Located between Japan, China and the Philippines, the island nation of Taiwan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, yet it is home to incredible natural beauty, with some vertiginous mountains and lush tropical forests.
But best of all, it is one of Asia’s most exciting foodie destinations, with great quality street-food and Michelin-starred restaurants aplenty. I was chuffed to be invited over by the Taiwanese Tourism Board earlier this year to find out more about this unique country, and to report on my gastronomic discoveries in Taipei, Kaoshiung and Tainan.
A Potted History
Justly named Ilha Formosa (the beautiful island) by the Portuguese in 1542, Taiwan has ever since enjoyed a colourful if somewhat tumultuous history.
Aboriginal tribes enjoyed an undisturbed existence in the country for thousands of years, until the arrival in the early 17th century of Dutch and Spanish traders. This prompted a major influx of Han-Chinese who fought the Europeans, finally expelling them in 1662.
Between 1895 until the end of WWII in 1945, the country was a colony of Japan for 50 years, and today a strong Japanese legacy is still apparent in the food and architecture of Taiwan.
Meanwhile in Mainland China, the Nationalists and Communists fought a bloody civil war, and when eventually defeated in 1949, hundreds of thousands of Nationalists fled to Taiwan. An independent government was set up, and Taiwan experienced rapid economic growth and modernisation in the decades that followed, becoming one of the Asia’s richest and most thriving economies, and a well-functioning democracy.
It is believed that many of China’s finest artists, chefs, intellectuals and academics were among the Nationalists who made Taiwan their home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this contributed to Taiwan becoming an amazing success story, not just economically, but also for its gastronomy and culture.
Only 300 years ago, Taipei was swampland inhabited by the indigenous Kaitagelan tribe. Today, the Taiwanese capital is the country’s largest city, with over 2.64 million residents in the city and 6.5 million in the greater area.
Taipei is relatively easy to navigate, based on a grid system with twelve key districts and neighbourhoods. The western part of the city is the historical centre, containing key sights such as the Longshan, Confucius and Baoan Temples, while the eastern area is thoroughly modern and home to what was, until recently, the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101.
The MRT (Mass Rapid Transport, an underground train system), is a great way to get around and very economical too, with stations well situated for the key sights.
The eclectic mix of Taiwan’s indigenous, Chinese and Japanese heritage, along with today’s cutting-edge urban technology, have created a vibrant metropolis steeped in both tradition and innovation.
Discovering Foodie Taipei
I have visited few places with a stronger food culture than Taipei’s. Food seems to be in every Taiwanese person’s DNA, and eating well and often is everyone’s shared and most loved pastime.
Food is everywhere - on most street corners you will find a delectable pot of something being cooked up, long queues of people in front of unassuming shop entrances waiting to buy their favourite local snacks, and numerous night markets where you can enjoy anything from grilled seafood to baked dumplings, desserts and exotic fruit.
One of my reasons for visiting Taipei this summer was to attend the 2016 Taiwan Culinary Exhibition. This was a huge, well-attended festival celebrating Taiwan’s culinary arts, ingredients and cookware.
There were various sections dedicated to themes including Hakka cooking and ingredients, and the culinary traditions of Taiwan’s 16 official aboriginal tribes.
One of the exhibitors was the Punon aboriginal tribe that interestingly has a diet based on millet rather than rice, which is the staple of modern Taiwan. I met and interviewed some of the Punon exhibitors, and they were enthusiastic to explain their culinary heritage and produce.
This was also a unique opportunity to learn about some of the native ingredients of Taiwan. One of my favourites was karasumi (dried salted mullet roe), which I had tried before in Japan where it goes by the same name.
This wonderful ingredient, a softer version of Mediterranean bottarga, is a specialty of the town of Tungkang in Taiwan as well as Nagasaki in Japan, reflecting the past colonial relationship of the two countries. I love eating it grated over buttered pasta, risotto or even scrambled eggs, or thinly sliced between crisp slices of daikon radish.
