Taiwan is a vastly underrated place. It’s tiny compared to mainland China; more often than not, the island is embroiled in political conflicts that overshadow its rich culture, geography, and traditions. The greatest collection of Chinese artifacts in the world is in Taipei, not China, preserved from the Communist army in the 1940s. You can drive an hour out from the capital of Taipei and be whisked into a fog-strewn, mountainside town of windy streets and ancient tea houses in Jiufen, or soak in the bustling city from a vantage point in the Taipei 101, a marvel of engineering and architecture as one of the tallest buildings in the world. A trip south of Taichung, Taiwan’s central city, will take you to the sprawling vistas of Sun Moon Lake; even further south are the beaches of Kenting, inviting you to scuba-diving excursions.
But the best part of my annual trips home isn’t in the gorgeous scenery or treasured history; rather, it’s the food. We take pride in our eclectic night-market offerings, made for convenience, a gourmet flair for low prices, and specialized delicacies, as well as the culture surrounding tea and traditional desserts.
One hallmark of Taiwanese food, especially, is its texture, fondly referred to as “QQ”—in Western cultures, its closest equivalent would be “chewy” or maybe “bouncy.” Look no further than pearl milk tea, where bouncy, sweet tapioca pearls sit in creamy, strong milk tea as the perfect afternoon snack. Originating in Taiwan, bubble milk tea’s creator has long been disputed. There are two tea houses in particular which both claim to have created the drink: Chun Shui Tang and Hanlin Tea Room. (Having been to both, I profess to liking Chun Shui Tang much more, and thus my vote goes to them). Competitive boba houses—why not? Walk down a street in Taiwan and you might find more than 10 separate bubble tea stores within a minute (this isn’t an exaggeration, I counted).
Other classic desserts include tofu pudding (silky tofu in a sweet soup, often flavored with a hint of ginger, surrounded by toppings like red bean, tapioca, and taro), grass jelly (an aromatic dessert served hot or cold, said to have medicinal properties), and pineapple cakes (crumbly pastries surrounding fresh pineapple jam). Our tropical fruits are transformed into delicate shaved ice—millions of layers of thin frost infused with tangy syrups and topped with fresh fruit and condensed milk—or into massive smoothies. These sweets can be found in informal, chaotic night markets, or in upscale restaurants and speciality stores. One characteristic of all sweets, though, is that they are never “too sweet,” to quote my mother—Taiwanese desserts tend to tone down the sugar content to let light, herbal, natural flavors shine, rather than heavy processed sugar.
But Taiwanese cuisine doesn’t stop with its delicious desserts. Savory delicacies like scallion pancakes and fried dough strips are the staples of every breakfast stall. One highlight visiting Taiwan is stopping by street stands at the crack of dawn to order fresh, piping-hot dough topped with green onion and other savory snacks. We’ve even made “burrito” pancakes before, with the thick scallion pancakes wrapping around egg and corn (I’m pretty sure burrito scallion pancakes were invented by the Cheng family, to be honest). The most famous Taiwanese restaurant in the world, Din Tai Fung, specializes in Xiao Long Bao: pork-filled soup dumplings filled with a light broth. There’s a beef noodle soup joint on every block, with hand-pulled noodles, beef stocks that simmer for days, and vibrant, fresh vegetables arrayed in their mouth-watering glory. There’s nothing better than piping-hot beef noodle soup on cool winter nights. I could go on and on about the wonders of braised pork over rice, baked sweet potatoes in every Family Mart and 7/11, and boiling hot pots brimming with spicy broths and meat. (And that’s just scratching the surface; but I could spend an eternity describing every Taiwanese delicacy, so this overview will have to do.)
While Taiwanese food is plain—in fact, we pride ourselves on minimal flavors and spices—its simplicity lends itself to a comforting quality. Taiwanese cuisine is a hot soup on rainy days, hearty meats paired with rice, aromatic scallions folded in handmade dough and fried golden crisp to start a morning: it’s welcoming and familiar.
We aren’t a culture of fancy meal preparation, elaborate cooking processes, or intricate plating methods. We’re known for night markets and tiny, smoky food stalls that poke out of alleys and low awnings, for convenience-store packaged lunches and inexpensive snacks. But that’s what makes Taiwanese food—and by extension, our culture as a whole—special, and makes me look forward to every winter vacation back to that tiny island in the Pacific. As I breathe in the savory, spicy aroma that wafts over the narrow alleyways and crowded streets, I know, in every sense of the word, that I’m home.