What is Taiwanese Cuisine? Introducing Taiwan Food.
A hundred miles from the Chinese coast lies Taiwan. Most simply described, the cuisine of this mountainous island nation on the edge of the Pacific, is Chinese with significant Japanese influences. Apart from the staple, rice, Taiwan is a bounty of fruit, vegetables, and seafood.
Broadly speaking, the food of China can be divided into four regional styles – northern southern, eastern and western. Fujian, according to E. N. Anderson, belongs to the eastern tradition but is quite distinctive in its own right. Taiwanese cuisine can be see as an outgrowth of Fujianese cuisine.
The major influences on Taiwanese cuisine are, as anywhere, the geographical, and historical.
- Dominance of mountains resulting in a population crowded into a limited area of plains, mainly in coastal areas.
- Island nation, close proximity of the population to the sea.
Pre-20th Century History
Immigration from China, southern Fujian in particular. As well as a close geographical proximity to Taiwan, Fujian has similar weather, and has in common with Taiwan formidable mountain ranges and a lengthy coastline. It would not have been difficult for the early settlers to replicate their native food ways in their new home.
Japanese Rule 1895–1945
The Japanese during their fifty year occupation turned Taiwan into a major food supplier to Japan as well as off-loading a considerable amount of their own foodstuffs and eating habits onto Taiwan. While Japanese cuisine has had a big influence in Taiwan, Taiwanese cuisine clearly belongs to the Chinese food tradition. Some Japanese influences, such as popularity of sashimi and sushi are obvious, others blend in and are more difficult to recognise. Japanese restaurants, both ‘authentic’ and Taiwan-style, are very common.
Other Japanese Influences
- Sashimi – Commonly served in Japanese and in Chinese restaurants.
- Miso / Miso soup
- Seaweed – Coastal Chinese eat seaweed but it is the Japanese who take it to the level of an art form, and this seems to have carried over somewhat to Taiwan.
- Wasabi – A common accompaniment to certain seafood dishes.
- Teppanyaki – These restaurants are common, though usually highly localised, most obviously by adding lashings of minced garlic and chilli to most dishes.
- Taiwan tempura (yansu ji) – This seems to be inspired by the Japanese cooking style tempura, though with major Taiwanese characteristics, the most obvious being, that not all of the foods are battered. I call it Taiwan fish and chips. It is sold be roadside deep fry stands which offer up a whole range of foods with fresh basil leaves, then powder the whole lot with a salt and pepper mixture and chilli powder if you want. Items include: chicken pieces, dried tofu, string beans, sweet potato chips, potato chips, pig’s blood/rice cake, squid, fish balls.
- Curry – A mild curry that always includes potato, often chicken, seems to have come via Japan.
- Japanese-style chopsticks – Shorter than Chinese chopsticks (which seem clunky in comparison) with pointed ends.
1947–1949 Immigration Wave from China
In China, Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (KMT), was defeated by Mao’s determined Red Army in 1949, but the writing was already on the wall by 1947. Led by Chiang, a huge number of military and civilians arrived in Taiwan from China. They carried their eating habits with them, which in many cases were quite different from the local Taiwanese. The migrants were from many areas of China. The result of this mass migration is that today in Taiwan you can find a great range of regional foods from all over China, many of which have been adapted to suit local tastes.
Taiwan produces a huge variety of vegetables, particularly the leafy green varieties.
- Spring onions
- Chinese chives
- Coriander (cilantro) leaves
- Water spinach
- Taiwan bok choy
- Shanghai bok choy
- Oil seed rape
- Chinese broccoli
- Garland chrysanthemum
- Chinese cabbage
- Chinese celery
- Mung bean sprouts
- Soy bean sprouts
- Bitter melon
- Winter melon
- Asian radish (daikon)
- Sweet potato – Tubers and leaves. Thought of as famine food, though still enjoyed nonetheless.
- Chinese yam
- Bamboo shoots
- Oriental cucumber
- Yard long beans
- String beans
- Chinese eggplant
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Wood ear – This fungi turns up in a surprising number of dishes and is absolutely required in Taiwan hot and sour soup.
