I grew up watching Taiwanese variety shows in Singapore. The "ooohs" and "aaahs" that followed before the hosts even started chewing their food brainwashed me to believe that Taiwan is a gourmet destination made in the heavens.
When I finally went to Taiwan when I was 23, bad food and the rain washed all those fantasies away. I could only tell myself that I either went to all the wrong places, or the food really didn't suit my taste. The only things I enjoyed were the sweets and world-class seasonal fruit. I went again for a couple of short trips in the next few years, but nothing convinced me to change my belief that the variety shows were just a blatant exaggeration.
Come 2018, information accessiblity is no longer limited to TV. Taipei was the chosen destination for my first ever brothers trip. Armed with research from the internet, blessings from friends in the food industry and personal recommendations from some of the best food bloggers I know, I set off, eager to prove myself wrong about Taipei food.
We walked for 4 days and 4 nights, from morning, till we couldn't walk anymore, often until 2-3am the next day, eating non-stop. So, did my impression of Taiwanese food change? Yes, but more on that later.
First, my ultimate Taipei eating guide, solely based on my 4 days and 4 nights:
If you are into fine-dining, the names Alain Huang, Zor Tan and especially Andre Chiang (from the recently-closed 2-Michelin star Restaurant Andre in Singapore) will not be unfamiliar to you. My experience at RAW convinced me that it has to be THE must-try restaurant in Taiwan, and the exact kind of restaurant that Bangkok is sorely lacking, one that combines loud (but classy) interior decoration (including the toilets), an understanding of the top seasonal local produce, meticulate execution, personal service, plus a casual vibe and a palatable price point.
|The casual vibe of Raw in the day.|
|The ultimate kitchen definition.|
Food was not perfect, because it never is, in fact, a dish or two were a bit baffling, but it is what it is, and we have to appreciate the chefs for serving us what they feel is necessary for the experience.
In any case, your challenge is now to get a seat. If you have a trip to Taipei coming up, you have to start planning for RAW now.
2. Huang Ji Lu Rou Fan 黃記魯肉飯
When it comes to street food, the Taiwanese braised pork rice has to be one of the most basic staple of all. A shop/stall could be selling anything, but if you need rice to go with the dishes, braised pork rice will usually be one of most readily-available and popular choices.
|Pork heaven, washed down with the tastiest of radish soups.|
Of the places we ate at in our 4 days and 4 nights, this was the only one we found a reason to patronize at on separate days, despite its slightly-challenging location. My companions even packed another serving to enjoy on the plane back to Singapore!
I tried 2 other versions of braised pork rice during the trip, and didn't finish both as I couldn't help but compare them with the offerings here. I love it that their rice was cooked to perfection, almost omakase-like. A must-try in Taipei.
3. Fuzhou Pepper Bun at Raohe Night Market 福州世祖胡椒饼
This pepper bun stoked a lot of curiosity in me because I am Foochow by heritage, but I have never eaten this before in my native Sarawak. Furthermore, this pepper bun was awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin just 2 weeks before my visit.
In terms of accessibility, it cannot be better. It's virtually the first store after entering Raohe Night Market and the snaking queue means you will not miss it.
|Fresh out of the tandoor into your hand.|
4. Muachee Bao Bao in Raohe Night Market 麻糬宝宝
You need to open your eyes really wide so that you don't miss this tiny stall.
It's actually just a friendly masked uncle selling the same thing in a small pushcart for more than a decade, but it actually got mentioned by the Michelin Guide, and it was not by chance. Muachee is not something I am not familiar with, but I have never eaten any that prompted me to go back for seconds immediately, until Muachee Baobao.
