The food scene in Taiwan is often overlooked, but the island boasts some of the best cuisine in the world. What makes Taiwanese food so remarkable is the variety of influences caused by a litany of colonizers: the Dutch and Spanish in the 17th century, the Japanese in the 19th and 20th century, and Kuomintang from China in the middle of the 20th century. Those external influences blended with the cooking traditions of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized indigenous groups and the Hakka, an ethnic Han Chinese group that began coming to the island in the 17th century and now make up Taiwan’s second largest ethnic group after the Hoklo Han Chinese.
Taiwanese cuisine is a feast for the senses with delicious options in every lane, alley, and market. Each city has its own signature dishes, which locals will readily encourage visitors to try. It’s hard to choose just 10 dishes to try, but these are quintessential Taiwanese treats. Each is approachable, inexpensive, and easy to find at night market stalls and restaurant menus across the island, but we prefer to go straight to the original spots that made these dishes Taiwanese treasures.
Bubble Tea (波霸奶茶)
Bubble tea has become a symbol of Taiwan the world over. It was invented by Liu Han-chieh in his Taichung tea shop Chun Shui Tang in 1986. It seems nearly every block on the island now has a tea shop shaking up this drink made with chilled milk tea, sugar, ice, and black tapioca balls, but Chun Shui Tang serves the best, using freshly-made tapioca, caramelized sugar, and fresh milk instead of the powdered milk that many other shops use. There are more than a dozen Chun Shui Tang locations across Taiwan.
Danzai Noodles (擔仔麵)
Danzai noodles (also called ta-a noodles) were a near instant hit when they were first introduced by Taiwanese fisherman Hong Yu-tou in 1895. There’s no better place to have danzai noodles than Du Hsiao Yueh. Walking into the bustling restaurant on Yongkang Street in Taipei, diners can watch the fourth generation of Hong’s family creating this noodle dish in small porcelain bowls filled with chewy noodles topped with precise amounts of minced, braised pork, bean sprouts, shallots, bok choy, and one boiled shrimp.
Grass Jelly (燒仙草)
Grass jelly is a local favorite that is refreshing, particularly in the summertime. The dessert consists of a large bowl filled with translucent black jelly derived in part from the Mesona chinensis, a type of mint tree, which yields a bitter, lavender taste that is sweetened with brown sugar and colored taro (yu yuan), and a splash of cream. The most traditional and best place to sample this sweet treat is at Xian Yu Xian, a chain of charming cafes started by two farmers from Taichung.
Gua Bao (割包)
Gua bao are palm-sized pork buns stuffed with braised pork, suancai (pickled cabbage), and peanuts ground into a fine powder. Nicknamed Chinese hamburger, gua bao are a popular street snack across Asia, but Taiwan makes arguably the best. For three decades, Lan Jia Gua Bao’s owner Lan Feng Rong has lovingly prepared gua bao with his mother’s recipe for thousands of university students. His shop is near Taipei’s National Taiwan University, and there’s a constant queue from late morning, when the shop opens, to midnight when the restaurant closes.
Lu Rou Fan (滷肉飯)
Served in a palm-sized bowl, lu rou fan is a heaping scoop of savory stewed pork served atop a bed of white rice. This simple comfort food dish is most often served with a "century egg" (a tea-soaked boiled egg), but depending on the restaurants or street-side stall, the dish can be garnished with mustard greens, roasted peanuts, or radish. Our favorite places to indulge in lu rou fan are Din Tai Fung and Lv Sang in Taipei.
Luwei is a staple at night markets across Taiwan. Customers grab a small basket and help themselves buffet-style to a variety of marinated meats, tofu, and vegetables, which are then cooked while patrons wait. While it isn’t hard to find a luwei stand, some of the best purveyors are Liang Chi Lu Wei in Linjiang (Tonghua) Street Night Market and 燈籠滷味 Denglong Luwei in Shida Night Market.
Sanbeiji, translated as three cups chicken, is named for the three ingredients used to flavor the chicken: soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine. While the dish originated in China, the Hakka introduced it to Taiwan where it is one of the most popular dishes. Locals love the sanbeiji at Chi Chia Chuang, but trendy izakaya restaurant and bar Whip Up makes an excellent version that’s served until the wee hours of the morning.
Shaved Ice (剉冰)
Shaved ice (cua bing) is the ultimate dessert treat and no trip to Taiwan is complete without indulging in a bowl or two. Fluffy wisps of ice are shaved off massive slabs of ice. The pulverized ice is piled precariously high into a bowl and then topped with a choice of toppings, most typically condensed milk, fruits like mangos and strawberries, or red beans. Variants worth trying include snow ice (xue hua bing) which is creamier and resembles snow and pao baobing, a slushy creation more similar to a snow cone.
Favorite places for cua bing are (三兄妹) (Three Sisters) in Ximending and Ice Monster on Yongkang Jie (there’s a near-constant line down the street). Xin Fa Ting (辛發亭) at Shilin Night Market serves the best xue hua bing, with portions big enough to share.
Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐)
It's the brine that causes this fermented tofu dish (chou doufu) to stink long before you stumble upon it at any night market in Taiwan. Widely available in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the pungent tofu has an entire street of shops devoted to it in the foothills of New Taipei City called Shenkeng Old Street. Whether eaten fried, steamed, stewed, or barbecued, it’s an unforgettable pungent dish. The barbecued version originated on Shenkeng Old Street and consists of two skewers of tofu roasted over charcoal coals creating a crispy outside and soft inside. The tofu is topped with a generous heap of pickled cabbage and chile sauce.
Taiwanese Beef Noodles (紅燒牛肉麵)
Taiwanese beef noodles (hongshao niurou mian) are so popular in Taiwan that there is an annual International Beef Noodle Festival in which restaurants across the island compete to see who makes the best. Beef noodles are ubiquitous in China and Taiwan, but the Taiwanese version consists of braised beef shank or brisket that is stewed in soup broth for hours. 72 Beef Noodles’ simmers its broth with ox bones for 72 hours, which results in an opaque white broth accented with chile sauce and sea salt while Niu Dian Beef Noodles has a beige broth filled with slices of Australian and New Zealand beef shank.