Taiwan’s street food is not just good. It’s legendary.
While much of Taiwan’s food originated in Fujian and other provinces of China, many Chinese dishes have been adjusted or reborn in Taiwan, while others are totally unprecedented and have helped to put Taiwanese food as a distinct cuisine on the global food map.
The sheer variety of street foods in Taiwan is tied to the rise of night markets around the country. Every city and most towns have one or multiple night markets; in fact, there are at least 30 major night markets in Taipei!
There are countless articles out there listing all the must-eat street foods in Taiwan. Many of these xiao chi (snacks) have unknown origins going back hundreds of years, and have become staples around the country.
But in this article, I’m going to introduce 20 Taiwanese street foods and drinks that are associated with, or have known origins in a particular night market, city, or region of Taiwan. I hope this can serve as a street food map for your travels around Taiwan!
1. Taro Balls with Salted Egg & Pork Floss: Taipei
Of the thousands of food stalls represented in Taipei’s many night markets, one that consistently has the longest lines is Liu Yu Zai (劉芋仔芋餅) in Ningxia Night Market, which serves a unique invention of deep fried taro balls stuffed with salted egg yolk and pork floss. To find it, head to stall #91, or just watch for the long line, and find out what the hype is all about.
2. Mango Shaved Ice, Taipei
The perfect antidote to the summer heat, shaved ice is popular throughout Asia and comes in both traditional (read: lots of beans and QQ (jelly) things) and modern (chocolate, matcha, bubble tea, etc.) forms. But few disagree that the mango version (芒果剉冰) supposedly invented on Yongkang Street in Taipei is the king of all shaved ice desserts. Best in summer when mango is in season, the several shops on Yongkang Street today serve heaping bowls of it year-round.
3. A-gei, Danshui
If you go to Paris, you’ll have a croissant, right? Well the same can be said for Danshui, a district of New Taipei City, and A-gei (阿給). This innovative creation consists of a deep fried tofu pocket stuffed with cellophane noodles, sealed with surimi, and served in a pool of sweet red chili sauce. It is typically enjoyed alongside a bowl of fish ball soup and a cup of chilled soy milk.
4. Stinky Tofu, Shenkeng
Taiwan’s most notorious snack has origins in China but was popularized in Taiwan, where it is universally loved (by locals) and feared (by most visitors). But get past the smell of stinky tofu (臭豆腐), try it a few times, and you’ll gradually fall in love with it. You can find it in every night market in Taiwan, but Shenkeng Old Street in New Taipei City is synonymous with stinky tofu. Dozens of hawkers there serve the stinkiest of tofus in all varieties, from strewed to deep fried.
5. Sweet Potato & Taro Balls, Jiufen
The former gold mining town of Jiufen is one of the most popular day trips from Taipei, and it goes without saying that you must try a bowl of locally made sweet potato & taro balls (地瓜/芋頭圓) when you visit. In summer they come chilled with syrup, while in winter they are served in hot, sweet soup. Slightly bland though they may be, just remember it’s all about the texture.
6. Fulong Benton Box, Fulong Beach
Fulong bento boxes (福隆便當) have origins in Japan. When the Japanese colonized Taiwan for 50 years, they built railway lines around the country, and so came the need for portable meals in a box. The bento boxes sold at Fulong Station stood the test of time, and remain the country’s most well-known version of this everyday meal to-go. Fulong bento boxes come with chicken leg, pork chop, braised egg, grilled mackerel, tofu, cabbage, greens, and pickles served on a bed of rice. They are filling, delicious, and cheap.
7. Dried Tofu, Daxi
Hakka communities in Taiwan, especially that of Daxi in Taoyuan City, are known for their dried tofu or “dou gan” (豆乾). These are firm cubes of tofu that have been prepared with star anise and other spices before being pressed, dried, then sliced and served with sweet soy sauce and green onions or cilantro. It is the perfect side dish with a bowl of noodles soup, or as an accompaniment for beer.
8. Peanut Brittle Ice Cream Wraps, Yilan
Sometimes unusual combinations of food just work, and peanut brittle wraps (花生冰淇淋卷) are a perfect example. Also called “ice cream burritos”, they consist of traditional Taiwanese ice cream with shavings from peanut brittle and fresh cilantro inside a thin wrap. Somehow they really hit the spot. They are found all over Taiwan, but said to originate in Yilan County on the northeast coast.
9. Deep Fried Green Onion Cakes, Yilan
Another Yilan specialty is their take on green onion cakes (蔥油餅). The Taiwanese version of this Chinese treat is a large, round, flat pancake typically served with egg and other toppings. The ones in Yilan are deep fried in a larger-than-usual amount of oil, making them extra greasy (in other words, delicious), not to mention they make use of local green onions grown everywhere on the Yilan plain. The ones in the tiny Yilan hamlet of Sanxing (三星) are especially famous.
