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Taiwanese cuisine (traditional Chinese: 臺灣菜; simplified Chinese: 台湾菜; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Tâi-oân-chhài, Chinese: 臺灣料理; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Tâi-oân liāu-lí) has several variations. In addition to the following representative dishes from the people of Hoklo (Hō-ló) ethnicity (see Taiwanese people), there are also Aboriginal, Hakka, and local derivatives of Chinese cuisines such as beef noodle soup.
Taiwanese cuisine itself is often associated with influences from mid to southern provinces of Mainland China, most notably from the province of Fujian (Hokkien), but influences from all of Mainland China can easily be found. A notable Japanese influence also exists due to the period when Taiwan was under Japanese rule. Traditional Chinese food can be found in Taiwan, alongside Fujian and Hakka-style as well as native Taiwanese dishes, includes dishes from Guangdong, Jiangxi, Chaoshan, Shanghai, Hunan, Sichuan and Beijing.
Ingredients and culture
Pork, seafood, chicken, rice, and soy are very common ingredients. Beef is far less common, and some Taiwanese (particularly the elderly generation) still refrain from eating it. This is in part due to the considerations of some Taiwanese Buddhists, a traditional reluctance towards slaughtering precious cattle needed for agriculture, and an emotional attachment and feeling of gratefulness and thanks to the animals traditionally used for very hard labour. However, due to influences from the influx of out of province Chinese in the early 1900s, the Taiwanese version of beef noodle soup is now one of the most popular dishes in Taiwan.
Taiwan's cuisine has also been influenced by its geographic location. Living on a crowded island, the Taiwanese had to look aside from the farmlands for sources of protein. As a result, seafood figures prominently in their cuisine. This seafood encompasses many different things, from large fish such as tuna and grouper, to sardines and even smaller fish such as anchovies. Crustaceans, squid, and cuttlefish are also eaten.
Because of the island's sub-tropical location, Taiwan has an abundant supply of various fruit, such as papayas, starfruit, melons, and citrus fruit. A wide variety of tropical fruits, imported and native, are also enjoyed in Taiwan. Other agricultural products in general are rice, corn, tea, pork, poultry, beef, fish, and other fruits and vegetables. Fresh ingredients in Taiwan are readily available from markets.
In many of their dishes, the Taiwanese have shown their creativity in their selection of spices. Taiwanese cuisine relies on an abundant array of seasonings for flavour: soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, fermented black beans, pickled daikon, pickled mustard greens, peanuts, chili peppers, cilantro (sometimes called Chinese parsley), and a local variety of basil (九層塔 káu-chàn-tha̍h, literally "nine story pagoda").
The Taiwanese xiaochi has gained much reputation internationally. Many travelers go to Taiwan just for xiaochi. The most common place to enjoy xiaochi in Taiwan is in a night market. Each night market also has its own famous xiaochi.
Moreover, the Taiwanese xiaochi has been improving to a higher level. Nowadays, Taiwanese xiaochi not only served in night markets but some luxury and high-end restaurants. The prices usually jump 100% or even higher in the restaurants. Also, the Taiwanese government supports the Taiwanese xiaochi and has held national xiaochi events in Taiwan regularly.
- Changhua: Ba-wan, literally meaning 'meat sphere'. They are a kind of large dumpling made from a gelatinous dough and stuffed with pork and vegetables, most commonly mushrooms and bamboo shoots.
- Chiayi: Turkey rice bowls (火雞肉飯; hoe-koe bah-pn̄g) are bowls of rice with shredded turkey layered on top, often accompanied by pickled daikon radish. The rice is drizzled with a kind of gravy made from the turkey drippings and soy sauce.
- Coffin board (棺材板; koaⁿ-chhâ-pán) is similar to French toast or bread bowl soups, but filled with savory fillings, such as black pepper beef or curried chicken. Thick cut bread is dipped in egg, deep fried, cut along three sides, opened and filled, and eaten.
