Editor’s Note: This story complements the Culinary Journeys TV series, airing monthly on CNN International. You can see more of the show here: www.cnn.com/journeys. Share photos of your own Culinary Journeys on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood for a chance to be featured on CNN.
Small eats, and a lot of them, are the big thing in Taiwan.
Recently voted by our readers as the best food destination in the world, the culinary philosophy here is eat often and eat well. Sure, there’s the internationally accepted three-meals-a-day dining format – but why limit yourself when you can make like the Taiwanese and do gourmet snacking any time of day?
The Taiwanese capital, Taipei, has about 20 streets dedicated to food. Every time you think you’ve found the best streetside bao, the most incredible stinky tofu or mind-blowing beef noodle soup, there’s another Taiwanese food shop that surpasses it.
The island’s food is a mash-up of the cuisine of the Min Nan, Teochew and Hokkien Chinese communities, along with Japanese cooking techniques. It’s a culinary love-in with diversely delicious offspring.
Arguments about Taiwan’s best food risk ruining relationships and lifelong friendships. Food: it’s serious, it’s respected, it’s all excellent when you travel to Taiwan.
Note: Foods, not the restaurants, are the stars in this list. Restaurants recommended here are ones we trust. But there are plenty more we haven’t tried. Yet.
1. Braised pork rice
“Where there’s a wisp of smoke from the kitchen chimney, there will be lurou fan [braised pork with rice],” goes the Taiwanese saying. The popularity of this humble dish cannot be overstated.
“Lurou fan” is almost synonymous with Taiwanese food.
“Lurou fan is the more ordinary and down-to-earth dish for any Taiwanese,” says Rae Lin, founder of dearbnb, a Taiwanese travel website. “From your mother’s version of lurou fan to the one served in a restaurant, it’s the one dish we truly can’t live without.”
A good bowl of lurou fan features finely chopped, not quite minced, pork belly, slow-cooked in aromatic soy sauce with five spices. There should be an ample amount of fattiness, in which lies the magic. The meat is spooned over hot rice. A little sweet, a little salty, braised pork rice is comfort food perfected.
2. Beef noodles
You know a dish is an obsession when it gets its own festival. Beef noodle soup inspires competitiveness and innovation in Taiwanese chefs. Everyone wants to claim the “beef noodle king” title.
Whether you’re visiting the trendy Pin Chuan Lan’s rib-eye steak noodle restaurant or have made a foray into the first makeshift noodle shack you spot, it’s almost impossible to have a bad beef noodle experience in Taiwan.
Lin Dong Fang’s beef shanks with al dente noodles in herbal soup are a perennial favorite. The streetside eatery’s secret weapon is the dollop of homemade chili-butter, added last. But many locals prefer a stall without a sign on Tao Yuan Street (once you spot the queuing crowd you’ll know you’ve arrived).
It’s so famous that the store is now synonymous with the street, dubbed “Tao Yuen Street beef noodle” – most supporters don’t actually know its real name is Lao Wang Beef Noodle – and has inspired a few other wannabes on the same road.
Lao Wang “Tao Yuan Street” Beef Noodle, 15 Tao Yuan Street, Zhongzheng District
MORE: Taipei’s best beef noodles
3. Oyster omelet
Here’s a snack that really showcases the fat of the land in Taiwan. You’ve got something from the sea and something from the soil. The eggs are the perfect foil for the little oysters, which are easily found around the island, while sweet potato starch is added to give the whole thing a gooey chewiness – a signature Taiwan food texture.
No wonder the soup was voted best snack to represent Taiwan in a poll of 1,000 Taiwanese by Global Views Monthly a few years back.
4. Bubble tea
Bubble tea represents the “QQ” food texture that Taiwanese love. The phrase refers to something that is especially chewy, like the tapioca balls that form the “bubbles” in bubble tea. It’s said this unusual drink was invented out of boredom.