[Stranger in Taipei] 麻糬宝宝 Muachee Baobao I seriously don't understand how the Michelin Guide works, because Muachee Baobao is just a little stand at the same place at Raohe Night Market selling 1 single snack for the last 10 years and it managed to appear on Michelin Guide's list of recommended eats in Taipei. Muachee is a rice cake made of glutinous rice, the camera-shy owner shapes it like a burger, painstakingly stuffing every piece with black sesame before coating it with ground peanut. It was not overly sweet, and the sticky rice cake did not stick to my teeth at all. What's most impressive is the owner's attitude to serve only the best. "Are you eating now?" he asked. "Errr...." me "If you want me to coat it with peanut and you plan to eat it later then I'd rather you not buy because you will be wasting 60TWD." Turns out that once the Muachee's coated, the ground peanut will start to absorb water quickly, and soon become something that's deemed inedible by the owner. Such a perfectionist! Definitely worth a mention here! And I scored a photo with him even though he made it clear he doesn't welcome photos. Remember to look out for this shy uncle wearing a mask when you are there! #muachee #麻糬 #麻糬宝宝 #michelinguide #绕河夜市 #strangerin台北 #traveltaiwan #traveltaipei #cobrosintaiwan #taiwanfoodies
5. Urn Chicken 正古早甕缸雞坊
This might not feel interesting to you, but it means everything to me. Free-range chicken (with a lean but meaty body and shiny black feet) smoked in a wood-fire urn at high heat, then low heat, to achieve a crispy skin without losing the original flavours of a good quality bird.
We took taxi from Tamshui Old Street to the shop with nothing else around it just for this chicken, and were not disappointed.
|Each urn only cooks 2 birds at a time.|
6. Peanut Soup with Dough Fritters 油条花生汤
Ah-Balling lovers look here, especially those who go there for the peanut soup, not the rice dumplings. I can't tell you where exactly to buy the peanut soup, but just go for it when you see any, because the sweet peanut soup here is doubly rich and delicious, perfect when dipped with crunchy dough fritters.
Ah-Balling lovers need to try the sweet peanut soups in Taipei. The soup is not overly sweet, and is jam-packed with peanuts boiled to death (yummy mushy good). Usually eaten with dough fritters which are thin, airy and extremely crispy. Nice combination. #peanutsoup #花生汤 #traveltaiwan #traveltaipei #ahballing #strangerin台北
7. 别所 Shelter
This was not a cafe-hopping trip, we didn't visit any cafes on purpose. We stumbled upon Shelter when we needed a rest in the midst of our food hunt, and were glad to have spent an hour in this gem of a place.
|Short features being played on the screen continuously.|
|Vinyl records, hipster movie posters enhancing the feel of the place.|
|Our handsome model enjoying his caffeine fix.|
Note: Shelter is within walking distance from Huang Ji Lu Rou Fan (number 2 on this list).
Special Mention: Pork Leg Soup at Keelung Miaokou Night Market 纪爱四路猪脚原汁专家
This would easily be number 2 if it was in Taipei. Unfortunately it can only be here due to its location in Keelung. For 200TWD per smallest bowl, it could be the most expensive street food we had all trip, but it proved to be most unforgettable. Just walk right to the end of the night market and you will not miss it. It's the only shop selling this dish.
This is my ultimate must-eat at a night market in Taiwan. A simple dish of boiled pork leg soup, boiled to the point that the soup is milk white. One and only stall at Keelung Miaokou Night Market, and I haven't seen it anywhere else. #traveltaiwan #nightmarket #taiwanfoodies #猪脚汤 #基隆庙口夜市 #strangerin台北
So, was my food trip a success?
Did it change my impression of Taiwanese food?
To a certain extent.
Still, you have to remember that I equipped myself with a lot of ammo for this trip. I believe the situation will not be the same if I went to Taiwan uninformed and walked into any random shop to have my meals.
So, I have a few tips for you as you plan your foodie trip to Taiwan:
- Be prepared. Do your research, trust reliable sources (like this one lol). It will be worth it.
- Go with your best pals, ones whom you will enjoy eating with. There are too many things in Taiwan that I cannot imagine myself enjoying if I was eating alone or with the wrong crowd.
- Understand that Taiwanese food might not totally suit your palate. For me, Taiwan food is generally bland, especially when it comes to soups and broths, which are usually quite tasteless regardless of how heavy they look or how spicy their names sounded. There are exceptions of course (a few in my list above), but if this is what the locals are used to and prefer, who are we to say it's not good enough?
- When it comes to night markets, and this is quoting a Taiwanese friend who gave me a lot of good advice prior to the trip, order what you like. Simple, but true, if you don't like oysters in the first place, it's not likely the oyster at the night market will change your opinion, so order what you like to maximize the experience!
Verdict: My unhealthy love-hate relationship with Taiwan food has become a slightly-lopsided LOVE-hate relationship, and I am very very much looking forward to my next visit already!