Archive for the ‘Taiwan’ Category

Peanuts + Cilantro = Totally Taiwan

March 31, 2013

If you have peanut or cilantro allergies, I would not recommend a visit to Taiwan.  Crushed, pulverized, peanut powder is liberally sprinkled on many dishes, both savory and sweet, and cilantro is a common garnish on soups and savory dishes.

Here, a vendor scrapes a solid cake of peanut-studded sugar to prepare a sweet snack.

Peanut shavings

Jiufen (nine portions) is a gold rush town with an old-style street.  In addition to being the shooting location for Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A City of Sadness, Jiufen is wildly popular with young Japanese and Korean tourists for its depiction in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.


Peanuts ice cream

This thin rice pancake with fresh peanut shavings and two scoops of a light vanilla sorbet rolled up like a burrito (35 NTD < $1.20 US) had a good crunch.  I washed it down with a fresh almond milk.  In many markets, the aroma of ground almond powder is intoxicating.  I didn’t buy any, though, because it doesn’t keep well after it’s processed.


A few days later, for breakfast, we had similar rice pancakes smeared with shaved peanut and cilantro and stuffed with shredded vegetables, bean sprouts, and a little bit of shredded chicken.  I recall that this also cost approximately $1US.


In Taiwanese, this is called a roong byang! (no idea how it’s actually spelled, and I included the exclamation point to emphasize the accent on the second syllable) and we think it’s comparable to South Indian dosas.  Most people were buying these to-go, but we sat and enjoyed them with hot soy milk.

Before: Roong byang beforeAfter: Roong byang after

MarketThe stand was at a market near my family’s house.  Despite Taiwan’s modernity and availability of European-style groceries, to say nothing of 24-hour convenience stores (more about these in a future post), many people still do their daily food shopping at markets like these, often outside temples.  These open-air markets sell everything from produce, fish, meat, and flowers to kitchenware and underwear.

More on peanuts–and cilantro–in an upcoming post on a very Taiwanese street snack.


Longshan Shi/HuaXi Jie Night Market

March 20, 2013

The original temple was built in the 1730s but has been rebuilt multiple times after natural disasters, fires, and air raids.  The current temple is a postwar recreation.

Oa geng (Oyster soup)

We ate oa geng (oyster soup), a light soup with plenty of fresh, sizable oysters.

Jars of snakes

Other snake restaurants, not this one, had gigantic snakes and tanks of huge rabbits and rats (food for the snakes—so I guess one is indirectly eating rodents when one eats snake).  No pictures allowed, because they probably don’t like being a tourist anomaly or attracting the attention of animal rightists.

Snake soup

Snake is kind of a pain to eat.  It tastes like bland fish.  Too many bones, most of them intercrossing.  The broth was very good, light and a bit sweet, with Chinese herbs in it.  Snake soup is supposed to be good for ocular health (glaucoma) and skin (people here love to eat things they believe are “good for your skin”).

Back Again

March 18, 2013

Within ninety minutes of touching down at Taoyuan Airport, I was once again at Yong He Soymilk Magnate.

Savory soy milk

My mom’s warm savory soymilk with cut up pieces of yu tiao (fried dough stick) and scallions.  I prefer sweet soymilk, hot or cold, depending on the weather (which, on this trip, has ranged from cool high 50s to a sticky mid 80s).


Just some of our post-flight breakfast spread.  Each item cost between 15-50 NTD, so everything under $2US.

A closer look at the shredded radish omelette.


And a closer look at the fried dough-making process.  They do this outdoors for a large grab-and-go breakfast clientele.  Look at how small the dough sticks are before they puff up in the hot oil. IMG_7512IMG_7515

Note the extra-long cooking chopsticks and the prodigious amount of oil.


I’ll be posting more in the days to come on night markets, things in edible wrappers, and food on sticks.

Yuanshiao Food

March 27, 2010

I was in Taiwan at the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations, which ended with Yuanshiao Jie, the week-long Lantern Festival.  This year, Yuanshiao, the first full moon of the new lunar year, was February 28, my last full day in Taiwan.

The traditional food eaten for Yuanshiao Jie is tang yuan, balls of glutinous rice in broth.  This was my first time eating tang yuan with filling—as a child, my paternal grandmother and I just made the plain small ones (yes, I realize that they are small round things, but playing with dough was fun.)  Most commonly, tang yuan are filled with sweet black sesame, sweet peanuts, or the ubiquitous red bean paste, but there are also savory versions with meat.

Making filled tang yuan seems rather labor-intensive.  Balls of filling are alternately rolled in rice powder, moistened, and rolled in powder again, repeatedly building up layers of chewy dough around the filling.

Before the holiday, several shops were making them outside and selling takeaway trays of ready-made tang yuan of assorted flavors, but we had ours on Saturday night at a place near National Taiwan University well-known for its ices (strawberries and cream, sweet red beans, or other syrupy fruit over a mound of shaved ice) and other sweets.  The tang yuan were boiled to order and served in either a plain sweet broth or with jiu niang, very sweet fermented rice broth redolent of wine and flowers.  (I’ve always ascribed a fairy-like quality to jiu niang—it is so sweet, but not a cloying, one-note sweetness, more like drinking an essence of mixed flowers, and the wine gives a heady, otherworldly taste to the clear syrup.)