- Daxi dried tofu (大溪豆乾; Tāi-khe tāu-koaⁿ)
- Hsinchu: pork balls (貢丸; kòng-ôan), which are often eaten in soup (湯; thng). Rice vermicelli (米粉; bí-hún), are another Hsinchu specialty. They are often eaten 'dry' (乾; ta/kan, not in a soup) with mushroom and ground pork.
- Nantou: yi mein (意麵; ì-mī), which is tasty, soft noodles in soup, and ba-wan (肉圓; bah-ôan), which is similar to Ba-wan. Ba-wan's exterior is made of tapioca starch and is filled with mushrooms, thin shredded bamboo, and a meatball. It is eaten with a reddish sweet and sour sauce
- Taichung: Suncake is the most noted pastries of Taichung. It is baked layered puff pastry with a sweet center often made with honey or molasses. Also, Nagasaki-style Castella and nougats.
- Tainan City dan zai noodles (台南擔仔麵; Tâi-lâm tàⁿ-á-mī), shrimp and meat dumplings (蝦仁肉丸; hê-jîn bah-ôan), and shrimp crackers/biscuits are among the most notable local dishes. Another popular dish originating in Tainan is "oily rice" (台南油飯; Tâi-lâm iû-pn̄g), a rice dish containing savoury oils and shredded pork meat, mushrooms, and dried shrimp.
- Tamsui: A-gei (阿給; a-geh), which are deep fried tofu that have been stuffed with crystal noodles and sealed with fish paste and drizzled with spicy sauce on the outside. Tamsui fish ball (魚丸; hî-ôan), because Tamsui is near the ocean, therefore, it is a good place to try their fish balls, which are balls of fish paste stuffed with meat and garlic cooked in light broth. Iron eggs (鐵卵; thih-nn̄g), are eggs that have been repeatedly stewed in a mix of spices and air-dried. The resulting eggs are dark brown, chewy and full of flavor compared to normal boiled eggs.
|Common English term||Characters||Taiwanese||Pinyin||Influence||Description|
|Gua-bao||割包||koah-pau||guàbāo||Fujian||A flat, clam-shaped steamed white bun with soy sauce braised porkbelly, pickled mustard vegetables, peanut powder, sugar, and cilantro inside.|
|Cuttlefish geng||魷魚羹||jiû-hî keⁿ||yóuyúgēng||Fujian||A clear thick soup with cuttlefish covered in fish paste.|
|Oyster omelette||蚵仔煎||ô-á-chian||kèzǎijiān||Fujian||Chewy omelette made with eggs, oysters, tapioca starch and Garland chrysanthemum leaves. It has a soft, sticky texture, and is eaten with a sweet and mildly spicy sauce, topped with cilantro. This dish is very common in night markets as it is the most popular snack in Taiwan.|
|Oyster vermicelli||蚵仔麵線||ô-á mī-sòaⁿ||kèzǎi miànxiàn||Fujian||A thickened soup made of katsuobushi containing small oysters and steamed Chinese vermicelli.|
|Pig's blood cake||豬血糕||ti-huih-ko||Fujian||A Pig's blood cake made from pork blood and rice. It is usually cut into a rectangular piece and served on a stick, dipped in soy sauce, with the option of adding hot sauce, then topped with powdered peanut and cilantro.|
|Minced pork rice||滷肉飯/魯肉飯||ló͘-bah-pn̄g||lǔròu fàn||Fujian||Minced, cubed, or ground fatty pork, stewed in soy sauce and spices, then served on rice.|
|Small sausage in large sausage||大腸包小腸||tōa-tn̂g pau sió-tn̂g||dàcháng bāo xiǎocháng||Local||A grilled Taiwanese pork sausage wrapped in a grilled, salty, sticky rice sausage. Usually wrapped with garlic and basil. Customer can also choose the flavor they want, such as black pepper, garlic, chili, butter, and chocolate. A Taiwanese snack, common in night market.|
|Three cups chicken||三杯雞||sam-poe-koe||sanbeiji||Chinese||A chicken dish which literally translates as "three cups chicken", named because the sauce is made of a cup of rice wine, a cup of sesame oil, and a cup of soy sauce. Alternatively, the sauce can also be made of a cup each of rice wine, sugar, and soy sauce.|
