10 Unique (and Delicious) Foods to Try on Your Next Trip to Taiwan
Some of Taiwan's best-known local foods are also its cheapest. In this guide, TPG contributor Katherine Fan shares her favorites, where to get them — most can be found at night market kiosks as well as in sit-down restaurants — and how to order. The best part: None of these tasty treats will cost you more than 10 bucks.
Food is so closely intertwined with Taiwanese culture that the colloquial greeting for "How are you?" literally translates to "Have you eaten yet?" Subtly different from mainland Chinese cuisine, Taiwanese food often blends sweet with savory, as seen in breakfast omelets brushed with sweet soy sauce or savory pork belly wrapped in sweet buns.
Food prices are fixed so there's no need to bargain with food vendors. The vast majority of these eateries will only accept cash and strongly prefer small bills so it's helpful to visit an ATM beforehand — check out our guide to no-fee checking accounts and debit cards to avoid pesky foreign transaction fees while traveling abroad.
While some stall owners may not speak English fluently — especially outside of Taipei — body language and hand gestures can come in handy. Simply point at a dish that someone else has ordered, signal numbers with your fingers to help get your point across, or worst-case scenario, just show them the Chinese characters from this post to ask for the food you want. Unfortunately, communicating food allergies can be a little tricky, so the guide below highlights some of the ingredients you may need to know about.
In Taiwan, breakfast is just as serious a meal as lunch and dinner. Many Taiwanese students attend school and study from 7am to midnight while businessmen often put in 12-hour workdays on a consistent basis, so a hearty start to the day is very important. Most kiosks offer the same foods, including sweet or savory soy (豆漿) and rice milk (米漿) made from scratch and savory daikon radish cake (蘿蔔糕).
1. Shao bing you tiao (fried cruller in baked flatbread 燒餅油條) and dan bing (egg pancake, 蛋餅)
Shao bing you tiao and dan bing are two of the most famous foods you'll find at almost any breakfast vendor from 5 am on. A sandwich of sorts, shao bing you tiao couples a slightly sweet sesame-seed flatbread with a crunchy rod of fried dough. Dan bing are the breakfast tacos of Taiwan, where thin taco-size rounds of dough are pan-fried with an egg scrambled on top, then folded into a flat roll and served with a brush of chili paste and soy sauce paste. If ordered to-go, these can be folded into a paper envelope and eaten with chopsticks straight from the bag.
Where to find it: Nearly every city street will have a breakfast kiosk. In more rural areas, head toward the open markets, usually located in the village center.
Variants: Add a fried egg on the side for 5 TWD (~$0.15) or add hash browns and cheese inside your dan bing for extra crunch and flavor.
Gluten/kosher alert: Flatbread and dough contains wheat; food may be cooked on griddles that also cook ham.
Cost: 10–25 TWD (~$0.30–$0.75).
Making a hearty meal in Taiwan is very easy. The following foods can be found all over the island, sometimes side-by-side in competing restaurants.
2. Braised beef noodle soup (紅燒牛肉麵)
Every culture has its beef stew variant, and several Asian cultures are fairly well-known for their variations (Pho, anyone?). Taiwan's signature version was invented by veterans who fled China during WWII and features fatty chunks of braised brisket or shank in a rich brown stock, often simmered for hours with five-spice and fermented soybean chili paste for a spicy kick. The accompanying handpulled or knife-cut noodles are just as much a Taiwanese specialty. If you're gluten-free, you can still enjoy a steaming bowl of beef broth. Diners can also choose to order noodle soup with broth only (no meat), or go all-in and try the half-brisket, half-tendon option for a little more textural interest. If you love that spicy burn, most noodle stalls include a jar of roasted chili flakes on the table so you can season to taste.
Where to find it: Street stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants all over the island. You'll find impassioned advocates vying for their top spots, but Lin Dong Fang is a good place to start. If you're feeling adventurous, try some of the olive green pickled chopped veggies on the table for a sour punch. You can even choose from from several beef-noodle restaurants in Taoyuan International Airport (TPE).
Variants: Halal beef noodle soup features slices of brisket in a clear beef consommé and has an entirely different flavor profile.
Gluten alert: Noodles are wheat-based.
Cost: 75–280 TWD (~$2–$8).