After finishing our tang yuan, my relatives and I went to the Lantern Festival near Taipei City Hall.

Happy Year of the Tiger!

Fun fruits

March 14, 2010

I also ate a lot of fruit while in Taiwan.  There is nothing uniquely Taiwanese or particularly exotic about any of them, but they were all new to me.

It’s wax apple season right now.  Known in Chinese as lian wu, they’re called “wax apples” in English because of their appearance.  As far as taste and texture, they’re comparable to Asian pears, a bit tarter, with the crispness of airy Styrofoam.

The best new fruit experience were these Buddha head fruits, so-called because of their resemblance to depictions of the Sakyamuni Buddha’s hair.  Eaten with a spoon, the fruit is creamy and sweet (hence the English name, custard apple) and contains hard seed pods like those of a lychee.  Some people find this fruit almost sickly sweet, but not as much as a durian.

In contrast, a tart prickly pear passionfruit, which was served as part of a Japanese kaiseki meal I had, was also eaten with a spoon and the seeds were snappy and popped like pomegranate seeds.

I also had a lot of guava, which was crisp and not as sweet as the canned juice we have in America.  I’d been introduced to regular small jujubes last year, but this was the first time I’d seen giant jujubes, which were not as sweet as the smaller variety but had the same texture, like a firm apple.

Desserts of Taiwan

March 12, 2010

My eating trip began with a very traditional dessert, peanut soup, in the food court at Eslite Xinyi, a huge bookstore/department store chain with some branches open 24 hours.  (Imagine if Borders and Bloomingdale’s mated and the baby stayed up all night.)  The one on the left is a warm version, and the one on the right is served over ice with doufu hua (literally, tofu flower), a very soft, sweet dessert tofu.

While in Taipei, I ate other desserts familiar to anyone who has been in Chinatown.

Red bean soup, the usual post-prandial sweet.

A deep fried glutinous rice and red bean thing rolled in sesame.

A variety of puddings and jellos, coconut being my favorite.

Coconut jello

Almond jello with the usual canned fruit cocktail

Mango pudding

Some of the desserts I had were not particularly traditional in the sense that they did not exist in the Taiwan of my parents and grandparents, but they have become part of the Taiwanese vernacular.

It’s strawberry season in Taiwan, and everywhere I went, markets had fresh strawberries.  The Mister Donut chain was running a promotion of strawberry doughnuts.  Pon are their standard ring doughnuts, which look like a bracelet of doughnut holes.

I bit these open so that I could photograph the insides.  The one on the bottom is plain glazed, the pink one on top is strawberry.

The company’s mascots, led by the charming Pon de Lion, are among the most adorable corporate characters anywhere, though the Taiwan Life Insurance hippo gives them a good run for their money. (

The doughnuts in Asia are different—much lighter in the belly and of course with flavors like matcha and red bean.  (McDonald’s sometimes has fried pies with red bean and pineapple in addition to the usual apple pie.)  Someone even told me that Dunkin’ Donuts products have half the sugar in Taiwan because the American versions are too sweet.

Crepes, both savory and sweet, are very popular in Taiwan.  I felt that it wasn’t Taiwanese enough for me to try, but my cousins insisted, so I chose green tea and red bean, which is about as Asian as one can get.  The crepe (top right) itself tasted exactly like a fortune cookie.  (The other food in the picture will be explained in a later post.)

My family’s house is next to Café Mélange, the trendiest waffle restaurant in Taipei.  They don’t take reservations, you have to take a number and wait, so all evening long, there are hip young Taiwanese lining our street waiting for a table.  It sort of killed me that there was all this amazing Taiwanese street food about 100 steps away not to mention Mister Donut about 100 steps in the opposite direction but all these people were waiting an hour for Belgian waffles.  This isn’t a passing fad, though.  Apparently this place has been popular for years.  I wonder what they would think of the glories of Waffle House, one of my American guilty pleasures.  (While in Florida, I once went four times in a 24-hour span.)

One Taiwanese sweet that is known almost globally is bubble tea (or milk tea to me, since I always get it without the tapioca pearls—small round things, you know.)  Though I decry the extra plastic bag they give to protect your hand from the condensation, it’s admittedly convenient to dangle your bubble tea from your wrist while noshing on your skewers of fried squid and chicken.

People in Taiwan are very particular about bubble tea.  Despite plenty of stands in Shida Night Market proper, my cousin insisted that we walk five blocks outside to her preferred shop.  If you get annoyed by people ordering a grande soy mocha half-caf skim latte with walking room is picky, you’ll definitely be bothered by regular orders for such specifics as 70% sugar, 50% ice bubble tea!