|Dried radish omelet||菜脯蛋||chhài-pó͘-nn̄g||Cài pú dàn||Fujian||Finely cut Taiwanese Style preserved white radish cooked into an omelet|
|Cucumber pork||瓜仔肉||koe-á bah||guazairòu||Fujian||Steamed minced pork with Taiwanese Style pickled cucumber.|
|Spicy hotpot||麻辣鍋||ba-luah e||málà guō||Chinese||It is becoming more and more popular, especially in Taipei. The soup of this hotpot includes lots of Chinese herbs and other special materials. People can cook what they want with this soup. The taste is very spicy, but this kind of hotpot can help you keep warm and feel good in the winter.|
|Eel noodles||鱔魚意麵||siān-hî ì-mī||Fujian||Rice eel with Yi mein in a starch thickened sweet and sour soup.|
|Tamsui a-gei||淡水阿給||Tām-chúi a-geh||Local||Steamed aburaage tofu stuffed with cooked cellophane noodles and covered with surimi|
|Iron eggs||鐵蛋||thih-nn̄g||Local||Eggs stewed in soy sauce, usually with their shells still on but cracked throughout, until they are flavourful and chewy in texture.|
Vegetarian restaurants are commonplace with a wide variety of dishes, mainly due to the influence of Buddhism and other syncretistic religions like I-Kuan Tao. These vegetarian restaurants vary in style from all-you-can-eat to pay-by-the-weight and of course the regular order-from-a-menu.
There is a type of outdoor barbecue called khòng-iô (焢窯). To barbecue in this manner, one first builds a hollow pyramid up with dirt clods. Next, charcoal or wood is burnt inside until the temperature inside the pyramid is very high (the dirt clods should be glowing red). The ingredients to be cooked, such as taro, yam, or chicken, are placed in cans, and the cans are placed inside the pyramid. Finally, the pyramid is toppled over the food until cooked.
Many non-dessert dishes are usually considered snacks, not entrees; that is, they have a similar status to Cantonese dim sum or Spanish tapas. Such dishes are usually only slightly salted, with lots of vegetables along with the main meat or seafood item.
Popiah (薄餅) with vegetables and powdered peanuts as filling
A bowl of oyster vermicelli (蚵仔麵線; ô-á mī-sòaⁿ)
Ba-wan served with sweet and savory sauce
Suncakes (太陽餅; thài-iông-piáⁿ) in a box
A-gei served with sauce
- Aiyu jelly (愛玉冰; ò-giô-peng) – a gelatinous dessert made from the seeds of a fig-like fruit, Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang. Served on ice.
- Baobing – a Chinese shaved ice dessert very common in Taiwan, China, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
- Bubble tea, aka boba milk tea; also known as pearl milk tea (珍珠奶茶; zhēnzhū nǎichá) - chewy tapioca balls added to milk tea.
- Traditional cakes are not always of the same composition depending on the flavor. There is the moon cake which has a thick filling usually made from lotus seed paste or sweetened red bean paste and surrounded by a relatively thin (2–3 mm) crust and may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. It is traditionally eaten during the festival is for Lunar worship and Moon watching. Mooncakes are offered between friends or on family gatherings while celebrating the festival. The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the four most important Chinese festivals.
- There are other cakes that can mix salty ingredients with sweet ones to create a balance while enjoying these delicacies with tea. The crust could be shiny from applying a layer of egg yolk before putting in the oven, or not in that case it is often whiter and the crust has more layers.
- Grass jelly (仙草; sian-chháu) – (Mesona procumbens) Served hot or cold.
- Môa-chî (麻糍), a soft rice cake like Japanese mochi. Flavours of the fillings can vary, ranging from all kinds of beans to nuts.
