The Best Things I Ate in Taiwan

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

Less than four percent the size of China's landmass, the island of Taiwan has always been something of an underdog. Its cities are smaller and younger, there's no Great Wall, and you'll find way fewer pandas. But you don't get a nickname like the Beautiful Island by being a crummy place to live, and while most Westerners are in the dark about Taiwan's charms, there's a reason it's one of East Asia's big tourism destinations.

There's a lot to appreciate in tiny Taiwan: stunning forests, mountains, and coastline with carefully maintained national parks; a rich culture of hospitality; bustling but easily navigable cities and cute agricultural villages. The island is also impressively diverse; though the vast majority of the country's population is Han Chinese, family ancestries trace back to all over different regions of China, and that's before you add in an aboriginal population and robust influences from Japan, Europe, and the U.S.

And then there's the food. The beautiful, freaking amazing food. Part Chinese, part Japanese, part native, with a gorgeous bounty of local produce, meat, and seafood, Taiwanese cooking has many origins, but nothing else tastes quite like it. Whether you're scarfing down basil-perfumed pancakes at 4 a.m., slurping soup dumplings for breakfast, noshing on fresh local greens for lunch, or taking your first of three dinners at a streetside roast duck stall, this is a country for anyone who loves to eat. It's some of the most accessible and delicious cooking you'll find anywhere in Asia, a high bar if ever there was one.

Okay, everyone has rose-tinted stories of the amazing meals they've eaten abroad, so if you're wearing your skeptical face, I don't blame you. Here, then, are 10 (out of a possible hundred) reasons to push Taiwan to the top of your eating list.

The Produce

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Western travelers to Asia are usually bowled over by the wok skills of noodle vendors or the superlative spicing of local curries. There's plenty to be love on that front in Taiwan, but before we get there, consider the local produce itself. You can't understand Taiwanese cuisine without appreciating the amazing fruits and vegetables that drive it.

Even in basic urban supermarkets, you can find pineapples so tender you can eat them down to the core. Local fruits sold by street vendors take on an intense tropical sweetness. I recognized only a fraction of the fruits I was eating, but if you're offered fruit in Taiwan, take it. (Concerned about food safety? While it's true that you'd do best not drink the tap water, Taiwan's modern food supply system make fresh fruit a safe bet.)

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Spring holds a special place in Taiwanese cuisine; that's when the local delicacy of fresh, young bamboo shoots are ready for harvest, and if you've only eaten the canned stuff, you'll be blown away by shoots that are at once sweet, crunchy, nutty, and creamy. The same goes for young sugarcane, or the hyper-regional greens specific to certain mountain villages. Even plain old cabbage, when grown in the misty hill country, tastes better here; high-elevation mountain farmland means that cabbage and other produce grows slowly and fights for every concentrated nutrient it can muster.

By and large, the produce dishes you'll find are pretty simple; vegetables this good don't need much fussing. So keep an eye out for cold, minimally dressed salads, or simple stir fries, like plate above of mountain greens gussied up with sweet-and-sour pickled berries, tiny dried fish, hot chilies, and plenty of garlic.

The Dumplings and Buns

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Buns and dumplings are to Taiwan what sandwiches are to Americans, but I've yet to visit an American city with a sandwich track record close to Taipei's gua bao scene. One of the country's most famous dishes, these pockets of steamed white flour dough are filled with anise-spiced braised pork belly, fat handfuls of mildly funky salt-preserved greens, and fine shavings of sweetened peanuts. You'll find them at most every night market, food court, and plenty of fine restaurants, and they're a brilliant formulation of the always-great pairing of fatty pork and bitter greens. The best gua bao are rich and refreshing in every bite, with a careful balance of sweet, savory, and pungent pickle.

Taiwan's soup dumpling game is also strong, and even average ones put the best in most American cities to shame. The most famous place to get them is the international chain Din Tai Fung, but if you're in Taipei, consider visiting Jin Ji Yuan, a short walk from the vaunted original Din Tai Fung, instead. The dumplings don't share all of Din Tai Fung's subtle refinements, but they're as pork-sticky and tender-skinned as can be, with no two-hour wait.