There were also many cookery demonstrations and competitions, and whole stands dedicated to pork in all imaginable ways – paper thin, crispy, even sweetened and served as dessert.
|Taiwanese cookery demonstrations at Taiwan Culinary Exhibition|
If you happen to be visiting Taipei during the month of August, I highly recommend dropping in on the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition, more details here.
|Are you a Pig Lover? Pork candy!|
Where to Eat in Taipei
Taipei is all about its street food, its numerous night markets and thousands of different restaurants, from Taiwanese to Hakka, Japanese, Chinese, European, you name it, you are likely to find whatever cuisine you are looking for there.
I was able to visit quite a few restaurants during my limited time in the city, but with so many to recommend I am presenting here just the main highlights.
Din Tai Fung at Taipei 101 Tower
One of my top restaurant recommendations in Taipei, is Din Tai Fung. Ranked as one of the world’s Top Ten Best Restaurants by The New York Times, Din Tai Fung was founded in Taiwan over 40 years ago with some of its branches now being awarded a Michelin-star.
There are various Din Tai Fung branches in Taipei and across other cities in Taiwan, the original Xinyi store is at 194 Xinyi Road (MRT Dongmen Station, Exit 5), just by Yongkang Street, a great place for shops, bars and restaurants, but more on this lovely street later.
|Din Tai Fung's Legendary Xiao Long Bao|
With its famous signature xiao long bao (steamed pork dumplings) and steamed chicken soup, this authentic Taiwanese restaurant has been making waves with branches throughout the world, including Singapore, Thailand, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and USA. And rumour has it that the UK branch is opening in 2017!
|House Special Vegetable and Ground Pork Wonton's|
Din Tai Fung is famous for its steamed dumplings so we had the obligatory xiao long bao (Shanghai dumpling) as well as the house special spicy vegetable and ground pork wontons, which were both excellent.
|Stir-fried Shrimp Rice with Egg|
We also had a delectable stir-fried shrimp rice with egg, and my favourite Taiwanese greens - sweet potato leaves stir-fry.
Din Tai Fung is excellent value and the quality of the dumplings is second to none. In addition to visiting the Xinyi store, we also went to the branch at Taipei 101 tower. This is much larger and overall a nicer location, so I would recommend this branch over the original one. Expect long queues, so come early (or very late) to avoid waiting too long.
And if you happen to visit Din Tai Fung at Tower 101, do not miss the Observatory on the 89th floor for jaw-dropping views of the Taipei. It costs £15 per person and tickets can be bought online.
|Taipei's skyline from the 89th floor observatory at Taipei 101|
One other top dining recommendation is the Red Lantern, a restaurant specializing in Hakka food, it was so good that we went there twice!
Hakka cuisine is the cooking style of the Hakka people, who are Han Chinese from southern China. They migrated to many countries and have a diaspora in Taiwan, most countries of Southeast Asia, and latterly all over the world. They speak their unique Hakka language and are today thought to number 80 million worldwide. Hakka cuisine concentrates on the texture of food, with preserved, stewed, braised and roast meats.
It was at the Red Lantern that I had my first taste of stir-fried sweet potato leaves with garlic – a staple in most Taiwanese homes, I enjoyed the flavour, texture and colour of the green leaves. I had this dish in nearly every restaurant I visited in Taiwan!
There were so many highlights – I loved their crispy fried oysters and the fried wild pork, while the sizzling beef and the stir-fried rice with karasumi were outstandingly good. The food at the Red Lantern was hearty, very well seasoned and the portions were huge, I highly recommend it.
In central Taipei, Shin Yeh was also excellent – this Taiwanese restaurant is a local favourite and during the lunchtime we were there, the restaurant was packed with families.
We had a fantastic meal at Shin Yeh, and particularly good were the spicy fried chicken with garlic and basil in casserole, the signature soya boiled pork knuckle and peanuts, and the incredibly luscious wok-seared aubergine with minced meat, chillies and sweet basil.