10. Pounded Tea, Neiwan
Lei cha (擂茶) or “pounded tea” is a meal in a cup associated with the Hakka ethnic group in Taiwan. The drink is made by pounding dried tealeaves with a variety of nuts, seeds, grains, herbs, and spices, then adding hot water and puffed rice. The result is a filling, satisfying, energizing cup of deliciousness. It can be found in most Hakka communities in Taiwan, but Neiwan Old Street in Hsinchu County is one of best places to try it.
11. Strawberry Noodles, Dahu
After strawberries were introduced to Taiwan, it was found that they grew especially well in the Dahu region of Miaoli County in Central Taiwan. Dahu is now the strawberry epicentre of Taiwan, and at Dahu Wineland Resort, you can take away all manner of strawberry-infused foods, including strawberry sausages, popcorn, noodles, sausages, beer, and wine.
12. Pearl Milk Tea, Taichung
The exact birthplace of bubble tea (珍珠奶茶 or “pearl milk tea”) is a hotly contested issue in Taiwan, but the most commonly asserted theory is that it was invented at Chun Shui Tang (春水堂) in Taichung City. Today you can make a bubble tea pilgrimage to the original teahouse, where huge cups of the world-famous beverage that you can chew are still served.
13. Ba Wan, Changhua
Another gelatinous item to add to you Taiwan street food bucket list is ba-wan (肉圓). These photogenic blobs are made by steaming pork, bamboo shoots, and shitake mushrooms in a dough made from sweet potato starch. It is generally agreed that they were born in Beidou township of Changhua County, and while common throughout Taiwan today, the Changhua version is still considered the best.
14. Deep Fried Oyster Balls, Chiayi
Chiayi, located between Yunlin and Tainan counties, is known for its huge farmed oysters. Go to any village there and you will see old women lining the streets and prying them open with special knives. One special treat they’ve come up with using the oysters is a large deep fried ball of egg, oysters, and dough (蚵嗲). Upon purchasing one, make sure you pierce it to let the steam out and squirt some soy and chili sauce inside before eating.
15. Fresh Wasabi & Cold Tofu, Alishan
More of a mountain food than street food, Alishan’s wasabi made from fresh, locally grown horse radish is insanely good. Lighter in color and with less after-burn than you may be used to, you can practically eat this stuff straight (and vendors around the hiking trails will give you samples of it on a spoon). Hole-in-the-wall restaurants at the mountain resort’s tourist village serve it with cold slabs of tofu and soy sauce.
16. Danzai Noodles and Spanish Mackerel Stew, Tainan
According to most Taiwanese, the former capital of Taiwan, Tainan, remains the country’s food capital. Perhaps the most famous Tainan-invented street food dish is danzai noodles (擔仔麵 or ta-a noodles), which are served in a shrimp based soup. Another delicious Tainan noodle soup dish is Spanish Mackerel Stew (台南土魠魚羹), which comes with strips of breaded, deep fried fish on top.
17. Coffin Bread, Tainan
If there’s a single most bizarre Taiwanese street food dish on this list, it’s probably Tainan’s coffin bread (府城棺材板). The dish is made by hallowing out a thick slab (or entire loaf) of white bread and then filling it with a creamy stew of chicken, seafood, tripe, and/or mushrooms, then closed like a coffin lid. It may seem like a quirky modern innovation, but dates to the 1940s and was popular among US soldiers stationed in Taiwan
18. Red Braised Beef Noodles, Kaohsiung
While there are versions of beef noodles all over Asia, Taiwan has a particular version (紅燒牛肉麵) that is especially loved. It is believed that the dish was adapted by Chinese KMT soldiers who settled in Kaohsiung, the major port city of Southern Taiwan. It is less spicy than the Sichuan version and usually served with pickled vegetables.
19. Mountain boar, Aboriginal Communities
Taiwan has 16 officially recognized aboriginal tribes. A number of aboriginal specialties can be enjoyed when visiting aboriginal communities, including bamboo tubes stuffed with rice and cloudy millet wine, but probably the most quintessential and locally loved is grilled boar meat (山豬肉).
20. Flying Fish, Orchid Island
Our list comes to an end on remote Orchid Island, home of Taiwan’s most isolated aboriginal tribe, the Yami (Tao) people. One of the most common foods served at the street side on the island is fried flying fish (飛魚). The winged fish is sacred to the local people, and their annual calendar revolves around the flying fish season (spring), with associated festivals that involve men in white loincloths carrying their distinctive hand-carved canoes to the sea.
So, are you hungry yet? While this article has just grazed the surface of the epic street food scene in Taiwan, I hope that you’ve found some ideas for amazing street foods to seek out on your next trip to Taiwan!
|Nick Kembel is the author of Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner and creator of the Taiwan-focused website Spiritual Travels. He has lived in Taiwan for over 10 years and runs the Taiwan Travel Planning group.|