Classic Breakfast Treats, Rice-Based Foods, Beef Noodles, Night-Market Treasures
TEXT / RICK CHARETTE
PHOTOS / VISION
What follows is a tasty romp and chomp through four stations of the vast, seemingly limitless Taiwan kitchen: traditional breakfast choices, rice-based hot snacks, beef noodles, and night-market icons. As Taiwan has gained its now-global reputation as a “foodie paradise,” more and more international culture-trekkers are arriving on its shores intent on exploring this land’s places and zesty cultural mosaic via their palates.
It’s very special geographical position has made Taiwan a crossroads of humanity, and given it a wondrously distinctive history. A sub-story in this delicious and still-unfolding tale is its flourishing as a unique culinary crossroads as well. This has led, among many recognitions, to a dedicated Michelin Guide edition, an Asia rarity – first Taipei alone, now with Taichung included. Another recognition is that a large component of the international travelers who choose Taiwan list its culinary fertility as a key draw, with its boisterous night markets the key seductive siren call.
Over the past century, newly defining ingredients have been added to the savory (and sweet too!) Taiwan culinary pot, building on its age-old indigenous foodways and centuries-old Taiwanese creativity. Japanese traditions during the 1895~1945 colonial period; all of China’s regional-cuisine knowledge, brought by master chefs and humbler folk with the late-1940s Nationalist exodus to Taiwan; Southeast Asia traditions introduced at inexpensive eateries by an immigrant influx over the past few decades; top-level talent from further-flung lands, including Michelin-starred European chefs, recognizing Taipei’s emergence as a global gastronomic capital and setting up high-quality restaurants; and young, modern-minded homegrown talent with a searching, unquenchable passion for fusion artistry.
Today our travels are on the humble side of the kitchen, not to the lavish banquet-dining chef stations you’ve no doubt heard about – “regular-folk” breakfast foods, rice-based fare, beef noodles, and night-market favorites.
In cities and towns throughout Taiwan, simple traditional hole-in-the-wall breakfast shops and sandwich shops are ubiquitous. You’ll find that Taiwan’s streets, urban parks, etc. start getting busy verrrry early – and so do these iconic, beloved sustenance-supplying neighborhood joints, steady streams of regulars stopping by.
Doujiang is soybean milk, served either savory or sweetened, taken cold in summer, warmed in winter. Shaobing are charcoal oven-baked, unleavened, layered flatbreads. Youtiao, “Chinese crullers,” are deep-fried dough sticks. These three are eaten separately (shaobing alone can also feature savory/sweet fillings), but savory doujiang with youtiao (youtiao chunks and other savory enhancers in warm doujiang soup) is also breakfast-quintessential, as is shaobing youtiao (cruller strips inside sliced-open shaobing with fried egg and scallion frequently involved). Elsewhere, danbing is a crepe-style flour pancake with a thin layer of egg inside.
The Taiwan-style sandwich is unlike others. Between two white-bread slices, squared with crust cut off, come a fried egg, tomato slices, baby-cucumber slivers, your choice of pork floss, ham, tuna, etc., and ketchup.
Fuhang Doujiang (阜杭豆漿)
Add: 2F, Huashan Market; Sec. 1, Zhongxiao E. Rd., Zhongzheng District, Taipei City
Tel: (02) 2392-2175
Qingdao Doujiang (青島豆漿店)
Add: 139-3, Sec. 1, Hangzhou S. Rd., Zhongzheng District, Taipei City
Tel: (02) 2393-4958
As a general culinary rule, wheat-based foods such as youtiao, shaobing, and danbing are from China’s drier north, rice-based creations from the warmer, wetter south. Thus, most rice-based traditional foods date back to Chinese imperial times and the southern regions from which Taiwan’s original Han Chinese settlers came.
Rouzong/zongzi, or “glutinous-rice dumplings/tamales,” is glutinous rice with various tasties (generally pork chunk, peanut, shiitake mushroom, salted duck egg yolk, etc.), wrapped in large flavor-lending leaves and steamed/boiled.
There are also sweet versions. Lurou fan, often translated as “braised meat rice,” is minced pork braised in a stock of soy sauce and various aromatics, then dolloped atop a bowl of steaming-hot rice.
Uánn-kué (Taiwanese spelling) or “rice bowl cakes,” comprise a small plain-tasting rice-paste “cake” served with a savory mixture of things delicious like minced pork, shiitake mushroom, salted duck egg yolk, and sweet/savory gravy.