I could not resist ordering more fried rice with mullet roe (karasumi), and a portion of stir-fried greens (morning glory). I highly recommend a visit to Shin Yeh for top quality Taiwanese food – this restaurant is little pricier but the quality and cooking definitely justify it.
Elixir Health Pot (Wu Lao)
At the Elixir Health Pot, we had a magnificent hotpot dinner. There was a choice of two broths, one white and creamy with soy milk, and the other a fiery red broth with many different spices including Sichuanese pepper, red dates and goji berry.
We had a selection of seafood including thin slices of white fish, scallops, prawns and orchid clams, as well as tofu sheets, thin slices of streaky pork, fish balls and even duck blood, a local delicacy that tasted rich and creamy like foie gras! There were also vegetables like cabbage, shimeji, oyster and king mushrooms.
Diners can make their own dipping dressing with loads of chillies, garlic, vinegar sesame oil, soy and there is plenty of free white Japanese steamed rice, all washed down with a refreshing mango flavoured Taiwanese beer.
Shan Yuan Restaurant in Yang Ming Mountain was a bit of a challenge to find, but getting there was half the fun as it is in a gorgeous national park.
The setting is simple and open air, with metal tables and chairs and food served on plastic plates, but the cooking makes use of the most delectable fresh mountain vegetables and herbs.
There is no menu at this restaurant, but at the entrance there are shelves with the various fresh ingredients of the day supplied by farmers. Diners select the produce they want to eat, which is then simply cooked and served with rice.
Portions were very generous in size, and the food super-fresh and well seasoned. There was a wonderful sweet potato soup, and fried tofu steaks with mangetout, carrot and mushroom.
Best of all though was the whole white fish steamed and served with soy sauce, a julienne of carrot, chilli and spring onion, and the native glue berry (Cordia dichotoma), a pickled fragrant fruit commonly used in Taiwanese fish cooking.
With stir-fried mountain greens and garlic, steamed rice and some refreshing Taiwanese beer, we had a deliciously satisfying farmers lunch that really hit the spot. On the day we were there, some locals helped us choose some wonderful dishes, we were the only non-Taiwanese in the restaurant. In fact, they (both restaurant owner and diners) were slightly perplexed that we were there, and went to great trouble to help us find the best dishes. It’s so Taiwanese to be excited at sharing ideas on cooking and eating!
Badasan Aboriginal Restaurant
At the northwestern edge of Taipei, on the island of Ba-li, Badasan Aboriginal Restaurant is one of the few places where you can try aboriginal cuisine without heading over to the tribal areas in the interior. It is easily reached from central Taipei by taking the metro to Damsui and then taking the short ferry-crossing to Ba-Li.
Damsui Estuary in itself is well worth a visit, with a huge street market selling everything from delicious street food to handbags, briefcases and T-shirts. I loved the flying fish roe (tobiko) sausages, which we nibbled on the way to the restaurant.
Badasan is particularly known for wild boar, alligator, pigeon, and foods wrapped and cooked in leaves. We had steamed Atayal sticky rice in bamboo, baby bamboo shoots, and of course the signature stone slab roast wild boar – wonderfully fragrant.
Yongkang Street – Smoothie House
Back in downtown Taipei, Yongkang Street is a great foodie destination, with dozens of restaurants, teahouses and food suppliers to browse at leisure, window-shopping and visiting the various eateries.
Some highlights for me were the shaved mango ice at Smoothie House, and a visit to the Yeh Tang Tea Culture Research Institute.
Yeh Tang Tea Culture
Tucked away in a lane off the Yongkang Street, this wonderful spot was a step back to a time of elegance, with tropical hard wood and bamboo furniture. Here I tasted some delicious Lishan oolong tea, as well as the Spring harvest version, which was fresher and more astringent.
At the legendary Fuchen Food café on Yongkang Street, I couldn’t resist diving in for a few snacks.
This is a modest café, but one of the most popular in the area with the huge queues a testament to the quality of the food from the southern city of Tainan.