- Ohping (芋仔冰; ō͘-á-peng) – an ice cream made of taro root paste.
- Pineapple cake, (鳳梨酥; ông-lâi-so͘), a square short crust pie filled with pineapple filling. One of Taiwan's best known dessert pastries.
- Zukak kway (鼠麹粿; chhú-khak-ké, or 草仔粿; chháu-á-ké) – Cakes made with a dough from glutinous rice flour and combine with a ground cooked paste of Gnaphalium affine or Mugwort to give it a unique flavor and green color. The dough is commonly filled with ground meat or sweet bean pastes.
Night market dishes
Taiwan's best-known snacks are present in the night markets, where street vendors sell a variety of different foods, from finger foods, drinks, sweets, to sit-down dishes. In these markets, one can also find fried and steamed meat-filled buns, oyster-filled omelets, refreshing fruit ices, and much more. Aside from snacks, appetizers, entrees, and desserts, night markets also have vendors selling clothes, accessories, and offer all kinds of entertainment and products.
|Common English term||Characters||Taiwanese||Pinyin||Influence||Description|
|Wheel cake||車輪餅||chhia-lûn-piáⁿ||Japanese||Pancake batter is poured into hot-metallic molds and gets quickly cooked into small cakes of various shapes. Countless variations exist. Sometimes the cakes have fillings ranging from cream, red bean paste, to peanut butter. Similar to Imagawayaki or Taiyaki|
|Stinky tofu||臭豆腐||chhàu-tāu-hū||chòu dòufu||Chinese||Stinky tofu is a popular local food in Taiwan and many other Chinese regions such as Hong Kong and Shanghai. It is called as “Stinky tofu” because of its strong unpleasant odour. Back in the Qing dynasty, Stinky tofu was already a dish in the royal family’s meal. Besides, it is also one of the favourite food of the Empress Cixi (慈禧太后). Stinky tofu can generally be classified into two main kinds, which are soft stinky tofu (臭豆腐乳) and dried stinky tofu (臭豆腐乾).|
|Taiwanese meatball||肉圓||bah-oân||ròu yuán||Local||A sticky gelatinous tapioca dough filled with pork, bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, and served with a savory sweet and spicy sauce.|
|Sweet Corn||玉米||yùmǐ||Western||Vendors may specialize in one type of corn or they could offer varieties between savory/salty and sweet corn. Sometimes the corn is steamed, grilled, boiled, etc.|
|Taiwanese sausages||香腸||ian-chhiâng (煙腸)||xiāngcháng||Chinese||Fatty pork sausages with a mild sweet taste. There are several different kinds. Kaoliang is sometimes used in the sausage recipe. In night markets they are often served on a stick with many different condiments. Sometimes, they are wrapped in glutinous rice. In the very early 1980s, when resources were still relatively scarce, the standard serving is one sausage link on a toothpick garnished with a clove of garlic.|
|Green onion pancake||蔥油餅||cōng yóubǐng||Chinese||Spring onion flour pancake with many thin layers, made with scallions (chopped green onions). A snack originating in the Chinese mainland.|
|Candied fruit||糖葫蘆||tánghúlu||Chinese||Red candy coated bite-sized fruit served on a stick. Sometimes the fruit is stuffed with preserved plums, and then candied. Cherry tomatoes and strawberries are also used.|
|Grilled squid||烤花枝||kǎo huāzhī||Japanese||Grilled squid often marinated and basted while grilled.|
|Shaved ice||剉冰/刨冰||cuòbīng/bàobīng||local||Finely shaven ice with a variety of toppings (peanuts, fruit, azuki beans, sweetened corn, and so on). Sometimes served drizzled with condensed milk.|
|Tempura||甜不辣||tiánbùlà||Japanese||Deep fried surimi and fish cakes simmered in broth and served with a sweet sauce. Despite using the same name as the Japanese fried food, Taiwanese tempura is more a variant of oden.|
|Taiwanese spring roll||潤餅||jūn-piáⁿ / lūn-piáⁿ||rùn bǐng||Fujian||The Taiwanese spring roll is a semi-crispy super-thin flour crepe filled with a variety of filling, such as powdered sugar, peanut powder, egg, vegetables, pork and even seafood. Taiwanese spring rolls are made from the same dough as Western crepes.|