Jirou fan, “chicken rice,” also often stars turkey; deceptively simple, it’s richly textured, featuring shredded chicken/turkey with fried almost-caramelized shallot on steaming rice.
Liang Ji Chiayi Chicken Rice (梁記嘉義雞肉飯)
Add: No. 19, Lane 90, Songjiang Rd., Zhongshan District, Taipei City
Tel: (02) 2563-4671
Ma Dou Zhu Rice Bowl Cake (麻豆助碗粿)
Add: No. 704, Sec. 1, Ximen Rd., Central West District, Tainan City
Tel: (06) 215-7079
Yuan Huan Ding Vegetable Zong (圓環頂菜粽)
Add: No. 40, Sec. 1, Fuqian Rd., Central West District, Tainan City
Tel: (06) 222-0752
Proof of Taiwan’s modern-day love affair with niurou mian, “beef noodles” (in fact, beef noodle soup), an ancient-pedigree dish with variations throughout China, is the hugely popular annual Taipei International Beef Noodle Festival. Taiwan ate little beef until the latter 20th century, because its almost-revered bovine denizens were priceless farm-field laborers.
Beef noodles come in two primary categories: clear broth (commonly with salt/herb flavorings) and spicy soy sauce-based broth. It’s said the spicy granddaddy progenitor of Taiwan’s distinctive variety, today the definition of “beef noodles” abroad, was created in the late 1940s by Nationalist military personnel originally from hot-and-spicy-loving Sichuan. Essential ingredients are soy-braised (“red-braised”) beef slices, spicy bean paste, scallion, ginger, star anise, rock sugar, rice wine, bok choy, cilantro… and of course chewy fresh-made noodles. There are several Taiwan red-braised beef noodles variations, such as herbal medicine, garlic and, especially, tomato. The last features soft tomato chunks in a rich red-colored tomato broth.
Shi Ji Authentic Beef Noodles (史記正宗牛肉麵)
Add: No. 60, Sec. 2, Minsheng E. Rd., Zhongshan District, Taipei City
Tel: (02) 2563-3836
Pin Chuan Lan (品川蘭)
Add: No. 78-2, Sec. 2, Zhongshan N. Rd., Zhongshan District, Taipei City
Tel: (02) 2523-3890
Add: B1, No. 39, Sec. 1, Fuxing S. Rd., Da’an District, Taipei City
Tel: (02) 8772-2069
NIGHT MARKET FOODS
International travelers consistently list night markets among the top five reasons for deciding to visit Taiwan. Unlike Singapore’s hawker centers, Taiwan night markets are not in purpose-built facilities – an exception is the purpose-built hub at Taipei’s Shilin Tourist Night Market. Instead, hawkers take over designated open spaces or blocked-off streets in the evenings, creating a crowded festive country fair-like atmosphere.
If you ain’t done “stinky tofu,” well, you ain’t done Taiwan. Stinky tofu – chou doufu – has been fondly dubbed “Chinese (blue) cheese.” Fermented beancurd squares are taken cold, stewed, steamed or, most commonly, deep-fried, and accompanied with chili or soy sauce. “Manna!” say half, “Disgusting!” say the other half, you decide.
Luwei, literally “braised flavors,” are foods braised in a master stock of soy sauce, spices, and other savory items. You fill a small basket with desired meats, veggies, and other local ingredients; these are then stock-boiled, chopped, and plated.
“Little sausage in big sausage” – dachang bao xiaochang – is a pork sausage sandwiched in a glutinous-rice sausage, usually chargrilled and with such condiments as pickled bokchoy/cucumber, garlic, hot peppers, wasabi, and thick soy sauce.
Xiansu ji, literally “salty crispy chicken,” is commonly translated as “salt and pepper popcorn chicken.” Small chicken pieces, generally thigh, are first marinated in a special mixture (soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and five-spice powder, the last an East Asia icon), then dipped in potato or sweet potato starch and deep-fried to crispy nugget-sized perfection.
Shengjian bao are pan-fried pork-filled steamed wheat-flour buns. The buns, about golf ball-sized, are crisp on the outside, with a golden base, and soft-textured inside; the brothy-juicy filling has minced pork, spring onion, and various seasonings.
The wheat-based runbing, often translated as “popiah” in English, is a type of non-fried spring roll; standard ingredients include pork slivers, bean sprout, Chinese cabbage, egg slivers, and sweetened peanut powder.