Number one on my Taiwan Top Ten was food (anyone surprised?), so it deserves a post of its own. By far our favorite foods in Taiwan came from the famous night markets, which are as much of an activity as a place to get a meal. The night markets are filled with colorful stalls selling foods, but also souvenirs, carnival games, trendy clothing shops, and superb people (and dog) watching. We tasted until we were totally stuff, and there were still interesting and delicious-looking foods that we missed out on.
Carnival games at the Shilin night market in Taipei
These were our favorites.
Anything with stinky in its name is usually a big turn-off, and the smell of the stinky tofu is admittedly a bit pungent, but the taste is weirdly delicious. The stinky tofu is fermented, and can be prepared in lots of ways, but the most popular we saw at the night markets was deep-fried on sticks or fried in cubes with picked cabbage and other vegetables on top. It’s a bit salty, a bit sour—if you like pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, or vinegar you’ll probably love it as much as we did.
BBQ tofu sticks
Tofu in general is an ingredient of choice at the night markets, and we also enjoyed some tofu “fries” with cheese sauce, of the non-stinky variety. As long as you don’t question the sauces and methods of preparation too carefully, Taiwan seems like a good places for vegetarians to snack.
Tofu fries, covered in cheese sauce (of course)
We also loved some of the fried foods of a non-vegetarian variety, and chowed down on some of the famous giant pieces of fried chicken, nicknamed “Devil chicken” at the stall we visited. Just a deep-fried chicken breast with a spicy coating, served for on the go nibbling.
Our other favorite fried chicken were these little nuggets, deep-fried and glazed like kung pao chicken from a Chinese restaurant in the US. There were 5 different glazes to choose from, and they were topped with peanuts and served with a toothpick to eat while walking.
Perhaps the most unique of the Taiwanese night market foods, coffin bread is something I had literally never heard of before visiting. And it couldn’t be more simple or more ingeniously delicious. It’s like a budget version of a savory meat pie, or a sandwich version of soup in a bread bowl.
Queuing up for coffin bread
To make coffin toast, basically an extra thick slice of bread is buttered and deep-fried, and then scissors are used to cut a little flap in the bread. You pick your filling (from vegetable chowder, to crab chili, to satay beef) and it gets ladled into the bread and the flap is closed. Then you just eat your fried, oozy piece of bread like a sandwich…and then order another. The coffin bread place we frequented was at the Zhiqiang night market in Hualien and seemed to be quite famous because it had a long line of customers all night long and was doing a booming assembly line style business of churning out coffin breads.
And the name? So called because the bread is like a coffin, closing its lid over the filling. And we definitely laid a couple of these toasts to rest in our stomachs…
After all the savory snacks at the night markets, shaved ice is a classic Taiwanese dessert to finish. Ice cream and sorbet is frozen into giant blocks, and once you pick your flavors, it’s literally shaved off into your cup. Some places have pre-sliced slabs and put them into a food processor type machine that dices them up into flakes. There’s usually an endless array of syrups and jellies and fruits as toppings, or it’s delicious just plain, as seen below.
Shaved ice in blocks, pre-shaving
Steamed buns and dumplings
Steamed buns, aka bao, were one of our go-to breakfasts or anytime snacks in Taiwan (and also during our mainland China trip). These fluffy buns are found at dumpling shops, dim sum shops, bakeries, and just steaming on the side of the road all over the place. The inside is usually filled with sweet pork, and they’re delicious with or without soy sauce. I’m salivating just writing about them right now…
We also enjoyed chowing down on some of the cheap dumplings found at similar shops, with either pork or vegetarian fillings, and just the right concoction of soy sauce, chili, and vinegar for dipping.
Hall of shame
Of course, some mishaps are inevitable when traveling in Taiwan without speaking or reading Chinese. Although we generally found a greater amount of English spoken in our day to day interactions (in Taipei and Hualien) than when traveling around mainland China, there were still plenty of situations where we had to rely on the gesture and smile form of communication.
We had a free trial of an app called WayGo (worth investing in the paid version for a longer trip in Taiwan or China), with which you can literally use your phone camera to scan Chinese text and offer a translation. Considering the difficulty of translating without any context, the app actually does a pretty good job, and we used it at a few places where there was no English menu or English spoken.
But unfortunately, the app did not differentiate between different types of eggs, which is how we ended up with tofu covered in this black, gelatinous substance, and topped with flossy pork (tofu with egg sounded like such a harmless order).
Century egg all over a slab of tofu, topped with ‘flossy pork,’ on the right
The black is the yolk of a Century Egg—a Chinese delicacy, which is an egg that has been preserved in a mud/rice/ash/salt mixture for weeks to months. The egg turns black, tastes pungent and smells somewhat of ammonia. Although acquainted with Century Eggs from elsewhere in Asia, I have not learned to like them, so was disappointed to find one oozing all over our tofu.
Have a glance at these foods and more in my quick Taiwan food video:
For more on traveling in Taiwan, check out my post on our Top Ten Taiwan favorites.