Chun Shui Tang and Hanlin Tea Room both claim to have invented bubble tea by combining sweetened tapioca pudding (a popular Taiwanese dessert) with tea.
Regardless of which shop did it first, today the city is filled with bubble tea joints. Variations on the theme include taro-flavored tea, jasmine tea and coffee, served cold or hot.
Chun Shui Tang teahouse, 48 Yi-shu St., Longjing, Taichung County; +886 4 2652 8288
Hanlin Tea Room, 313, Section 2, Minzu Road, Tainan City; +886 6 221 2357
MORE: Who invented bubble tea?
How popular is milkfish in Taiwan? So popular that it has its own themed museum in Anping and there’s a milkfish cultural festival in Kaohsiung.
The bony fish might pose a challenge for amateurs, but it’s loved for its tender meat and economical price tag. Milkfish is prepared in numerous ways – in a congee porridge, pan-fried, as fish ball soup or braised. For home-style preparation, retro Izakaya-style restaurant James Kitchen serves pan-fried milkfish with lime. A bowl of scallion lard rice is a great complement.
6. Slack Season danzai noodles
You’ve gotta love a place called Slack Season, and it should be one of the first stops on any culinary trip to Taiwan. The iconic eatery originated in Tainan about a century ago.
A fisherman sold noodles during the slack fishing season and the place became so successful he quit his original trade altogether. The signature bowl of Slack Season noodles is served in shrimp soup with bean sprouts, coriander, minced pork and fresh shrimp. The bowl of comforting flavors is so addictive that a man from Tainan supposedly ate 18 bowls in a row at the restaurant.
Slack Season Tainan Main Store, 16 Jhongjheng Road, Tainan City; +886 6 223 1744. See website for addresses of other locations.
7. Pan-fried buns
Like the fluffiness of cake and the crunchiness of potato chips? This pan-fried bun gives you the best of both worlds.
The buns are made with spongy white Chinese bread that’s pan-fried on the bottom. Break one open and you reveal a moist, porky filling. A Shanghainese staple, the Taiwanese version differs in two ways: it’s slightly bigger and it hits the pan upside-down.
Hsu Ji, Shida Night Market, Taan District, Taipei City; +886 9 3085 9646
8. Gua bao
In spite of a wave of bao madness overseas in recent years – a lot are overpriced and underwhelming – the best gua bao still comes from the island. It’s a hamburger, Taiwan-style.
A steamed bun sandwiches a hearty filling of braised pork belly, pickled Chinese cabbage and powdered peanuts. The filling is chopped into small pieces and mixed together so there’s a bit of everything in every bite. Take a big mouthful and you get salty, sour and sweet flavors and greasy pork swimming in your mouth.
Lan Jia’s famous gua bao has peanut powder sprinkled on it for extra sweetness.
9. Iron egg
It’s called “iron egg” because it’s so tough. These chewy little eggs, dyed black from long braising in soy sauce, are a highly addictive Taiwanese food.
Often made from quails’ eggs, the protein balls are cooked for hours in soy sauce then air-dried. The process is repeated over several days until the snacks become tough and acquire the desired chewiness.
Seaside A-Po, 151-1, Jhongjheng Road, Tamshui; A-Po, 135-1, Jhongjheng Road, Tamshui
10. Pineapple cake
This iconic Taiwanese pastry – mini-pies filled with candied pineapple – is one of Taiwan’s best food souvenirs. For one of the top pineapple cake experiences there’s SunnyHills, which uses only local pineapples. The result is a darker filling, rougher texture and sourer taste than most.
The pies at other shops are filled with a mix of pineapple and chewable bits of winter melon. They have a fruity sweetness and a golden casing of crumbly, buttery pastry. Stores that replace pineapple completely with winter melon to cut costs are committing a big no-no.
11. Tian bu la (Taiwanese oden)
Tian bu la refers to fish paste that’s been molded into various shapes and sizes, deep-fried, then boiled in a broth. Before eating, the pieces of solid fish paste are taken from the broth and smothered in brown sauce.
