TAIPEI, Aug 16 — For many of us, our idea of Taiwanese food is often influenced by successful Taiwanese F&B chains. You’d be forgiven if you thought the island nation’s cuisine is limited to xiao long bao (soup dumplings) from Din Tai Fung, zha ji pa (giant-sized deep-fried chicken) from Hot Star Fried Chicken, or zhen zhu naicha (bubble tea) from any number of bubble tea franchises.
The truth is the Taiwanese are crazy about food. There’s no better place to sample what a local eats than in the mom-and-pop diners or bustling street markets. Here are five must-try Taiwanese treats:
1. Youtiao and doujiang
The Taiwanese prefer starting their day with a nourishing meal of contrasts: crispy, deep-fried youtiao (Chinese crullers) and silky smooth doujiang (soy milk). The breakfast of champions this is.
Join the line of early risers contemplating what else they’ll have: aromatic and flaky sesame flat bread, shao bing (a cruller wrapped in the aforementioned sesame flat bread), radish cake or savoury soy milk.
That’s right; they even have savoury soy milk, a hot concoction topped with dried shrimps, chunks of you tiao, scallions and pickled vegetables. Add a drizzle of soy sauce and chilli oil and you’re ready to dig in.
While you wait, watch the cooks shape the you tiao dough with well-floured hands — twisting and swirling them in the air, cutting the dough into thin strips before dropping them into hot oil. The result? Stacks of golden crullers, perfect for dipping into your frothy doujiang.
If soy milk and crullers aren’t your idea of breakfast, head to a danbing shop instead. This is the Taiwanese version of a morning diner where, instead of waffles or toast, they serve freshly made danbing, a rolled egg crêpe. Imagine an egg-y burrito.
It’s the perfect breakfast for the salarymen crowd and students rushing to school. You’d often see customers just shouting their orders while waiting on their bicycles or scooters. The danbing vendors are experts at cooking these Taiwanese crêpes to order and with no second to waste.
There are different versions of danbing: popular options come filled with crispy bacon, sticky glutinous rice or meat floss. Some vendors even add corn or cheese. What’s indispensable are the sauces doused over the cut slices of rolled crêpe: a sweet fermented bean paste and chilli sauce are the usual pairing.
3. Oyster vermicelli
When the weather gets cold, or worse, wet with torrential rains, there’s no better pick-me-up than a steaming bowl of oyster vermicelli. There are many shops selling oyster vermicelli (the most famous being Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodles) but the trick is to be brave.
Yes, courage to go all out when it comes to the toppings. A decent bowl of oyster vermicelli is already quite substantial: thin rice noodles and oysters are immersed in an unctuous broth made from salt-cured pig’s intestines, shredded bamboo shoots and bonito flakes.
But that’s only the base, you see. Courage and creativity come in the form of adding more chopped intestines for additional bite, sprinkling fresh cilantro generously and then drizzling the sauces — a trinity of spicy chilli oil, pureed garlic and vinegar that brooks no argument.
Slurp it down while it’s hot, and enjoy its savoury-sour-spicy flavours. It will clear your sinuses if nothing else.
4. Pepper buns
The Chinese are famous for their buns, that is, those pillowy steamed buns known as baozi. And Taiwan has more than her fair share of buns. None is more addictive than the hu jiao bing or pepper buns.
Thus named because these crusty buns are infused with black pepper, they are more flaky than pillowy as no steaming is employed here. Instead, the pepper buns are stuck on the sides of a clay oven and baked till they are a golden brown.
Fret not if you’re hungry, the buns are more substantial than mere spice: inside every chewy core is a filling of tender and juicy pork marinated in aromatic black pepper, with nuggets of scallions adding some token greens to your diet. Outside, each crispy shell is studded with sesame seeds. One is never enough.
5. Oyster Omelette
Perhaps being surrounded by water has given the Taiwanese an enduring love of seafood and shellfish; they certainly love their oysters. Ask any Taiwanese and their favourite night-time snack may well be the oyster omelette (oh-a-chian).
Taiwanese oyster omelette is different from our Malaysian version; theirs come smothered in a savoury gravy. Some vendors opt for a sweet-and-sour sauce instead. (Malaysians prefer dipping pieces of their oyster omelette or oh-cheen in a spicy chilli sauce instead.)
A street market staple, the Taiwanese oyster omelette is made from small oysters mixed in an egg and potato starch batter and fried in pork lard. Some vendors even add green vegetables. The resultant dish — chewy, savoury, fragrant from the pork lard — will taste familiar yet strange, not quite our style of oyster omelette but something equally good. The taste of how the locals eat, and isn’t that the point of travel — to experience what locals experience?