Taiwan’s government is working hard to promote the culinary reputation of the island. Agencies like the Taiwan External Trade Development Council put on huge food and beverage expos a few times a year. For example, Taipei’s 23rd International Food Expo will take place in June 2013 and draw crowds from nearly every country in Asia, many in the West, and any country looking to increase its business presence in Asia.
Private enterprise has also joined the effort. It’s a growing trend to take foodie tours through local agencies specializing in culinary tourism, like Topology Travel, or to organize independent trips focusing on the food, tea, and alcoholic beverages native to Taiwan.
If you’re on your own, here are some recommendations:
Weirdest restaurant in Taipei: Modern Toilet
Modern Toilet is one of the strangest restaurant experiences you’ll ever have. Anywhere. The décor, plate ware, silverware, cups, seats, and tables are all made to look like elements of a bathroom.
Visitors drink honey-rose tea out of cups shaped like a hospital bedpan, eat dark curry out of a pot shaped like a mini toilet bowl, and sit atop a chair that is, well…literally a toilet.
Modern Toilet will make you rethink the relationship between food and your body, and give you new perspective on the full eating experience. Favorite dishes for people visiting Taipei include the aforementioned dark curry and poo-shaped chocolate ice cream.
High Society Steakhouse: Prime 168 (Victoria Hotel)
Although not somewhere to eat on a regular basis, Prime 168 Steakhouse is great for a special occasion.
About a 20-minute cab ride outside of Taipei City in the Neihu district of Northern Taiwan, the ride is well worth it. Prime 168 has a wine selection that puts many Western-style restaurants in Taipei to shame, and serves both premium USDA-certified cuts and premium Australian Wagyu beef. Ordering steak as anything other than rare or medium-rare is considered sacrilegious.
Reservations are recommended as Prime 168 often books out weeks in advance.
Burgers: Kiwi Gourmet Burgers (KGB)
KGB was started by two Kiwis who missed their favorite food from home, and has ridden Taipei’s burger-craze to become a staple for both locals and expats. Funky art lines the walls, hip music and quiet lighting create a great atmosphere. KGB is located near Shida’s Mandarin training center, one of the most popular in Taipei.
Favorite dishes to try include the mango jalapeno burger, feta tzatziki avocado burger, and grilled chicken salad. They also have fresh fruit smoothies with real yoghurt made in-house, and a killer Western-style milkshake. KGB is one of the only places in Taiwan you can find Monteith’s New Zealand beer and Savanna South African cider.
Stinky tofu: Shenkeng Laojie
Stinky tofu can be one of the most challenging foods in Taiwan for visitors to adapt to. Commonly seen deep-fried in night markets, and smelled from blocks away, stinky tofu smells a little like you’re walking through streets with open sewers. Although this can be a little alarming at first, in my opinion it’s a truly beautiful thing to taste.
Shenkeng Township, known as the “Tofu Capital of Taiwan,” is the place to get stinky tofu. It’s located at the base of a mountain range with abundant natural spring water, and street vendors will proudly tell you their water is the best in the world for making tofu.
Half of the fun in visiting Shenkeng is walking in and out of the many excellent stalls and restaurants serving stinky tofu. Reservations are not required, and setting aside half a day on your itinerary for this is highly recommended. To get to Shenkeng, take the MRT to Xindian and catch a connecting bus from there.
Local delicacy: Flash-fried chicken ass at Wulai Laojie
I was first fortunate enough to try fried chicken buttocks on a trip to Tainan, one of the southernmost cities in Taiwan. I was walking through a night market with a group of friends who were encouraging me to try all sorts of unusual foods when suddenly, as if the clouds parted from on high and sun fell upon a vendor’s stall, I found fried chicken ass.
The dish is tender, succulent, and delicious. Wulai, a region in northern Taiwan most famous for its hot springs and aboriginal millet wine, has the best fried chicken ass around. The scrumptious fried rump is served skewered on a stick, and looks almost like a little pheasant, quail, or tiny dehydrated turkey in the hand. If you’re lucky, your chicken butt will be bone free, though unfortunate snackers have been known to crunch into a coccyx on occasion.
Fried chicken ass is served at multiple points along the main drag in Wulai. While you’re there, pick up a bottle of Hakka millet wine (ask for the strong stuff), chow down on some wild mountain boar, and check out the Wulai waterfall.
To get to Wulai, take the MRT to Xindian (Green Line) and hop on one of the buses marked for Wulai. The bus trip will take around 40 minutes, but is totally worth it.
Cool fusion: Cha for Tea
Taiwan’s tea culture and tea history are rich, and the island makes some of the best teas in the world. Cha for Tea is a restaurant chain with multiple locations in northern Taiwan, and is unusual in that its entire menu is based on tea.
Cha for Tea combines traditional Taiwanese foods and infuses them with a variety of interesting teas. Favorite dishes include tea oil noodles and the green tea sweet & sour chicken. Plenty of good vegetarian options.
Coffee: George House Coffee
Finding good coffee in Taiwan can be a challenge. Because tea has been the beverage of choice on the island for so long, the explosion of Western-style coffeehouses like Starbucks or Dante’s Coffee has been a relatively recent development. The best coffee in Taipei (while a little expensive) comes from raw coffee bean importer George House Coffee.
Because George House’s primary business is the import of raw coffee beans, they have the infrastructure and facilities necessary to store their beans properly. As such, they have an amazing selection of super fresh coffees from all over the world. One serving of coffee comes in two separate cups: a glass smelling cup to better smell the change in a coffee’s aroma as it cools down after brewing, and a fine porcelain cup for tasting.
Beef noodle soup: Yongkang Niuroumian Guan
One of Taiwan’s most famous dishes is beef noodle soup, or niuroumian. It may not be the high delicacy that some on the island seem to think it is, but a bowl of the stuff is great to eat in the cold, in the rain, and especially during a typhoon.
One of the best beef noodle soup houses in Taipei is located a short walk down Yongkang Street from George House Coffee. Yongkang Niuroumian Guan is consistently packed every day of the week for lunch and dinner. They prepare their beef noodles in a special hong shao sauce different from the typical beef noodle soup you find on street corners in Taipei. The place is a bit of a hole-in-the-wall, but the soup is delicious, there is little to no msg used (a rarity), and the portions are humongous.
Bubble tea: Chunshui Tang
Bubble tea, along with stinky tofu and beef noodle soup, is one of Taiwan’s most famous culinary items. Chunshui Tang is the establishment with the claim to fame of having invented bubble tea. The veracity of this may be lost to a combination of history and clever marketing, but Chunshui Tang does serve up a mean cup of zhenzhu naicha.
There are many locations throughout Taiwan, with the best known underneath the staircase of the National Symphony Theater adjacent to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. Visiting tourists will often stop here to rest their legs after taking pictures. Chunshui Tang serves its bubble tea in massive stein-style mugs either hot or cold, one mug often being too large for a single person to finish.
I would love, love, love to hear your take. I am constantly on the lookout for great foodie spots in Taiwan. If I’ve left out one you feel is important to include here, please let me know (and share a link) in the comments below so I can try to review it in the future!