When I arrived in Taiwan for the first time last week, my first impression was that it felt just like Japan.
Taipei station feels just like Tokyo station. Ximen is like Shinjuku/Shibuya. Even the cute, mountainous town on the outskirt of Taipei – Jiufen – reminds one of Kamakura, the cute, mountainous town on the outskirt of Tokyo. Just like in Japan, convenience stores are everywhere. Many eateries are family-owned and have been around for decades, and exemplify the spirit of Shokunin. Even though food and drinks are everywhere in the city, eating and drinking are prohibited in the subway, just like in Japan (thankfully, eating and walking at the same time is accepted; otherwise night markets would become nightmares). The “foreign languages” section of book stores have a huge section of English book and Japanese books, and all other languages are lumped into “Others”, indicating a strong interest in the Japanese language and culture – partly due to colonial legacy. All public facilities have Japanese signs, and Japanese tourists felt omnipresent wherever I went, especially in Jiufen, which was featured in Spirited Away.
I had an amazing gustatory experience in Taipei, but I wouldn’t call it life-changing. I think this is because I have been to Japan many times, and it is simply hard to top Japan when it comes to food. Had I not been to Japan, I’m sure Taipei would have been life-changing. Below were the most memorable food items and destinations:
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that serious boba stores in Taiwan serve pure milk with boba and brown sugar – without tea. As soon as I saw that, I realized that Taiwanese boba and I are a match made in heaven, because I do not drink tea or any caffeine. I happily tried all the famed chains that have three-character names and promise to be the original inventor of their style of boba (老虎堂、幸福堂、珍煮丹….). My conclusion is that 老虎堂 was the best.
2. 卤肉饭 (Braised pork belly over rice)
Braised pork belly over rice is the quintessential Taiwanese dish. By the recommendation of a local friend, we went to A Ying (阿英), apparently the best 卤肉饭 restaurant in Taipei.
This is a tiny store with only around six tables, and everyone needs to share tables with everyone else. There is only one waiter, and he is clearly too busy running around to care about each customer’s happiness. But no matter, because it is impossible to not to be happy once you are served with a steaming bowl of rice mixed with generous portions of mince pork belly and soaked in sauce. Try the upgraded version of the rice which includes not just a fried egg at the bottom but also large slices of pork belly mixed with the rice (in addition to the diced pork belly).
Eateries like this gives me comfort – they are not conducive at all to socializing with friends; the only reason you go there is to get your stomach filled with damn good food, which is heavenly and down-to-earth at the same time.
+886 2 2368 9927
3. Beef noodles
I found Liu Shandong Beef Noodles through the Michelin Bib Gourmand guide for Taipei, which has a list of highly delicious but affordable eats around the city (many of the recommend spots are actually night market stalls).
Liu Shandong was unassuming store in the basement of a food court that totally looked like it was closed from the outside. The store was so hard to find that I almost gave up. But it made me feel like I was privy to the best kept secret in the world of Tawainese beef noodles.
Have you ever had a bowl of beef noodles and thought to yourself: I wish I was given more soup and less noodles! I have, many times. I get so frustrated when I realize I still have a mountain of noodles left in my bowl and no soup to slurp them with. Noodles without soup, to me, is equivalent to carbs without taste (and thus without a point).
Enter Liu Shandong Beef Noodles. You are served with an extremely generous quantity of soup that actually submerges all the noodles, with large, sumptuous pieces of beef soaked in it. This was a bowl of beef noodles that understood human nature.
+886 2 2311 3581
4. Melon Pan/Pineapple Bun
Pineapple Bun to East Asia is like croissants to France. It has a different name depending on who you ask (the Japanese call it Melon Pan and the Chinese called Pineapple Bun), but everyone recognizes the large yellow bun once they see it: a crispy top with crisscrossing grooves, a soft bottom, and usually a slice of butter inserted in the middle. The cute and tantalizing look, coupled with the buttery smell, is a simply irresistible combination.
When I was strolling at the Shida Night Market (师大夜市) I found myself attracted to this stall that was exuding the unmistakable smell of freshly baked bread. Once I realized that every single bun they sold was freshly baked (they had to fan the bread before putting butter in because it was too hot), I simply had to get one.
With most pineapple buns, my biggest frustration while eating them is that the butter is usually not spread across the bread, so some bites are without butter. With this bun, every single bite had butter in it. Because the bread was so hot and fresh, the butter melted immediately and became the heavenly combination of “buttery bread topped with butter”.
Another pineapple bun place that I wholeheartedly recommend is Bolo Pan Taipei. They also made a point to only served freshly baked buns made with top ingredients, and put in a generous amount of high-quality butter.
I was inspired so much that I bought a melon bun-shaped wallet in downtown later on.
+886 2 2368 8898
BOLO PAN TAIPEI
+886 2 2331 3120
5. Night markets
Of course, night markets are a must in Taiwan. I recommend avoiding the touristy ones like Shilin and head to the more homely ones like Shida and Raohe. Some of the best items I had include: pepper bun (胡椒饼), small sausage wrapped in big sausage (大肠包小肠), fried chicken cutlets, and taro balls in green bean soup (芋圆).
6. Japanese food
If you are craving Japanese food but cannot fly to Japan, your second-best option is to fly to Taipei. Many famous Japanese restaurants consider Taipei to be the first choice while opening international locations, given Taiwan’s cultural affinity with Japan.
If you’re into spicy ramen, you simply must head to Kikanbo (鬼金棒), a ramen chain from Tokyo which serves probably the spiciest ramen on earth. I described Kikanbo in my previous blog post about food in Japan. I was pleasantly surprised that they actually have 3 branches in Taipei (the only place outside Japan where you can have Kikanbo ramen).
Another great ramen destination is Ramen Nagi, which also has an extremely satisfying spicy ramen (though not nearly as spicy as the kind that you can find at Kikanbo).
If you are missing Sapporo (like me), you can head to Garaku for a bowl of spicy soup curry, or head to LeTao for the famous cheesecake from Otaru.
Ramen Nagi Ximen Restaurant
+886 2 2370 2000
+886 2 8780 5111
LeTAO Eslite Songyan Store
+886 2 2760 2100
7. Ice related destinations
Snow King Ice Cream (雪王冰淇淋): Ice cream destination that serves 73 flavors, including pig knuckle, pork floss, and sesame oil chicken. They must be doing something right, as the store has been around for more than 70 years
Carambola ice: Chengdu Carambola Ice in Ximen has been around for more than 50 years. Apparently many locals grew up eating it. What is carambola, you ask? You will have to find out for yourself!
Shaved ice: These are everywhere in Taipei; I only had time to go to one (小时候冰果室) and tried the matcha & milk flavor. The best part is where the matcha and milk flavors blended.
Snow King Ice Cream
+886 2 2331 8415
+886 2 2381 0309
+886 2 8771 9521