Taiwan information - food, what to eat
Generally speaking, the foods of Taiwan are derived from mainland Chinese cuisines. It is possible to find Szechuan food, Hunan food, Beifang food, Cantonese food and almost every other Chinese cuisine on the island. Taiwanese renditions of these cuisines tend to be somewhat greasy, though, and completely authentic mainland cuisines are rare. This is especially true for the Cantonese cuisine, as demonstrated by the lack of Cantonese speakers on the island. The Taiwanese are also passionately in love with eggs and seafood, as you will discover during your stay on the island.
Taiwan also has many of its own local specialties. A few found islandwide include:
- Beef noodles (牛肉麺 niúròu miàn), noodle soup with chunks of meltingly soft stewed beef and a dash of pickles
- Oyster omelette (蚵仔煎 kézǎi jiān), made from eggs, oysters and the leaves of a local chrysanthemum, topped with sweet red sauce
- Aiyu jelly (愛玉 àiyù), made from the seeds of a local fig and usually served on ice — sweet, cool and refreshing on a hot day
Most cities and towns in Taiwan are famous for special foods, because of their passion for food and influences from many different countries. For example, Ilan is famous for its mochi, a sticky rice snack often flavored with sesame, peanuts or other flavorings. Yonghe, a suburb of Taipei, is famous for its soy milk and breakfast foods. Taichung is famous for its sun cakes, a kind of sweet stuffed pastry. In Chiayi, it's square cookies, also called cubic pastry, crispy layered cookies cut into squares and sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds. Virtually every city has its famous specialties; many Taiwanese tourists will go visit other cities on the island only to try the local foods, then return home.
Taiwan also has remarkably good bakery items. Most specialize in sweet Chinese pastries or Western pastries adjusted to local tastes, but look out for We Care bakeries which also offer Western options such as whole wheat loaves, sour breads and ciabatta.
Places to eat
If you're on a budget, the cheapest food can be found in back-alley noodle shops and night market stalls, where you can get a filling bowl of noodles for around NT$35-70.
The Taiwanese love to snack and even many restaurants advertise xiaochi (小吃), literally "small eats", the Taiwanese equivalent of Cantonese dim sum. There are also the standard fast food places such as McDonalds (a standard Big Mac Meal costs NT$115), KFC and MOS Burger. In addition there are large numbers of convenience stores (such as 7-11) that sell things like tea eggs, sandwiches and drinks.
As with Chinese cuisine elsewhere, food in Taiwan is generally eaten with chopsticks and served on large plates placed at the center of the table. Unlike in the West, however, a serving spoon might not accompany the dishes, and instead guests will use their own chopsticks to transfer food to their plates. Some people unaccustomed to this way of eating may consider this unhygienic, though it is usually quite safe. However, those who prefer to use a separate utensil for serving have the option of requesting communal chopsticks (公筷 gongkuai), and can gently encourage friends to use them if they do not automatically do so.
All Mahayana Buddhists, which account for the majority of adherents in Taiwan, aspire to be pure vegetarian in deference to the Buddha's teaching of non-violence and compassion. So, vegetarian restaurants (called su-shr 素食 tsan-ting in Mandarin, and often identified with the 卍 symbol) can be found in abundance all over the island, and they run from cheap buffet style to gourmet and organic. Buffet styled restaurants (called 自助餐, which means "Serve Yourself Restaurant") are common in almost every neighborhood in large cities, and unlike the 'all-you-can-eat' buffets (which charge a set price, usually ranging from NT$250 - NT$350 including dessert and coffee/tea), the cost is estimated by the weight of the food on your plate. Rice (there is usually a choice of brown or white) is charged separately, but soup or cold tea is free and you can refill as many times as you like. NT$90 - NT$120 will buy you a good sized, nutritious meal.
However, if you cannot find a veggie restaurant, don't fret. Taiwanese people are very flexible and most restaurants will be happy to cook you up something to suit your requirements. The following sentences in Mandarin might be helpful: Wo chr su - I'm vegetarian, Wo bu chr rou - I don't eat meat. However, as Mandarin is a tonal language, you might need to say both, plus practice your acting skills to get yourself understood. Good luck! NB: If a restaurant refuses your order, don't push the issue. The reason will not be an unwillingness to accommodate your request, but because the basic ingredients of their dishes may include chicken broth or pork fat.
Although vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan do not aspire to vegan principles, due to the fact that Taiwanese do not have a tradition of eating dairy products, almost all dishes at Chinese style veggie restaurants will actually be vegan.