Wednesday, September 18, 2013

taiwanese: 21 Reasons to Love Taipei- Food Edition!

Where does the time go? I have lots I want to share about new places to drool over, but I can't seem to put it all together. It doesn't help with the days of grey, pouring rain alternated with the cooler fall weather that's too nice to stay indoors. I've finished reading Crazy Rich Asians months ago in LA and wrapped up my binge marathons of Orange Is the New Black, Newsroom and Homeland, so I'm forced to stop procrastinating and finish up my myriad of half finished blog posts.

I thought in honor of the shout out on Buzzfeed's 28 Reasons to Love Taipei last month, I'd make a list all about FOOD, since you know I'm obsessed with food. Thanks to Buzzfeed and Kevin Tang for highlighting Taipei and the many reasons to love it- the weird (yes, the city of themed restaurants, and no, I've yet to go to Modern Toilet or the Ninja restaurant or Barbie cafe) and the wonderful (clubbing, shopping, cafe-ing, karaoke singing, eating).

So for fun, here's my own list just for food- 21 Reasons to Love Taipei- Food Edition! If it's your first time checking out my blog, hope this list helps inspire your next trip to Taipei or if you live here already, to seek out something new.

21 Reasons to Love Taipei- Food Edition!

1. Mango shaved ice

Mango shaved ice was invented in Taipei in the 1990s and since then copied around the world. Tourists flock to Ice Monster for avalanches of juicy, sweet mango atop ice, even after its move from its original home on Yong Kang St. If you don't want to wait in line, also check out Mango Cha Cha, Smoothie House or your favorite night market for this summer must eat.

2. Taiwanese shaved ice and snowflake ice

I love the blanket of sticky condensed milk over crushed ice and freshly made rice balls and red bean (my favorite is at Tai Yi Milk King), but there's no shortage of toppings for Taiwanese shaved ice. One version that is becoming trendy in the US is snowflake ice or snow cream which has a fluffier, creamier, melt-in-your-mouth texture and is being served up with flavors and toppings similar to frozen yogurt- said to have originated from the night market vendor in Shilin. A must in Taipei's humidity and heat. 


3. Din Tai Fung

I've come to appreciate Din Tai Fung after taking friend after friend when they were in town to visit. It's consistently delicious, quick and efficient, and you just can't beat their paper thin skin on each juicy, hot dumpling. Of course there are many other great xiao long bao places in Taipei (such as hole in the wall Little Shanghai or trendier San Yuan), but classic Din Tai Fung is the one the tourists will wait in lines to go to.

4. Carb-ilicious and soy milk Taiwanese breakfasts

The perfect place to go for an early breakfast when you are getting over jetlag- with hot or cold soy milk, sweet or salty, and fried and baked dough combinations of you tiao, sao bing or fan tuan to fill you up for the rest of the day. Look for Yong He Dou Jiang signs around town, or the basket of fried "oil sticks" out front. The previously only-famous-with-locals spot, Fu Hang, had lines snaking around the stairs and out the front entrance on my last visit there (after I mentioned it to and it was included on its list of 40 Taiwanese Must Eats). Doh! I'm keeping all my favorites a secret from now on!

5. Ridiculously sweet fruits

Mango, guava, wax apples, pineapple- the fruits here are so sweet, you have to wonder if it's natural!

6. Ice cream wraps AKA bin chi ling run bing

This might change your life like it did mine. Essentially an ice cream burrito, there's ice cream, peanut brittle shavings and cilantro (which is optional but recommended) wrapped up in a crepe-thin flour wrapper. Salty, sweet and usually only NT$40 or a buck and some change. It's like a treasure hunt finding it- X marks the spot with the huge block of peanut brittle at the night market stands- I've had great ones at Ximending (in front of the movie theater) or Lehua or Longshan night market.


7. Night markets!

Taiwan night markets are late night adventures- eating, shopping, people watching, eating, bargaining, eating. Some of my best memories of my first Taiwan summer after 17 years away are from discovering hot 5NT shui jian baos and shaved ice at Shilin Night market for the first time. It's an culinary experience so unique that it's even being recreated in LA to overwhelming crowds (or so I hear). Try everything at least once, even things that look (or smell) indimidating- you might be surprised what your favorites are.


8. Chinese sausage in sticky rice buns AKA da chang bao xiao chang

One of my personal night market must eats- grilled sweet Taiwanese sausage stuffed in a grilled sticky rice sausage, cut in half to act as a bun, topped with some pickled or fresh veggies. Some vendors will also offer options for condiments, spicy sauces or different flavored sausages. The sticky rice gets a slight carmelized crispy skin from the being grilled and the veggies give it a nice crunch- put all together, it's SO good hot off the grill. You might even spot street vendors outside various clubs or KTVs late at night (kind of like the hot dog vendors at the Rose Bowl or Hollywood Bowl after concerst).

9. Fresh bread and bakeries EVERYWHERE

While cute doesn't always mean tasty, you can't help but to admire the adorable confections that sit next to the not-as-photogenic-but-delicious mentaiko breads, squid ink bread, garlic bread, cheese bread or pineapple buns. I don't know how all the locals stay so thin with the temptations of freshly baked bread on practically every street corner. Whether you pick bread from Taiwanese style, Japanese style or French style bakery, it's going to be fresh.