3. Minced pork rice (滷肉飯)
Cup of noodles, get out of the way! A bowl of braised pork rice will cost you around 20 TWD (~$0.60), less than a packet of Maruchan instant ramen in an American supermarket. The heart of the dish comes from flavorful ground pork simmered for hours in a soy-shallot sauce. As with beef noodle soup, each restaurant prides itself on a unique, often secret combination of spices and seasonings for unique flavor. The rice version features a simple bowl of white rice topped with a ladleful of ground pork and sauce; the topping can also be found as flavoring on plain, blanched veggies or hard-boiled eggs, available as xiao cai, or "little dishes," from most street vendors.
Where to find it: Many small restaurants and street stalls will serve this dish, but a surefire bet is to look around near any university campus. Deliciously filling and super-economical, this dish is popular with college students on tight budgets.
Variants: A slightly more luxurious version of the same dish is called kong-rou fan (焢肉飯) — a slab of pork belly is braised in the same soy-shallot sauce, also served on rice.
Vegetarian/kosher alert: Ground meat is pork-based.
Cost: 20-35 TWD (~$1).
4. Gua bao (割包)
These taco-sized buns are often called the "hamburgers" of Taiwanese cuisine, which can be confusing if you're expecting something super savory. The steamed buns are creamy white and slightly sweet, sliced open along three sides and stuffed with a slab of braised pork belly, pickled mustard leaves and sometimes, cilantro or ground peanuts.
Where to find it: One of Taipei's top spots is Lan Jia Gua Bao (藍家割包), within a five-minute walk of National Taiwan University (台大) and the MRT Gongguan Station, known among locals as a great shopping and snacking area.
Variants: Since it's pork belly, you can often specify the mixture of fat and lean that you want in your meat. Some versions of these buns chop up the meat and mix together the filling ingredients before stuffing the bun for a slightly different texture.
Gluten/allergy/kosher alert: Wheat-based buns, ground peanuts in or near food, pork belly filling.
Cost: 30–40 TWD (~$1).
SNACKS AND DESSERT
If you prefer grazing all day long to eating three square meals, Taiwan's night markets — and even just the city streets by day — will become your new happy place. Taiwan's snacks, literally called "little eats," can be ordered tapas-style to accompany a larger entree. Some hot dishes are ready-made or reheated on the stove, while cold dishes can often be found and self-served from a refrigerated cooler somewhere in the dining area. Most will cost between 30–40 TWD (~$1) each in restaurants, or between 50–70 TWD (~$2) from a street vendor in a night market.
5. Scallion/green onion pancake（蔥爪餅, 蔥油餅）
If your sweet tooth just perked up, the word pancake can be a little misleading. A similar variant of the breakfast dan bing, scallion pancakes (and their similar counterpart, zhua bing) are savory disks of flatbread goodness closer to the pizza family than the syrup-topped variety, and are often ordered as an appetizer before a street stall meal or as a snack from a food cart. Lightly seasoned with salt and often cooked on a round griddle, flavor aficionados may appreciate a squirt of thick soy sauce or hot sauce to liven up the taste. If you buy these from a food cart, choose a vendor with a short line (so you know the quality is good there), and enjoy your snack served up inside a paper envelope within a plastic bag.
Where to find it: Street stalls and food carts all over the island, as well as in the appetizer section of many sit-down restaurants.
Variants: The zhua bing version is most often found in street-side food carts and offers a chewier, slightly crispy texture.
Gluten alert: Dough contains wheat flour.
Cost: 35–60 TWD (~$2).
6. Oyster/pork intestine vermicelli (蚵仔麵線, 大腸麵線)
Vermicelli, called misua in Taiwanese, is made from wheat noodles that get their brown color from a caramelizing process that also imparts a unique flavor. The thick broth is very light, enhanced to taste with toppings like bonito (dried smoked fish) flakes, black vinegar, cilantro and chili sauce. Boiled oysters or braised chunks of pork intestine are the two main protein add-ons; less adventurous foodies can enjoy the vegetarian misua on its own.
Where to find it: Misua can be found at many food carts and night market street vendors, as well as within the Taipei Main Station food court.
Variants: The name sounds scary, but the noodles are vegetarian if you skip the protein add-ons. Try them with bonito flakes for a hint of smoke, black vinegar for tang, white pepper or chili sauce for a bit of a kick or cilantro for a fresher taste.
Gluten/allergy/kosher alert: Wheat-based buns, ground peanuts in or near food, pork belly.