I had some delectable meat and prawn dumplings, as well as rice cake with mushroom and pork.
Pin Chuan Lan
Later, at nearby Pin Chuan Lan Restaurant, I had probably the best beef noodle dish of anywhere I visited in Taiwan. I selected the version with ultra-soft beef tendon, which was rich and satisfying.
Taihu Brewing Bar
Whether before or after dinner at Pin Chuan Lan, if you fancy a craft beer, the place to head for just round the corner is the Taihu Brewing Bar. I was lucky enough to be there for a ‘meet the brewer’ evening, and met Jim of Jim & Dad.
This 28-year-old former Deloitte accountant quit number-crunching to open his own brewery, Jim & Dad. His beer, Session Ale, was a hoppy fresh beer with fragrant green-grass notes. It was great to see the craft beer movement really taking off in Taiwan.
Addiction Aquatic Development
The Addiction Aquatic Development is a fantastic fish and seafood market and food hall on Minzu E Road (MRT: Zhongshan), in central Taipei.
The place is incredibly popular with locals who queue for hours to either buy fresh fish or enjoy some excellent sushi and sashimi platters on sale at the bar counter.
The development is a mix of open-air restaurant, fish market with large tanks filled to the brim with live fish and seafood, a supermarket, sushi and sashimi bar counter and a Japanese hot-food section.
It is huge and super busy, and a great place to have some of the best fish, sushi and sashimi outside of Japan.
Tresors de la Mer
Tresors de la Mer is one of the restaurants at the Addiction Aquatic Development complex and we had a great meal here only let down by the service, which unfortunately was rushed and uninterested at best. The fish and seafood cooked at Tresors de la Mer needs to be chosen by the diners fresh from some of the tanks outside the restaurant and prepared a la minute by the chefs.
One of the highlights of our dinner was the raw uni (sea urchin) served over freshly grated yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam) and seasoned with fresh wasabi and soy sauce.
The grilled scallop served over Japanese harusami noodles (glass noodles), wakame seaweed and spring onions was also excellent.
Equally good was the bitter melon stir-fry and the grilled jumbo prawns, though the portions were minute.
I recommend a visit to the Addiction Aquatic Development and to Tresors de la Mer but be prepared for some long queues. Prices are high by Taipei standards but the quality of the food makes it definitely worth a visit.
Jinfong Zhou Zhou Fang
At the other end of the scale, the very modest Jinfong Zhou Zhou Fang restaurant just by Nanmen market (MRT C.K.S Memorial Hall, Exit 2), was another incredibly popular restaurant I visited.
The long queues of patrons arrive early for the restaurant’s signature braised pork rice (70p) and soup of fried pork with super soft melon and radish (£1.25) – expect plastic plates and chopsticks all in very simple surroundings, the food is however excellent and I highly recommend a visit.
Night Markets and More Markets in Taipei
Night markets are integral to Taiwan’s culinary scene and the city of Taipei has some of the best in the country. Night markets originally were located next to Buddhist temples, as worshippers needed to eat somewhere near the temple following evening prayer. Shilin is Taipei’s most famous night market, but is also the most touristic, with a huge array of street food stalls.
Raohe Street Night Market
So it was instead to Raohe Street Night Market, near my hotel, that I headed on my first night in Taipei and I could not think of a better introduction to the city’s food scene than here.
There were hundreds of different stalls selling everything from grilled mushrooms to barbecued squid, fresh fruit, and even one specializing in all types of offal meats on skewers.
A highlight here though was a stall at the very end of the market selling freshly baked buns filled with pork mince and vegetables – the queue was huge but their bun was so utterly delicious, meaty and fluffy, I cannot think of visiting Taipei without trying that bun again!
And if you can’t get enough of Taipei’s night markets, there are day markets too! I got to visit the traditional Nanmen market (MRT C.K.S Memorial Hall, Exit 2) to check out where the locals go for their everyday food provisions.