|Doner kebab||沙威馬||shāwēimǎ||Middle Eastern||A sandwich usually made from spiced, grilled chicken and served on a leavened, white flour bun with julienned cabbage, a slice of tomato, sliced onions, ketchup, and mayonnaise. Brought over from Turkey decades ago, the seasoning is quite different from the seasoning used in making shawarma in Turkey.|
|Popcorn chicken||鹹酥雞/鹽酥雞||xián sū jī / yán sū jī||Western||Popcorn chicken made from spiced, deep-fried chicken topped with salt and pepper and seasoned with fragrantly cooked basil. It is a delicious decadent loved by all for its juicy and tender texture.|
|Fried chicken fillet||炸雞排||zhá jī pái||Western||Fried chicken fillets first appeared in Taiwan over 20 years ago but have changed over the years as vendors have concocted new flavors and preparation methods. Unlike the fried chicken served in most fast-food restaurants, this treat is made of chicken breast that has been pounded flat, marinated, battered and deep-fried. After cooking, a generous sprinkling of ground pepper is applied. It's crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. Fried chicken fillet is one of the most popular snacks in Taiwan.|
- Various drinks are also often sold, ranging from bubble tea stands to various juice and tea stands.
- Crêpe - Adapted from the original French version, a very thin cooked pancake, it has a much crispier texture, rather like a cracker. Very popular in the early 2000s.
- Fruit or bean smoothies - milk or ice is blended on the spot with fresh papaya, mango, watermelon, azuki bean, or mung bean.
- Fried glutinous rice balls - slightly sweet in flavor.
- Fried chicken pieces - thumb-size chunks of deep-fried chicken sprinkled with white pepper, chilli and fried basil.
Food of the Taiwanese Aborigines
Taiwan’s food and food culture is very much diversified and largely influenced by the exodus of Han people. However, one part of the Taiwanese food culture that remains integral is that of the Taiwanese First Nations. Though the Indigenous only make up less than 2% of Taiwan’s overall population, it is notable that their foods eaten and ways of preparation are distinguishable from the more typical Chinese-influenced cuisine.
The Aborigines’ diet very much depends on nature. With profuse vegetation and wild animals, Aborigines were natural hunter-gatherers. Essentially, much of what Aborigines ate depended on their environment – that is, whether they lived in coastal or mountainous areas. Tribes like Amis, Atayal, Saisiyat and Bunun hunt what they can, and gather what they cultivate. On the other hand, tribes like the Yamis and the Thao have fish as a predominant source of food. Majority of foods consisted of millet, taro, sweet potato, wild greens and game like boar and rat. This is in contrast to the main foods eaten by the Han, which consisted of rice and chicken.
Game meats for those living in the mountainous areas include deer, and flying squirrel intestines, a delicacy as regarded by the Bunun people. Another is ‘stinky’ meat – that is, ‘maggoty game’ that has begun to rot, which is then barbecued, fried, seasoned with garlic and ginger then served with spicy sauce.
The Amis, apart from meat, had much greens to eat, largely due to the belief that anything a cow ate, was also edible by humans. The Bununs, who are primarily hunters of wild animals, would dine on stone-grilled pork, boar, deer, and hog roast. The Yami tribe, located off Taitung coast, fed on many types of fish, including the prized ‘flying fish’ (or Alibangbang). A speciality includes rice, mixed with river fish and wild vegetables, served in large bamboo trunks.
Apart from being a staple-food, millet was always produced as wine. Not just for drinking, millet wine played an important role in being used as offerings during festivals, births and weddings. Millet wines are all made in the homes of the Aborigines. Sticky rice is put into a wooden steamer after being soaked in water. Once cooled, the rice is put into a pot of water, then pulled out and combined with rice yeast. After four or five days of being placed in a large jar, the rice is placed in a sieve or rice bag, whilst the alcoholic liquid drips out and is stored away.