Doesn’t sound like much, but tian bu la delivers plenty of sweet flavors and chewy textures, making it a beloved Taiwanese food. The food is basically a Taiwanese take on Japanese oden, with more sugariness, tougher fish cakes and a signature sauce. When you finish the bits of fish cake, there’s more to come.
We recommend getting some soup from the vendor and adding it to the remaining sauce in the bowl. Mix and drink the resulting flavor bomb.
Simon Tian Bu La, 95 Xining South Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City; +886 2 2331 2481
12. Ba wan (Giant meat dumplings)
Ba wan is a Taiwanese mega-dumpling. Made with a dough of rice flour, corn starch and sweet potato starch, it looks almost translucent after cooking. Pork, veggies and sometimes eggs are stuffed inside and gravy poured on top.
A small staff inside the wet market in Kaoshiung’s Hunei District offers freshly handmade ba wan. Bear in mind they usually sell out before noon.
Hunei wet market, 17, Lane 16, Renai Street, Kaohsiung; +886 7 699 6612
13. Fried chicken
Taiwan deserves a special place in the fried chicken hall of fame. Not only has it made the giant fried chicken cutlet – Hotstar Chicken Cutlet – a cult legend (which has swelled from one street stall to an international franchise owner), but its popcorn chicken is dangerously addictive.
The chicken is chopped into bite-sized pieces, marinated, dipped in batter and deep-fried. A generous sprinkling of salt, pepper and deep fried basil complete the morsels.
“Fried chicken stalls are definitely one of Taiwanese people’s favorite late night eateries,” says Rae Lin. “Stalls usually offer a range of food like calamari and sweet potato.”
Taiwan’s First Popcorn Chicken Store, 530-1, Bei’an Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City
14. Flaky scallion pancakes
There are few things more appetizing than the sight of a flaky scallion pancake being slowly torn apart. Add cheese and egg fillings to maximize the visuals. This night market staple needs to be devoured in a few bites to ensure it stays steaming hot and chewy.
15. Oyster vermicelli
A bowl of great oyster vermicelli should have a thick, flavorful soup base while the thin rice noodles and oysters retain their distinct texture. Some people add chopped intestines to add a new dimension to the soup. It’s a gooey, slurpable dish with an intense, briny taste.
16. Stinky tofu
This could be the world’s premier love-it-or-hate-it snack and Taiwan does it just right. The “fragrant” cube of bean curd is deep-fried and draped with sweet and spicy sauce.
If you hold your nose, it looks and tastes just like a plain ol’ piece of fried tofu, with a crisp casing and soft pudding-like center. But what’s the fun in eating that? Inhale deeply and relish the stench. The smellier, the better.
Jiang Ho King of Stinky Tofu, No. 347, Jiangong Road, Sanmin Dist, Kaohsiung; +886 7 396 1199
17. Sweet potato
Leaving taste, smell and nutritional value aside, the sweet potato stands out for one particular reason – “it’s shaped a bit like the island,” says Peter Lin, founder of local tour company Topology.
One of their local tours allows travelers to volunteer to sell potatoes with local vendors. Taiwan-grown sweet potatoes are added to soup, with ginger, then roasted in ovens converted from oil drums. They’re then ground to a flour and added to other dishes to give them texture, or fried into sweet potato chips.
As long as the beloved root vegetable is in it, Taiwanese love it.
18. Shaved ice mountain
One good thing about the hot, humid and stormy Taiwan summers? It’s a great excuse to eat shaved ice mountain. A pile of shaved ice is heaped with fresh fruit and flavorings, such as mango pieces, juice and sweet condensed milk.
Food blogger Joan H from A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei recommends the traditional version – red bean stuffed tapioca shaved ice.
“Originating in Yilan, my favorite version of this dessert is from Sister Wei Heart,” she says. “Scoops of creamy shaved ice topped with honey and condensed milk with a side of chewy boba stuffed with red beans.”
