What you need to know
Taiwan is a melting pot of food cultures, whose unique cuisine comes from a long history of colonization.
By Lina Chen
Taiwan has received increasing acclaim for its kind hospitality, breathtaking nature, world-renowned architecture and delicious food. But many are unaware of Taiwan’s prosperity and culinary individuality. It’s not uncommon for people to inaccurately classify Taiwanese cuisine as simply “a fusion of different regional Chinese flavors” as misrepresented in the article, "Regional Cuisines of China." But keen observers will quickly notice that there is far more to Taiwanese cuisine. Through generations of colonization and from immigration of people from all around the world, Taiwan is a melting pot of food cultures, whose cuisine now stands among the best in the world.
Throughout the years, Taiwan has been shaped by both Asian and Western influences from the various people that have lived there, and the result is the birth and development of creative fusion Taiwanese cuisine.
Indigenous people are believed to have inhabited Taiwan for thousands of years before other settlers arrived. Lonely Planet writes that there is "human settlement in Taiwan dating as far back as 30,000-40,000 years ago." Indigenous people have a tremendous impact on Taiwanese cuisine through unique food preparations and cooking in bamboo tubes, such as bamboo rice (竹筒飯), which is a popular dish in traditional wedding cuisines in Southern Taiwan to this day.
By the early 16th century, in addition to the indigenous people, there were the Hakka and Fujianese, who fled from China in fear of the political volatility. Since the Portuguese's arrival in 1544, Taiwan has been further impacted by not only one Western group but the Dutch and the Spanish cultures as well, which all had lasting influences on Taiwanese culture. An example of a fusion dish created as a result of cultural diversity is the popular Portuguese egg tarts.
During the five decades from 1894 to 1945, Japan modernized Taiwan's infrastructure and improved its agriculture. The Taipei Times featured an article on coffee indicating that Java coffee plants were brought to Taiwan in 1901. Now, you can find a strong culture in both coffee and tea in Taiwan, which has evolved to the innovative creation of sea salt cream coffees and teas served around the world, such as the popular Taiwanese chain, 85C Bakery Cafe. Under Japanese colonization, many Taiwanese learned the Japanese language as well as Japanese style cooking. Even now, bento lunch boxes, rice balls (飯糰), sashimi, and miso soups are crowd-pleasing dishes in Taiwan, served with a special Taiwanese twist.
After Japan was defeated in WWII, the United States gave temporary administrative control of Taiwan to the Nationalist Kuomintang party (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) due to his stance against Communism. A few years later, forced to retreat from China after losing to the Communist Party, Chiang, along with an estimated two million Chinese, fled to Taiwan at the end of the civil war in China to use Taiwan as their military base and as a result, plundered Taiwan's resources and caused turmoil, such as the 228 Massacre and subsequent White Terror. The introduction of the now popular beef noodle soup is reported to have come from this period, as many Taiwanese previously did not eat beef. They had a traditional belief that stemmed from the Taiwanese agricultural roots, which revered the cows for their importance in farming; thus, beef should not be consumed.
With a tropical climate, mild winters and various altitudes, the natural environment enables Taiwan to have fertile land to produce a wide range of fruits, such as wax apples (蓮霧), star fruits, and sugar apples, also known as Buddha’s head. In addition to having the aboriginal, East Asian, and Western influences in its culinary background, Taiwan has inspirations from South Asian flavors and uses fresh fruits to add sweetness in Taiwanese dishes.
Born from a combination of Asian and Western heritage, Taiwanese cuisine blossomed. Taiwanese have found creative ways to make simple dishes unique or utilize special cooking methods. For example, take the original Japanese red bean wheel cakes (車輪餅); in Taiwan, you can find the round cakes in a variety of savory and sweet flavors, such as dried radish, taro, cabbage, and even boba pearls. Good luck finding the same options in Japan!
Being surrounded by water, Taiwan also has a strong focus on fresh seafood, from oyster omelets to fresh succulent squids. Most Taiwanese dishes are served piping hot, rarely is a dish supposed to be room temperature, unlike some Japanese fare. One exception is when the food is braised (滷味), which is a technique that marinates and cooks the food in a sweet soy-based sauce and spices. Even though braised food can be eaten cold, many vendors such as the famous Lantern Braised Taste (燈籠滷味) will heat up the cooked food in a marinating broth and add more of the special sauce so patrons can enjoy it hot.
In addition to having good taste, the Taiwanese are also particular about the texture of the food. Taiwanese love to talk about the chewiness of food, and this texture is one that foreigners find mystifying. The chewy texture is what the locals refer to as Q and the more Q something is, the better. Usually, Q is used to describe chewy items like mochi or rice cakes, boba pearl balls, al dente noodles, and other glutinous dishes, such as the outer layer of the ba wan Taiwanese meatball. To achieve the successful Q means to perfectly create the natural bounce of food, and it is a prized accomplishment and a great compliment to the chef.
With a focus on taste and texture, along with culinary roots from various cultures, Taiwan has developed its own original cuisine through unique creativity and constant innovation. Taiwanese cuisine and Taiwan are famous on their own. If you browse on Yelp, a popular restaurant review guide, you will discover many Taiwanese restaurants serving a variety of Taiwanese small eats, homemade dishes, banquet fare, desserts, drinks and fusion style dishes.
Many international publications such as CNN and the Travel Channel have dedicated articles and shows on Taiwanese eats. Many Asian dishes share similarities, such as rice, yet you don't see them all categorized under one. Taiwan has a unique background that cultivated its creative cuisine that many enjoy around the world today. In recent years, Taiwan has been a rising star in the culinary world with renowned magazines ranking Taiwan in the list of top food destinations.
Conde Nast Traveller magazine praises Taiwan as the "foodie destination of 2015" and National Geographic exalts Taiwan for being "one of the world’s culinary capitals" and honors Taiwan in its list of "Best Trips 2015," agreeing with Taiwan's "reputation as a food paradise." Furthermore, The Lonely Planet has dubbed Taiwan as the "foodie wonderland," and CNN Travel said that food is "all excellent in Taiwan." At the forefront of the culinary world, Taiwan is highly regarded on the international stage as one of the top culinary destinations in the world.
This article was originally published on Taiwaneseculture.org as "Exploring Taiwanese Cuisine."
Editor: Olivia Yang