10. Baos and buns
Baos and buns for less than US$1. Yes please.

11. Spicy mala hotpot

While not for everyone, this red blood broth complete with tofu and cubes of silky, tofu-like blood inside is addictive. Hotpot in Taipei is a DIY affair with plates of raw meat to cook and fishcake to scoop out. Spicy mala hotpot so good that I even crave it during the summer. My favorite part is dipping the crispy you tiao dunk it in the spicy side just for a few seconds to soak up the broth and flavor, but taking it out and eating it before it gets soggy.

12. Gua bao
Pork belly, crushed peanuts, cilantro in a clam shell bun. Don't mess with the classic Taiwanese street snack.


13. Amazingly fresh and affordable sashimi

You wouldn't think that sashimi would be a must eat in Taipei, but some of the best sashimi experiences I've EVER had are in Taipei, and not at prices that would cost a week's worth of pay. I actually didn't learn to enjoy raw fish/sashimi until I was in my mid 20s and I think part of the reason is because there's so much more variety and freshness to the sashimi in Taiwan.

14. Dessert tofu AKA dou hua

Silky, sweet and topped with peanuts, minature tapioca balls or mung beans, a bowl of dou hua tofu is a refreshing Taiwanese dessert that can be eaten hot or icy cold. I love getting it from Xiao Nan Men, which also serves red bean soup and aiyu bing, a lemon jelly type dessert, all for under US$2.


15. Pan fried dumplings AKA guo tie

Nothing beats homemade potstickers fried up by my dad, but since he's in LA and I'm not, I've found some good substitutes until he visits. The perfect pan fried dumplings have a crispy crunchy base and right pork/veggie combination inside. The overpriced and bad gyozas in LA have made me appreciate how magical the chefs are here when frying up their potstickers. Check out the chain Ba Fang Yun Ji for ultra cheap and tasty guo tie (10 will set you back NT$50 or US$1.50), with options like curry or kimchi flavors besides the traditional pork/cabbage and pork/chives options. Even better are the ones from this hidden hole in the wall in Ximending.

16.  Beijing roast duck

Having visited Beijing recently and been disappointed at the portions and prices of Beijing Roast duck there, I have to say that this is a reason that I do love Taipei. Full platters of meat and crispy skin to share with a table full of friends or family- the ducks here are plump and the portions are generous.

17. Taipei Food courts

While you won't find Hot Dog on a Stick or Panda Express (haha!) at any of the food courts in Taipei, there's no shortage of things of places to choose from. A typical make up of a Taipei mall food courts will include Korean, Omelette rice, Ramen, Pho or Southeast Asian, American fast food (McD/Burger King or Subway), Italian (Taiwanese version of pasta), sizzling steak plates, sometimes Indian, teppanyaki, conveyor belt sushi, tonkatsu, dessert, tea shop and lots of Chinese/Taiwanese options which offer dishes cheaper and tastier than the average Chinese restaurant in the states. Check out the mega Breeze food court at Taipei Main Station which has a section of shops selling just beef noodle soups to choose from.

18.  Beef noodle soup AKA niu rou mian

Speaking of beef noodle soup, this is another reason to love Taipei. Hot, savory broth, tender pieces of beef and tendon, and a bowl full of chewy noodles- it's the dish that has its own annual Beef Noodle Festival. Whether you eat it at your fave neighborhood joint or one of the award winning places (many which I still have to try), 

19. Stinky tofu AKA chou do fu

Not going to be on everyone's list to love Taipei, but it's on mine. You can smell the it before you can see it, but the fermented tofu really does taste better than it smells (most of the time). Served hot with pickled, spicy cabbage and sometimes stuffed with garlic, it's a bite to remember. At the very least you'll have some good laughs over seeing tourist friends' reactions to the smell for the first time.

20. Bubble/boba tea shops

I love that you can get a cup of boba milk tea (aka zhen zhu nai cha) in Taipei for around US$1.50, half the usual price in the states. And Taipei shops offer up more than just tapioca milk tea- there's fruity drinks, jelly drinks, slushy drinks, and options like mini boba, pudding, passion fruit, grass jelly, green tea, as well as asking you to choose what level of sweetness and ice you want with each order. Chun Shui Tang, the inventor of bubble tea, has over 80 drinks on its menu and serves its drinks in huge jug-like glasses. I personally love the shops like Genki Q Nai (which recently was renamed) or the more well known Chen Shan Ding in Gongguan, use fresh milk and boba boiled in brown sugar so that each chewy ball has a carmelized sweet taste- try it once with less ice, no sugar, all milk.

21. Ah Chung rice noodle soup

Deceptively simple looking, this little bowl packs a lot of flavor with stewed silky rice noodles, a thick broth, intestines and cilantro- add your own mix of vinegar, chili or sesame oil. A bowl of noodles that's almost too hot to hold and you gotta eat it standing up in the middle of an alley in Ximending (unless you go to the sit down location near ZhongXiao Sogo). 

This list could go up to 100 reasons, but putting this list together (and digging out all the matching photos)  already took a lot longer than I anticipated! Haha. So it's a good place to start from if you're visiting Taipei or looking for a list of must eats. Did I leave off your favorite food reason to love Taipei? Share it in the comments!