Mango shaved ice at Smoothie House, 15 Yong-kang St., Taipei City; +886 2 2321 3367
For classics there’s Sister Wei Heart, 35 Jiaoxi Road, Section 5, Jiaoxi Township, Yilan County, Taipei; +886 3 988 9566
19. Pepper cakes
A must-try at Rao He night market, pepper cakes are crispy pastry pockets filled with juicy pork that’s infused with the aromatic bite of black pepper. Baked on the wall of a clay oven, the pies are a delicious ode to the pepper plant. Order more than one or you’ll have to wait in the long queue when you inevitably go back for more.
20. Dumplings at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House
Xiaolongbao may be a Shanghainese delicacy, but some argue the Taiwanese perfected them. Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung does its Shanghai comrades proud with its succulent pork-soup dumplings.
Din Tai Fung’s bite-sized xiaolongbao have a consistently high quality. Their paper-thin wrappings hold rich hot broth and tender pork meatballs. Gasps can be heard intermittently at Din Tai Fung as diners brace for the scalding hot soup that squirts out upon biting the dumpling.
Din Tai Fung Dumpling House, 192 Xinyi Road, Section 2, Taipei City; +886 2 2321 8929
21. Fish ball soup
What’s better than fresh seafood? Balls of fresh seafood, of course.
Handmade fish balls in Taiwan tend to have more air in the ball, thus allowing more broth to be soaked up. They also have a bouncier chew.
Jiaxing Fish Ball, No. 21, Lane 210, Section 2, Yanping North Road, Datong District, Taipei City; +886 2 2553 6470
22. Ribs stewed in medicinal herbs
This is the Taiwanese version of bak kut the, the Chinese meat soup that’s also popular in Singapore and Malaysia. In Taiwan, the soup is slow-cooked in Chinese medicinal ingredients, extracting the essence from pork bones and more than 14 nutritious herbs, roots and dried fruits.
It’s yummy and good for you, too. It’s also a great way to keep warm in winter. There isn’t much meat on the lean bones, but the point of the dish is the soup. Locals pick the bones up and suck the juice off. You might be considered strange if you don’t do the same.
Nanya Night Market, Nanya East Road, Taipei City
Geese, bred on Taiwan farms, are never wasted. From skin to blood, they’re made into delicious dishes.
Despite its name, Ya Rou Bian (Duck Meat Bian) only sells Taiwan-raised geese. Every bite of the juicy goose meat with slightly smoked skin tastes like a celebration of poultry. Or you could try one of Bistro Le Pont’s bowls of steamed rice topped with goose, chili oil and x.o. sauce. The rice grains are an ideal vehicle for goose fat and flavor.
24. Ding bian cuo
Ding bian cuo is a bowl of slippery rice-flour pasta. To make it, rice-flour batter is poured along the side of a huge heated wok, sliding and spreading along the hot metal to form slices of noodles. When dried, the sheets are cut into smaller pieces that become the thin and chewy noodles used in ding bian cuo.
Wu Jia ding bian cuo is a century-old family business. Its version of the dish is served with handmade pork cakes, shrimp cakes, cabbage, daylily and bamboo shoots.
Wu Jia ding bian cuo, Keelung Temple Street Night Market, Taipei City
These glutinous rice balls are as soft as marshmallows and filled with sweet or salty ingredients. The most traditional mochi are filled with red bean paste and rolled in peanut powder. In recent years, strawberry jam, sesame paste, green tea jam and peanut paste have become popular fillings. You can learn how to make mochi at the Royal Taiwan Mochi Museum (around $5 per person).
26. Anything braised with Lantern soy sauce
No matter what you choose from the Lantern Lu Wei food stall, it’ll take on the taste of the signature five-spice soy sauce. It’s a little sweet, not too salty and aromatic, made with cloves, star anise, cinnamon and other spices.
Pick your preferred ingredients and the chef will cook it in a pot filled with the special sauce. It’s a perfect light meal before a big night out. You should expect to wait in line as the chef never rushes – he takes his time to allow the the food to absorb the sauce.
