I have to admit that one of the things I like most about traveling is eating local dishes. It’s a good way to get a taste of the local culture. I’m not what you would call a foodie, as I consider myself more like a person who eats more than the others. Some friends say “a lot more”.
You can imagine that my trip to Taiwan was a great opportunity to try local chinese food, real chinese food, not the europeanised or americanised version that we get in restaurants anywhere outside Asia. What I wasn’t prepared to eat, and I didn’t, were various insects and tiny animals my European stomach was not made for. I’m into trying local dishes, but I’m well aware that I tend to eat things that look similar to what I normally would get back home, which are steaks, vegetables, soups, sweets and all kinds of alcohol.
Most people imagine, when traveling to Taiwan, China, Thailand and neighbour countries, they’re gonna starve because there’s nothing western tasting to eat. You would be very wrong, because most things you’ll find on a plate in Taiwan are made from meat, vegetables and seafood. What differentiates this food from western taste are the spices they use, and they use spices a lot, in a creative way.
And since you’re not used to the way most of the spices smell and taste, here’s where your aversion to some chinese dishes comes from. I was blessed with choice, as our accommodation included open buffet breakfast. I took a like bit of everything to see how it tasted. In the evening I usually participated at parties where buffets were the norm, so I had the luxury of tasting pretty much everything there was to taste without having to pay for it.
One thing you’ll notice is that taiwanese dishes have a lot of sugar. That’s opposite of what I’m used to in Europe, where you can find sweets that use less to no sugar at all. I vividly recall taking a huge bite from a grilled sausage that looked amazing, but tasted just like a candy bar filled with honey. What a waste of meat…
And the second thing: some dishes are served sizzling hot, so watch out.
What to do if you can’t eat chinese food?
If you’re too picky, or your stomach can’t handle chinese food, there are plenty of famous worldwide franchises in Taiwan, if you’re looking for a familiar taste. You’ll find McDonald’s and Burger King if you’re hunting for burgers, or KFC if chicken is your thing. I’m pretty sure you can live comfortably for a few weeks in Taiwan even if you’re not into asian food, but it would be a shame not to try to blend in with the locals.
I ate on two occasions at Burger King and KFC, if I recall correctly. The first time immediately upon arrival, since me and my buddy were really hungry, reason not to risk getting something we couldn’t eat; and the second time was after a week of local food, when my body was screaming for food that was known to my cells. So I did gave in a few times to the temptation of western tasting calories, but most of the time I tried to eat local. I can’t say that I found everything enjoyable, as some ingredients were awkward to chew, or had an ambiguous taste, but I never had any problems with digestion, so all-in-all it was a good experience, one that perfectly complemented my two trips to Taiwan.
Street food in Taipei
As with all asian cultures, street food is a huge thing. I was invited to the Night Market in Taipei and this thing is huge. They’re selling pretty much anything you can imagine, not just fast food, which is cooked before your eyes. Street food is probably the best way to experience Taiwan’s food culture on a budget.
Good to know about Taiwan’s culture
Taiwan, previously called Formosa, is an island near China, officially called Taiwan ROC, which stands for Republic of China. Taiwan is governed by China and they don’t like it that much. There are a lot of political tensions in the region, but you won’t see that on the streets.
Taiwanese people are welcoming and kind to each other and especially with strangers. I’ve never felt strange looks burning on my back and everyone was trying to help me when I needed directions, even if they didn’t quite understand what I was saying. Mostly I’m the one to blame for that.
Overall, there are huge influences from China in Taiwan, which extend to food, architecture and design. From what I gathered from our host there are significant differences when it comes to hospitality and the openness of Taiwanese people. It might be because they’re open towards the west in general, and american culture in particular, as everyone there has an american first name, a sort of stage name, which complements their birth name.
If you travel to meet new people, you have to visit Taiwan someday!