Set over 2 floors, this is one of Taipei’s most traditional markets founded over 100 years ago in 1906. The market is run and frequented by locals who go there to buy everything from fruit and veg to fresh fish and seafood, meat and dry goods.
Where to Stay in Taipei
Hotel Amba Songshan
This contemporary hotel in eastern Taipei has 189 rooms with stunning views of Taipei 101 or the Keelung River. Located between the Xinyi, Songshan and Nangang districts, the hotel is just five minutes’ drive from Taipei 101.
The hotel is directly connected to Songshan Station for metro and trains as well as a huge mall with shops and restaurants, and Raohe Night Market is just a five minutes' walk.
Hotel Amba Songshan’s reception and restaurant areas are very stylishly decorated, with huge floor to ceiling windows, with plenty of natural light and commanding views over the city.
I enjoyed my room at Hotel Amba Songshan, it was comfortable, modern, clean and thoughtfully designed. I loved the Nespresso coffee machine in my room.
But the best part of course was the hotel’s Asian breakfast buffet every morning – I had platefuls of congee porridge, dim sum, stir-fried noodles and braised pork.
I also got to try Taiwanese rice rolls (similar to Japanese onigiri) filled with a number of delicious ingredients including pork floss and pickles. Make time for breakfast at Hotel Amba Songshan, you will need it to get through all the options on the buffet.
I had a marvelous stay at Hotel Amba Songshan’s and highly recommend it to anyone visiting Taipei City.
In the weeks to come I will be reporting about the other two incredible cities I visited in Taiwan – Kaohsiung and Tainan. As you plan your visit to Taiwan and Taipei, why not bookmark this page for future reference.
My visit to Taiwan was sponsored by the Taiwanese Tourism Board. I would like to thank Christina Yang for her wonderful guidance (and patience) throughout my stay in Taiwan. The London Foodie maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site as always.
Tourist Guide - English, French and Chinese
Hotel Amba Songshan
No. 8, Section 7, Civic Boulevard
Raohe Street Night Market
Roosevelt Road and Nan Hai Road
(MRT C.K.S Memorial Hall, Exit 2)
Din Tai Fung at Taipei 101 Tower
B1, no.45, Shifu Road
Red Lantern (Taiwanese Hakka Food)
97 East Road, Tianmu
No. 34-1, Shuangcheng St., Zhongshan District
Elixir Health Pot Restaurant (Wu Lao)
No. 143, Section 3, Civic Blvd, Zhongshan District
No.15, Yongkang St
Yeh Tang Tea Culture Research Institute
No 5, Alley 12, Lane 31
Pin Chuan Lan
Da'an District 106
Eastern District , Da'an
Addiction Aquatic Development上引水產
No. 18, Alley 2, Ln 410, Minzu E Rd
MRT: Zhongshan Jr. High School Station
or XingTian Temple Station
Jinfong Zhou Zhou Fang Restaurant
Just by Nanmen Market
(MRT C.K.S Memorial Hall, Exit 2)
Shan Yuan (Mountain cuisine restaurant)
This is in Yang Ming Mountain, a national park north of Taipei. It is about 40 minutes drive by taxi from the city centre, although you can take a taxi to Beitou and take a taxi or bus from there. It has no website, no booking required. You can show the address here to your taxi driver: 山園餐廳台北市北投區竹子湖路55之12號.
When we visited, the taxi driver took us close and then we showed this address to local people who pointed us in the right direction on foot. Opening hours: Wednesday to Monday, 10.30am to 8pm.
Badasan Aboriginal Restaurant
111, Guanhai Boulevard
You can get to Ba-li (on the south bank of Damsui Estuary) by taking the metro to Damsui (northbound terminal on the red line) and then ferry taxi to cross the river.
Taihu Brewing Bar
Period Lane 5
107 Fuxing South Road
Fuchen Food (Tainanese Food)
MRT Dongmen Station, Exit 5)
The Taiwanese Culinary Exhibition