27. Tube rice pudding
Sticky rice and Chinese mushrooms are fried with seasoning and stuffed into a bamboo tube together with pork and egg. The tube of rice is steamed again to further soften the texture until it becomes a cylindrical pudding.
Da Qiao Tou started making its rice pudding in a stall under a bridge more than four decades ago. The business has since expanded but the rice pudding has stayed the same. It’s best when topped with the homemade turnip-laced sweet and spicy sauce.
28. Taiwanese breakfast
The three best dishes to kick off your day with in Taiwan? Sesame flatbread, deep-fried Chinese donuts and soy milk.
Food blogger Joan H. says her favorite breakfast is from Fu Hang.
“I love the thick sesame flat bread at Fu Hang because it has a slight sweetness, a thin crispy layer and soft center from coming straight out of the hot metal barrel,” she says. “Many sesame flatbreads are dry and flaky but Fu Hang’s shows why there’s often a half-hour wait there on the weekends.”
29. Pig’s blood rice pudding
This mix of pig’s blood and sticky rice is stuck on the end of a stick like a lollipop. For the final Taiwanese touch, the pudding is coated in a sweet peanut powder.
Basketball star Jeremy Lin named pig’s blood rice cake as one of his favorite snacks on a visit to Taiwan. If it’s good enough for Lin, it’s good enough for us.
Xiao Li, No. 1-3, Lane 136, Section 4, Roosevelt Road, Taipei City; +886 2 2368 3417
30. Three-cup chicken
Three-cup chicken is cooked in a cup of rice wine, a cup of oil and a cup of soy sauce. Fresh basil, chilies and garlic are then added to this Taiwanese culinary triumvirate, resulting in an irresistible combination. Some kitchens offer a different version of three-cup chicken that includes a cup of wine, a cup of sesame oil and a cup of sugar.
31. Ban tiao noodles
Ban tiao (flat rice noodles) has such a rabid following that many Taiwanese will drive hours in search of the most authentic bowls. The thick, flat, slippery noodles made from glutinous rice are part of the Hakka culinary tradition and best sampled in Kaohsiung’s Meinong district.
Stir-fried ban tiao with pork has a rustic taste and texture. Many find the dish more comforting when served in hot soup.
Meixing Street, Meinong district, Kaohsiung
32. Horng Ryen Jen Sandwich
You may wonder – why on earth would someone travel to Taiwan for a ham and cheese sandwich? (The bread isn’t even toasted.) Converts will tell you they were once disbelievers too.
Some say it’s the unbeatable combination of ham and a layer of paper-thin fried egg. Others say it’s the buttery and sweet fresh cream and secret mayo.
Most agree it’s the balanced flavor of all these ingredients, sandwiched in a four-layered combo, that makes it a hit. The sandwich even stirred a Horng Ryen Jen import craze in Hong Kong.
Horng Ryen Jen Cake, 1F, 122 Ziyou Road, Section 1, West District, Taichung; +886 4 2226 8787
Horng Ryen Jen Cake, 493, Zhongxiao East Road, Section 5, Da’an District, Taipei City
33. Aiyu jelly
Wobbly and fairly tasteless, aiyu jelly takes on the flavor of whatever it’s eaten with. You can add it to lemonade and shaved ice for a refreshing summer drink. The jelly gives the liquid a fun gloopy texture.
34. Pidan tofu
Black, white and seemingly bland pidan tofu isn’t a likely candidate for “love at first bite” fame. But after a few tries it becomes a minor addiction for many eaters.
Pidan, or century egg, is a duck egg preserved in clay with seasonings. With time, the egg white turns into a translucent black jelly and the yolk develops a unique flavor. It’s topped with sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, coriander, chopped spring onion and, sometimes, pork floss. Mash it up and it’s ready to eat.
