on to the streets.
Every road, corner, alleyway is stocked with food vendors large and small. I’m not sure how its citizens resist and stay so thin.
Baked goods are my kryptonite, so let’s start there. Bakeries occupy nearly every other intersection, luring patrons in with their hearty window displays. The carbs here are endless and obviously not for the health-conscious, but you’ll forget while immersed in the crazy aromas and exquisite creations you never thought dough could make.
Then there’s the quintessential Taiwanese street food: night markets. We went to the Shilin night market, where they still have the goldfish-catching stands where you get a bucket of rings lined with tissue paper to try to scoop up goldfish to take home. Anyway, the lines these days form around the chicken steak stand. The wait can last up to an hour, but it’s one of those things you might as well try. The fried skin has just a touch of honey, while the slab of chicken somehow stays juicy.
Here is also where Jay discovered “Taiwan’s best pizza,” aka scallion pancakes. Despite the gimmicky name, this was one of the best bites I had in my time there. A few stands down was the fried-milk lady. She has a tray of milk in gelatin form and fries them tempura-style to order.
We also had the ice cream wrap: two scoops of ice cream, any flavor of your choice, wrapped with ground peanut that was originally in massive-block form (see below) and topped with cilantro.
In both the Shilin and Ximen markets, we found mochi in all forms. What was new to us was the grilled mochi on a stick. The mochi puffs up, which the grill master flattens over and over again until it’s lightly blackened. Then you pick a sweet or savory sauce — we tried black sesame for sweet and ponzu sauce for savory.
Night markets carry this buzz as all their vendors gather and hustle for your attention. But during the day, the streets are really not that different.
One of our first stops after getting off the plane was to seek out fried dough. Sounds so basic, but it’s so mind-numbingly good. It tastes far better than it sounds, and you pair it with either hot soy milk on a cold day or cold soy milk on a humid day, and you’ll have all you ever need for a satisfying meal.
Want something healthier? Fruits and veggies abound in this culinary cornucopia. Just across the street from Addiction Aquatic, you’ll find a fruit and produce market. The apples and melons are otherworldly in size, but the best part is seeing new kinds of crops unfamiliar to the western world (bamboo shoots are the best!).
We also spent a few days in the coastal city of Hualien, known for their mochi and agricultural prowess for growing taro and sweet potatoes. The Farglory Hotel is definitely the place to stay, located up a windy road atop a mountain that looks down on the sprawling town.
Downtown, there are definite must-go places and you won’t need a travel book to tell you where. People local and foreign crowd around one dumpling shop.
At less than one American dollar apiece, employees circle a working station in the open storefront and crank these puppies out, building up tower after tower of those bamboo steamers.
A few blocks down, there’s a tiny shaved ice shop with a purple sign. The whip a caramel sauce over the bowl of ice, with a side of boba toppings — the most satisfying type of dessert on a hot, sticky day.
There’s also a mochi chain, ZhengJi, with bright yellow signs. It’s too bad these fluffy rice cakes don’t last long enough to bring home as gifts, but the individually packed flavored mochis are must-tries. The rice is fresh and airy, but what’s different about these is a thin layer of peanut powder that coats the inner stuffing, whether that be taro, black sesame, green tea.
Our last full day in Taiwan brought us to the town of Ruifang, just east of Taipei. It’s a quick train ride away and such a great way to absorb this country’s street culture. There’s a “hike” you can take to get an aerial view of the Pacific Ocean. There was a bit of fog the day we went, but that itself exhibit a certain kind of beauty.
The best part of this “hike”–as many will refer to it as–is the path you take. The meandering man-made trail is more of an alleyway jam-packed with stores on both sides. It’s really more like another marketplace, crammed with vendors selling trinkets, postcards, clothes, but of course, best of all, food.
Build up your appetite because this is the place to snack endlessly from the first store you hit to the very last when the path ends and brings you to an open view.
Along the way, there’s mochi, naturally. There are vats of tea eggs. There are fun-shaped sugar on sticks. There’s a delightful candy shop called Sophisca, where you’ll find tea jellies, sushi-shaped rock candies, wasabi chocolates, all designed with the more adorable packaging.
There’s also grilled snails, sweet egg-shaped pancakes, and huge blocks of rice cakes.
Last place I’ll mention is Ice Magic. Shaved ice is slowly crossing the Pacific, accustoming Western taste buds in major cities like here and LA. But in Asia, they really crank it up a notch, or five. The shave iced at Ice Magic doesn’t come from frozen water. There’s a mango flavor embedded, then topped with actual mango chunks and mango syrup, then a sweet cup of flan on top of all of that. It’s a beautiful sight against Taiwan’s humidity. And this monster of an ice creation comes out to be six to seven bucks.
If you’re still with me, prepare to put on weight if you’re headed Taipei’s way. Amazing food every where you look, all for mere cents on the American dollar.