Let’s get this out of the way first–Taiwan is an underrated country.
When I started telling family and friends about my Asia trip, they all had the same reaction.
“Where are you going?”
“Oh cool! I love Japan! It’s such an amazing country!”
“Huh? OK. Why are you going there?”
Truth be told even people who grew up in Taiwan were questioning my move. But that’s okay, the fact that Taiwan remains a hidden gem means that it’s still affordable, with no tourist traps or people trying to take advantage of you. In fact, the Taiwanese were some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met during my travels. Everywhere I sent people were asking how I enjoyed my stay, and when I was coming back. And since the island does not get a lot of tourists, it remains one of the best values in Asia.
The one thing that sets Taiwan apart from most cities is their food culture. Food permeates seems to permeate through every level of Taiwanese culture. It seemed like every corner had some type of food stand, that every street had someone trying to sell you something to put in your mouth. That passion that radiates through the cities amazing night markets is also being infused within the general dining scene as well. It’s something that I’m having a hard time trying to explain in words and pictures. It’s definitely something that needs to be experienced.
10.) Braised Chicken Sausage at Shilin Night Market – Ironically for a city that thrives on night markets, there is only one night market item that makes this list. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, whatever this chicken sausage was (and whatever this dude was doing to it) was a winning combination.
9.) Fresh Breads (Assorted) from Belem Bakery (Da’an District) – This is a surprise for me–Asia takes their bakeries very seriously. Every morning, in search of a filling breakfast, our family went down the street to the neighborhood bakery and raided their coffers, American style. There were too many breads to try to figure out what was what, but the scallion and cheese bread really stood out to me.
8.) Pineapple Cake at Multiple Locations – Another Taiwanese staple, pineapple cake is somewhat of a tradition in Taiwan. The soft, spongy cake with a pineapple filling is a great treat.
7.) Radish Cake at (Multiple Locations) – A food that I had never even heard of before coming here. The idea behind radish cake is a simple one–shredded turnips, water, and rice flour–but the flavor combination is (again) something I’ve never experience before. Dipping these cakes into a soy sauce produces a light flavor sensation.
6.) Shrimp Won-Tons at Din Tai Fung – If you see any write-ups about Taipei, then you’ve obviously heard of Din Tai Fung. The dumpling house, founded in 1972 is now franchised worldwide, but you will still have to wait for more than 40 minutes to experience their delicious dim sum meals. The dumplings were cool, but my taste buds gravitated to the Shrimp Won Tons at the end of the table. Being at the end, the won-tons were getting no love. So I took care of that 🙂
5.) Meat Dumplings at (Yong He Soy Milk King) – When you go to Taipei, you have to experience their 24 hour traditional breakfast houses. Think of these as a Taiwanese Waffle House. Although many get the sweet soy milk (not really my style but I indulged), I was blown away by their steamed meat buns….at 3 in the morning!
4.) Sweet Taiwanese Sausage at Maokong Food Street – One of the things that you notice about leaving America is that everything is not as sweet. Even products that are the same in both America and abroad will have less sugar. Surprisingly, however the Taiwanese do put sugar in….their meat. I don’t understand it, but for whatever reason sweet sausage is just right. The combination of sweet and savory works perfectly, and paring it with a siracha sauce is a must.
The sausage is found everywhere, but the best I’ve had was at the top of the Maokong Gondola station from a lady on the side of the road. Real talk.
3.) Kimchi Pizza at Mod Sequel – I guess I wasn’t surprised to see pizza out in Taiwan. It’s basically a universal food that is cheap to make and delivers well. However, what I love about seeing these type of foods in other countries is their take on it. Kimchi is all the rage among foodies worldwide, but the combination on a pizza was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.
2.) Eggplant Quinoa at Stoppage Time Cafe – When you get off a plane, especially after flying for 19 hours, you tend to eat the crappiest meal possible. Your only mission is to get some type of edible food in your belly in order to delay starvation. However, I’m glad I waited to go into the city and eat a decent meal, because if not, I would’ve have made it over to Stoppage Time cafe for their amazing Eggplant Quinoa.
I can’t even describe the taste sensation happening in my mouth. I eat Quiona almost every week, but the combination of flavors and spices in this dish gave so much life to this rather dry grain. I don’t know what they did here, but I can easily say that this was the best dish I’ve ever had in life. No joke.
1) Hot Star Chicken – My Taiwanese friends have been holding out on me. Why is it that no one told me about Hot Star Chicken? As a Black man from the South, (had to preface this), I can honestly say it’s the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. The key to Taiwanese Fried Chicken is to get it fresh, hot off the fryer, and instantly seasoned. The result is some of the most amazing chicken (and fried oysters!) I’ve ever had.
There are Hot Star locations in Cali, but do yourself a favor and try the original if you can!
Some Honorable Mentions
Ethiopian Coffee at Rufous – This was the best coffee I’ve ever had. Hand selected by the owner, these people at Rufous just get it. Coffee is a fruit, and I was happy to experience the perfect combination of sweet flavors complimented by a dash of bitterness. Yes, it’s a hipster coffee, but once you have a cup it’s hard to go back to Starbucks.
Mandatory Draft at 21 Public – Walking into this craft beer spot reminded me a little too much of Brooklyn, however the Mandatory Draft, with it’s ironic take on North Korea’s communist esthetic, reminds you that you’re not in NYC anymore. The light, hoppy draft was a great Asian take on the American IPA.
Kavalan Whiskey on the Rocks at Mod Sequel – Whiskey is all the rage everywhere, so I wasn’t surprised that there was a local Taiwanese whiskey. I was surprised that it was both award winning and tasted amazing. Kavalan is a great single malt with a refreshing finish, and a must drink while on the island. Unfortunately, finding this whiskey proved to be bit of a challenge (most bars stock the same spirits you would find in the US), but it’s worth the effort to find it. We had ours at Mod Sequel (even though it wasn’t on the menu), and a rocks glass was only $10!
Asian Beauty Tea at Taiwan Tea Promotion Centre – One of the best (and most affordable experiences) while in Taipei is to take the gondola up the mountain to the tea producing center of Maokong. There are multiple tea houses to go to once on top of the mountain, but our family just happened to come across this husband and wife duo who were doing tastings and ended up having some of the best tea I’ve ever had.