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Down in central Taiwan, you may encounter the regional specialty ba wan, a ground pork and bamboo dumpling wrapped in a transparent dough of chewy sweet potato flour that's then steamed or fried until the pork's just tender and the dough is deeply soft and chewy. Like many dishes in regional Tainan-area cuisine, ba wan are all about sticky, gelatinous textures, and once cooked, the metroid-shaped blobs get cut up and topped with a little sweet brown sauce, chili sauce, and cilantro. It's gloop on gloop, but it works beautifully, and it's one of the most memorable dishes I encountered on my visit.

The Fried Chicken

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If Kenji got his act together and paid a visit to Taiwan, he'd scrap his whole list of the world's greatest fried chickens and replace them all with the obvious winner: Taiwan's popcorn-style nuggets.

Served at restaurants and night markets, Taiwanese fried chicken comes in small, heavily battered chunks that fry to a deep, craggly crisp. They're then dusted with a mix of salt, sugar, garlic, and dried basil, and served on skewers for one-hand eating. (What's in the other hand? More fried chicken.) Why the spice blend isn't deployed on popcorn and potato chips the world over is beyond me, but the mix of sweet, pungent, and herbal perfume makes for some of the best fried chicken you'll ever eat.

The Roadside Poultry

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While we're on the subject of poultry, let's talk about the Taiwanese propensity to roast crackly-skinned chickens and ducks right on the streets of cities and small towns, where you can order a whole bird to eat on a stool or the curb that rivals anything you'll get in most fine restaurants.

Take Peking-style duck from a corner vendor in Taichung City: skin bronzed and flaky, fat well rendered, meat well but not at all overcooked. Place an order and you'll get a beautifully arranged platter of meat and skin, along with fresh pancakes for wrapping. As a bonus, this particular vendor chops up the remaining carcass, which still has a good amount of meat on it, and stir fries it with some herbs, chilies, and brown sauce, before unceremoniously dumping the whole lot in a bag for you to pick at with your hands. Gloriously messy and gloriously good.

About an hour outside of Taichung City, over in the villages by Dong Ding and Shan Lin Xi mountains, the local streetside specialty is chicken rubbed with herbs and roasted in hulking clay ovens until their skins turn to candy. No neat carving here, though—instead, your bird may be ripped limb from limb, happily plopped on a platter, and soused with all the fat and drippings that seeped out while it was roasting. Country cooking doesn't get better than this.

The Pancakes

The Taiwanese are pancake-mad; nowhere else, except maybe India or Sri Lanka, will you find a greater diversity of delicious flatbreads. Thank the wide array of regional Chinese cooking represented in Taiwan plus local ingenuity for crêpe-like Fujianese popiah, northern-style puffy griddled shao bing, omelet-pancake mashups reminiscent of jian bing, flaky paratha-like numbers deep fried in oil, and griddled versions layered with basil and deli ham.

While some street vendors sell savory pancakes at all hours of the night, breakfast is peak pancake time, and you. Do. Not. Miss. Breakfast. In. Taiwan. Taipei is well populated with breakfast shops that buzz all morning, serving simple but hearty meals of assorted pancakes, buns, fried crullers (you tiao), and hot soy milk. Seriously, don't sleep in.

And if you just have to have your pancakes sweet, keep an eye out for vendors selling an old-fashioned treat: this ice cream burrito. Now hard to find in Taipei but still available on the streets of the nearby town of Yngge and around Yilan County, a vendor starts with a flexible, slightly spongy crêpe, then shaves peanut brittle off a 10-pound block of candy, scoops on some ice cream in flavors like taro and melon, and, if you're lucky, dusts the whole thing with fresh cilantro before wrapping. In the country's warmer months, this is one of the best ways to fight back against the swampy heat.

The Soy Stuff

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Fresh tofu in Asia is good enough to make you forget all about the best Italian mozzarella, and on the bean curd front, Taiwan doesn't disappoint. Sure, there's no shortage of street vendors selling stinky tofu, and you can go ahead and choke the stuff down if you want, but I'm all about the silken versions that go into dou hua, the most basic of desserts made from fresh tofu with lightly sweetened water and soft boiled peanuts.

At its best, fresh tofu is glassy-smooth and as rich as pudding, with delicate nutty and vegetal notes bolstering a natural sweetness. It's a different ingredient altogether from the cooked-tasting stuff you'll find in grocery stores; the best place to get it is from specialist vendors working small markets.