I’m not a very adventurous bubble tea drinker.  Because I read Chinese too slowly to look at all the choices, my go-to flavors are almond and coconut, which appear on all menus.  On this trip, I ventured into strawberry milk and pudding milk territories, but I think I’ll stick with almond and coconut.  The strawberry was fresh but otherwise unmemorable, and the pudding was inadequately sweet—although it was streaked with chocolate, it wasn’t chocolaty enough (a common problem with Asian “chocolate” desserts—it’s not chocolate, it’s just brown) and the pulled through the thick straw, the pudding was the consistency of snot.  I didn’t even think of trying the milk tea with “frog eggs” (mixed bubbles, cubes of lemon and grass jelly)!

More to come about celebratory desserts in a future post.

Shilin Night Market

March 10, 2010

Prior to going to Taipei, I read a lot of things defining night markets as places to get traditional Taiwanese snacks.  For me, the term “snack” conjures images of chips or granola bars, not this nightly lollapalooza of steaming vats and sizzling grills that appear all over the city in predetermined spots around 4PM each evening.  In a whole culture of “small eats”, it’s easy to make a meal of a few items eaten with chopsticks or sharp bamboo skewers.

Shilin Night Market, near where my father grew up, is one of the largest night markets in Taipei and it was particularly crammed this Saturday, being the first warm day and last weekend night of a rainy Lunar New Year holiday.

Oysters (Oa, pronounced oh-ah, in Taiwanese) are plentiful.  This night market classic is Oa Misua, lots of oysters and some slices of pig intestine with fine rice noodles in a vinegary and garlicky broth with an extra dollop of minced garlic added right before serving.

This is Oa Jian, sometimes described as an oyster pancake or omelette, smothered in a salty, tangy sauce.

One of the few bad things about night markets is that it’s sometimes hard to find seating.  Fortunately, it seems to be acceptable to eat “outside food” as long as you purchase something at the establishment where you’re seated.  Also, if you want a dish from a nearby stand, the proprietors will gladly yell out your order to the neighbors and fetch it so that you don’t have to leave your hard-won seat.

Another problem is the trash.  Taiwan is pretty good about recycling and waste management, but the skewers and chopstick wrappers, plastic spoons, bowls, and bags have got to add up, night after night.  I don’t know what the solution might be.  Corn or soy-based biodegradable containers?  A concept dear to my Illinois heart, but maybe not as feasible for a small island whose main crops seem to be betel nuts and sugarcane.  Bringing your own containers would probably be against health codes, but bringing your own chopsticks and forks might be a start.

The last thing I ate at the Shilin Night Market was a sausage wrapped in sticky rice.  Usually, it’s wrapped in a wax paper bag for eating out of hand, but we had ours sliced for sharing.  I’m starting to see that “wrapped in sticky rice” is quickly becoming a theme for my eating in Taiwan.

A Taste of Home

February 25, 2010

I know explanted Southern Californians who need In-n-Out every time they go back and I have a friend from Atlanta who requires Chik-Fil-A on the way home from the airport.  This has made me realize that I don’t really have such a food that signals, “I’m home.”

I’m told that here in Taiwan, Yong He Soymilk Magnate is what returning overseas Taiwanese insist on between landing at Tongyuan Airport and going to sleep off the 18+ hour flight.

No matter how late your flight gets in, Yong He is open 24 hours a day (as are many establishments in Asia) for you to get your fried dough and soymilk fix.

The food is prepared just outside the restaurant so that pedestrians can grab-and-go for less than one US dollar per item.

This is a turnip pancake fried in egg.

This is a fried dough stick and dried pork tightly wrapped in sticky rice.

The quintessential Chinese breakfast is a fried dough stick wrapped in a sesame-encrusted, very flaky bread.  One of my American quirks that people in Asia always comment on is my need to have a cold drink with every meal.  I was thirsty, so I had two cold, sweet soybean milks.  Hot soymilk is served in a bowl and can either be sweetened or savory.

An excellent way to start eating my way around Taipei.  I also guess that this means that I should think about what food means “home” to me.

Sharon Lin, blogging from Taiwan

February 25, 2010

I’m very happy to tell you that my friend Sharon is currently traveling in Taiwan, and she has generously agreed to post descriptions and photos of the delicious foods she eats while she’s there.  Sharon and I have been eating together for a long time, since we met when we were freshmen in college, ack, almost 15 years ago, though back then, we had more immature palates and ate unholy amounts of General Tso’s chicken and pork lo mein fried rice.  (Sharon would like you to know, she did not eat pork lo mein.)

These are the details of her life that are probably most relevant for you to know:

Sharon is a good food friend because she blithely ignores socially acceptable conventions on what and when to eat.  She will gladly eat five meals a day, or seek out fried chicken and cheesesteaks for breakfast.  Although she refuses to eat small round things (peas, lentils, tobiko, chickpeas, etc.) and eats really, really slowly, she is a consistently strong eater.

Sharon lives in New Haven, CT where she eats clam and bacon pizza, hot buttered lobster rolls, and steamed hamburgers.

What would your food bio say?