Also important to the Indigenous Taiwanese people’s cuisine are the sweet potato and taro, favoured for their perennial nature and low maintenance. The cultivation of root vegetables rather than typical seedling plants was notably prominent, with archaeological evidence suggesting as early as fourth millennium BC, from the Dapenkeng site, in Guanyin Mountain, New Taipei City.
Given the versatility of both vegetables, they were usually boiled or steamed, and eaten by itself or as ingredients in soups and strews. Without the need for advanced agricultural technology, taro and sweet potatoes were a prime preference for farming. Canadian missionary George MacKay said of 19th century Taiwan: ‘the bulb of the sweet potato is planted in March. In about six weeks the vines are cut into pieces eight inches long, which are planted in drills, and from these vine-cuttings the bulbs grow and are ripe about the end of June. A second crop is planted in a similar way in July and is ripe in November.’ (Ibid). The influence of sweet potatoes and taro has been vast. They are still widely present in modern day Taiwan, be it on the streets, night markets, or in successful food chains like ‘Meet Fresh’ (or 鮮芋仙).
Due to the absence of contemporary culinary utensils such as the refrigerator, gas stovetops and ovens, the Indigenous resorted to other means to prepare their food. Upon bringing back hunted game meat, the Aborigines would preserve the meat with either millet wine or salt. Another cooking technique involved the heating up of stones by fire, which are then placed inside a vessel with other certain meats and seafood, which are cooked from the heat of the stones. Foods were mostly prepared by steaming, boiling or roasting, in order to infuse flavours together, yet preserve the original flavours. This again is contrasted with the Han, who adopted skills like stir-frying and stewing. Meat was also put on a bamboo spit and cooked over the fire.
A cookbook published in 2000 by the CIP and National Kaoshiung Hospitality College, listed some foods of the main Taiwanese Aboriginal tribes, showing the Aborigines’ adherence and passion for natural foods.
- Amis Nation: Alivongvong (meat and sticky rice dumpling packed in leaves) (阿里鳳鳳); Stir-fried wild vegetables
- Atayal Nation: Grilled meat on stone (石板烤肉); Langying (steamed sticky rice cake) (朗應)
- Bunun Nation: Bunun millet cake (布農粿); Millet rice (小米飯)
- Paiwan Nation: Millet Qinafu (millet and pork meat-ball) (小米奇那富); Jinbole (Sorghum and pork dumpling packed in a banana leaf) (金伯樂)
- Puyuma Nation: Yinafei mountain cake (以那馡山地粿); Fried wild rat with basil (九層野鼠)
- Rukai Nation: Qinabu (taro and meat dumpling) (奇那步); Grilled boar
- Saisiyat Nation: Grilled boar with papaya (木瓜拌山豬肉); Assorted wild flowers (野花拼盤); Cassava and spareribs soup (樹薯排骨湯)
- Tsou Nation: Bamboo cooked rice (竹筒飯); Banana cake (香蕉糕)
- Yami Nation: Boiled taro and crab (芋泥加蟹肉); Grilled fish Steamed dried fish (蒸魚乾)
Though Taiwan is home to many cuisines, there are still restaurants which keep the spirit of Aborigine cuisine alive. Whilst chefs in such restaurants may need to tweak traditional recipes to suit contemporary tastebuds, emphasis of natural foods is still extant.The annual Indigenous Peoples Healthy Cuisine and Innovative Beverage Competition, partly sponsored by the Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Tourism Bureau provides prize money to contestants who creatively use traditional indigenous ingredients in healthy ways. Other similar competitions are held by local governments (such as Kaoshiung City). In Tainan, indigenous people may sell their food at the Cha Ha Mu Aboriginal Park. Such trends are all to promote the wonderful taste of Aboriginal Taiwanese cuisine.
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