Where there's tofu, there's soy milk, and the time to drink it is at breakfast, where a steamy bowl moistens freshly fried crullers and griddled pancakes. At breakfast spots like Taipei's Yonghe Dou Jiang Da Wang, soy milk usually comes two ways: sweet and savory. The former is simply a bowl of hot soy milk, ready for dunking. The latter is my personal favorite: soy milk coagulated with a dash of vinegar to form cloud-like curds of proto-tofu. Part porridge, part creamy soup, it's garnished with a little pork floss and optional chili for a full-flavored breakfast made from the simplest of ingredients.

The Noodles

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Between local innovation and selective borrowing, Taiwan has no shortage of famous noodle dishes, and you'll find several restaurants devoted primarily to noodle soup. The most noteworthy of these may be beef noodle soup, a fragrant broth of long-cooked beef with garlic, chilies, warming anise, and the buzz of Sichuan peppercorns, and loaded with thick, chewy wheat noodles. Also worth seeking out: zhajiang mian, thick, ropy noodles topped with a sweet sauce of fermented soy beans and ground pork, so thick and rich it's almost bolognese, but with a pronounced, welcome funk.

The Tea

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Taiwan is one of the world's best producers of fine tea, specifically the partially oxidized style called oolong, and even if tea means nothing more to you than brown stuff in a tea bag, it's worth sampling what the island has to offer.

Tea is an essential part of the culture here, from bubble tea to default daily drink to the high-end, crafted stuff as nuanced and delicious as fine wine. Whether you're staying in cities or venturing out into the countryside, tea shops are everywhere, and local teas range from bright green, fragrant varieties full of creamy floral notes to dark, heavily roasted styles as moody and complex as coffee.

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New to tea and have no idea where to begin? Doing a tea-tasting tour of Taiwan is much easier than you'd think. If you don't want to bother with the fancy stuff, consider paying a visit to the inventor of bubble tea instead: Taichung's Chun Shui Tang, where the boba are perfectly chewy, the tea's creamy but full-flavored, and the kitchen has a refreshingly light hand with the sugar. Age and fame hasn't slowed this place down; Chun Shui Tang makes the best bubble tea I've ever drank.

The Seafood

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As you might expect from an island, seafood plays heavily into the local cooking. Omelets just taste better with oysters in them, especially with the gelatinous chew of some sweet potato starch cooked with the eggs.

Cooked oysters are the way to go in Taiwan. My favorite preparation? This plate of oysters sautéed with hunks of green onion and black bean sauce—perfect over rice, and treated with a light hand so the oysters are barely warm on the inside. Their brine gets balanced by lightly pungent onion and just enough sweetness in the sauce for something homey and comforting.

The Night Markets

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This is going to be a controversial point, but if you're looking for the best food Taiwan has to offer, the stalls at the country's many famous night markets might disappoint you. I had far better meals at restaurants, in homes, and at more permanent streetside vendors than from any pop-up stall. But that doesn't mean night markets aren't worth visiting.

For one, as a Taiwanese friend pointed out to me, they're the essential nightlife, especially in smaller towns where they become major community hubs. That's why many night markets have whole sections devoted to shopping and carnival games, such as this row of claw machines at one Nantou County market. (Funny thing about Taiwan and claw games: Rather than one or two machines with an array of prizes, each Taiwanese claw game has just one kind of toy, and is then lined up with ten or so other machines, each carrying their own prize.)

On the subject of carnival games, here's the strangest I've ever seen: a small aquarium filled with live shrimp that children pay to fish from, then take their wriggling prizes to a small grill. The kids then cook their shrimp live over open flames and eat them on the spot, scattering shells, tails, and legs wherever they go.

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And if you do want to eat well at a night market? The rules are simple: look for the longest lines and the happiest customers, and order whatever they do. Popular vendors at night markets tend to be so for good reasons, and there's definitely a range of quality to watch out for.

Perhaps the best thing about night markets, though, is the simple range of foodstuffs you'll see. It's inspiring to observe that much dedicated cooking happen in one place, and it's a good reminder that there's so much more to Taiwanese cuisine than you'd suspect on a first look. So stroll around, nosh on some fried chicken, and take notes on what you're going to eat the next day. You have work to do.