Widely available at local restaurants
35. Steamed spring rolls
Every Taiwanese household has its own recipe for run bing. To describe it as the non-deep-fried version of a spring roll would be unfair, as “run bing” (steamed spring roll) was invented before the popular Chinese version.
During festivals, families gather at the table to have a run bing wrapping party. Each person chooses their own fillings from a buffet and rolls their own run bing. In addition to serving delicious run bing, Shin Yeh at Taipei 101 offers an incomparable view of the city.
A spinoff of run bing for summer is filled with ice cream.
“I call it an ice cream burrito, but it essentially uses a thin flour crepe to wrap scoops of Taiwanese ice cream with peanut candy shavings and, if you dare, fresh cilantro,” says food blogger Joan H.
“I really liked the one I tried at the front of Sheng Keng Lao Jie. The vendor adds a touch of sea salt to the peanut candy that heightens the sweetness and flavors of the wrap.”
Ice cream spring roll at Sheng Keng Lao Jie
36. Spicy hotpot
Taiwanese are mad for spicy hot pot. The bubbling pots of broth are filled with all sorts of Chinese herbs and spices to create a rich flavor for all the raw, fresh ingredients that diners will dip into it. New hot pot places pop up in Taiwan every day, each with a gimmick to attract insatiable hot pot diners.
There’s all-you-can-eat hot pot and yakiniku served at the same table; there’s bubble tea hotpot for the jaded. But the traditional local darlings with ginger chicken soup base or lamb-themed hot pot are still going strong.
While Taiwan’s spice levels don’t come close to Chongqing’s, they’re pretty piquant. In the perennial hot pot favorite and celeb-magnet, Taihodien, you’ll find a glam Taiwanese hot pot experience.
37. Chicken wing rice roll
The chicken wing rice roll makes the impossible possible – eating chicken fried rice in a night market with one hand. A boneless chicken wing is stuffed with fried rice and marinated in a heavenly combination of sesame oil and secret sauce.
It’s so good it started a chicken-wrapped rice craze in Kaohsiung’s Ruifeng night market, inspiring variations such as kimchi fried rice and curry rice.
38. Giant pork balls soup
The best pork balls are made from fresh meat that’s been hand ground and pounded with a mallet until it attains a doughy texture. The giant pork balls in stock soup from Taipei’s Ningxia Night Market are as big as a baby’s fist.
Their size, as well as the air holes pumped in the meatballs during the pounding, locks in an amazing amount of juice and flavor. The Chinese name illustrates the experience of eating one vividly – the literal translation is “bursting-juice giant pork balls.”
Pork balls are sometimes mixed with ingredients such as Chinese mushrooms and cuttlefish to enrich texture and add flavor.
39. Wu Pao Chun Bakery Breads
“Bread? In Taiwan? Seriously?”
We know what you’re thinking – but this isn’t just any bread we’re talking about. It’s from Wu Pao-chun, a world baking champion with many award-winning loaves to its name.
The bakery’s lychee-rose bread even won the international baking competition Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 2010. It’s made with mullet wine, lychee and rose petals.
Wu Pao-chun also won the Louis Lesaffre Cup in 2007 and a silver medal at the 2008 Bakery World Cup. Another signature of the store is wine-longan bread, made with smoked longans, French wine and California walnuts.
Wu Pao Chun Bakery Kaohsiung, 19, Siwei 3rd Lingya District, Kaohsiung City; +886 7 335 9593
Wu Pao Chun Bakery Taipei, 88 Yanchang Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City; +886 2 6636 5888
A lot of Taiwanese have a love-hate relationship with Taiwanese biandang (bento), the takeaway lunchbox that packs rice with a main dish (usually a type of meat) and small, often unappealing side dishes such as fried and preserved vegetables.
It’s a convenient, quick, cheap (less than $3) and generally decent way to eat.
Biandang isn’t one of the most delicious foods in Taiwan, but it’s a staple for countless working parents and busy urbanites. Bento with chicken cutlets is a good biandang choice.
Found at convenience stores and major high-speed rail stations around Taiwan