Cost: 30–60 TWD (~$2).
7. Oyster omelet（蚵仔煎）
Like many of the other foods described here, an oyster omelet is less like a Western omelet with oysters than you'd think. Made from a roux of sweet potato starch, a scrambled egg, a few shreds of greens and a handful of tiny oysters, this dish can look intimidating if you visit a night market like Raohe or Shilin. The chewy delicacy is then topped with hot sauce and sometimes mixed with lime juice.
Where to find it: Night markets and late-night food stalls are usually your best bet. This dish is almost always eaten in a sit-down setting, even in night markets — look for the vendors with loud portable motors, large drum-sized griddles and lots of bright lights surrounding a handful of folding tables and chairs.
Variants: Some vendors offer a shrimp option instead of oysters.
Allergy alert: Contains shellfish/seafood.
Cost: 50–80 TWD (~$2).
8. Stinky tofu (臭豆腐)
The infamous stinky tofu gets a far worse rap than it deserves. Fermented chunks of tofu are deep-fried to a golden crispy outside, with a soft, airy center. Very slightly sour, the taste is actually much more bland than the scent. Often served in wedges or squares with the tops punched in after frying, the tofu is topped with sweet kimchi, a dash of raw minced garlic and a blend of mild soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil before serving. Be warned: The distinctive scent of this dish lingers on your breath, so you might want to carry some mints or gum.
Where to find it: Follow your nose to street stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants all over the island. You'll find impassioned advocates vying for their top spots, but Lin Dong Fang is a good place to start. If you're feeling adventurous, try some of the olive green pickled chopped veggies on the table for a sour punch.
Variants: Halal beef noodle soup features slices of brisket in a clear beef consommé and has an entirely different taste.
Allergy/kosher alert: Noodles are wheat-based, broth is beef-based.
Cost: 50–90 TWD (~$2–$3).
9. Shaved ice/snow (刨冰，綿綿冰)
Shaved ice is a popular tropical treat in many countries where the toppings matter more than the ice itself. Taiwan's versions live up to its "Fruit Kingdom" nickname with some of the freshest, sweetest fruit you'll ever taste. Try adding mango and watermelon chunks, or get adventurous and blend sweet oatmeal, creamy egg pudding and red bean paste into your ice, then drizzle it with simple syrup and condensed milk.
A few years back, Taiwanese vendors began making a dairy variant called shaved cream, which freezes low-fat milk blended with flavoring, then shaves the resulting ice blocks into fluffy "snow." Since this frozen treat starts out sweeter than shaved ice, it pairs well with ice cream on the side.
Where to find it: Street stalls and food carts all over the island, as well as in the appetizer section of many sit-down restaurants.
Variants: Most vendors allow you to choose up to four toppings; additional toppings are cheap so you can add as many as you want. Shaved snow portions are especially large — one order may be enough for up to 3–4 people to share.
Dairy alert: Shaved ice often uses condensed milk as a topping.
Cost: 50–180 TWD (~$2–$5).
10. Bubble tea (珍珠奶茶, 泡沫奶茶)
Bubble tea may be Taiwan's best-known contribution to the snack/dessert world, although contrary to popular belief, the "bubble" name doesn't come from the optional tapioca balls nestled in the bottom of the cup. Instead, the name stems from the way in which the tea is shaken in a cocktail shaker before serving, which produces a light, foamy texture.
Taiwan's bubble tea menus offer an extensive range of flavors, sweetness and temperatures to cater to any drink palate — feel free to ask for regular, 50 percent, 30 percent or no ice; or regular, 50 percent, 30 percent or no simple syrup.
Where to find it: Almost as ubiquitous as the convenience stores you'll find everywhere, bubble tea kiosks can be found on just about any corner. If you get really lost, look for cutesy neon signs in the shape of a cup with a straw or follow the swarms of students to the nearest vendor.
Variants: Try bubble tea with pudding in lieu of tapioca balls for a creamier texture, or sample one or both of Taiwan's local jellies — aiyu is a clear yellow jelly with a slight, sweet lemon taste, while xian cao is a sweeter black jelly with a hint of fragrant grassiness.
Allergy alert: Many drinks include powdered milk; although not likely, food and drinks may be prepared around traces of peanuts.
Cost: 35–80 TWD (~$1–$2).
What foods would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!