- Lilly buds
Taiwan grows a wide range of tropical and temperate fruits, and also imports a good deal. Taiwanese gorge on fruit, and no decent communal meal would be complete without a large platter of sliced fruit (it’s good for digestion, your host will say). For the fruit platter, chopsticks are dispensed with. You eat the fruit slices with bamboo toothpicks. Many fruits are eaten unripe. The list below is for locally grown fruit.
- Plums –There many kinds of plums, usually sold preserved.
- Mandarin oranges
- Asian pears
- Honey dew melon
- Star fruit
- Custard apple
- Strawberry pears (pitaya) A very recent introduction.
- Tomatoes Large tomatoes are usually served green, as a vegetable, while small cherry tomatoes are eaten ripe as a fruit.
- Beef – Most commonly eaten in beef noodle soup
- Frog (also known as ‘rice paddy chicken’)
As you might expect of an island where you are never far from the shoreline, seafood is plentiful and very fresh.
- Clams – I doubt a week goes by when I am not served clams at least once, usually in soup.
- Oysters – Oyster omelette is a traditional snack.
- Sea cucumber
Taiwanese are great snackers as a visit to one of the island’s ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores will show. There you will find hundreds of different snack foods, including traditional favourites like tea eggs and dried squid, sitting alongside more recent imports like chocolate and potato chips.
- Watermelon seeds
- Deep fried broad beans
- Dried tofu
- Puffed rice cake
- Sugarcane – Street side snack. The ‘skin’ is shaved off and it is cut into 12″ lengths and sold by the bagful. You need good teeth, and don’t forget to spit out the fibre once you have chewed the juice out of each mouthful.
- Tea eggs [ Recipe ]
- Stinky tofu
- Spring onion omelette
- Oyster omelette
- Deep fried tofu [ Recipe ]
- Radish cake
- Sausages – Sweeter than European sausages.
- Rice Dumplings in Bamboo Leaves (zongzi) [ Recipe ]
- Corn – On the cob, grilled or boiled.
- Bawan – Mince pork wrapped in skin of tapioca flour and a little sticky rice. A traditional favourite.
- Dried squid
- Taiwan tempura (yansu ji) – A wide variety of deep fried foods.
- Sweet mung bean soup [ Recipe ]
- Soft tofu dessert (dou hua)
- Shaved ice – With fruit, adzuki and mung beans, peanuts or various other toppings.
Taiwan is also known for its range of appetisers. Few dishes, in fact, are eaten without some sort of starter or side dish.
Pickled cucumber salad [ Recipe ]
Fish Fry with peanuts [ Recipe ]
Clams pickled in soy sauce
Stewed appetisers egg, seaweed, tofu, pig’s ear, pig’s skin, various pig guts etc.
Pig’s blood and rice cake – A duck’s blood version is available for those who eschew pork)
Tofu with thousand year-old egg
While stir-fries are plentiful, Taiwanese food is characterised by stews and soups. A ten course banquet will probably have four or five on the menu. Here is just a small selection of typical dishes.
- Rice porridge [ Recipe ] The standard tradition breakfast dish. Now relegated to the role of comfort food.
- Taiwan sandwich – Taiwanese have adopted the sandwich, but until convenience stores introduced the all-day sandwich, it was strictly for breakfast only. The range of fillings is limited: fried egg, ham and diced cucumber, and dried pork floss.
Pastry omelette (dan bing) A common breakfast dish.
Rou zhao fan
Lu rou fan
Steamed bamboo cup rice ‘cake’ (mi gao).
Soups – Including bamboo and pork chop soup [ Recipe ] Thick soups called geng, with minced pork pieces or sometimes squid, clam soup, oyster soup, pork ball soup, fish ball soup, egg drop soup, miso soup, “green vegetable” and tofu soup, seaweed soup, corn soup, pig’s blood soup, Hot and sour soup [ Recipe ]
Fried rice noodles
Thin noodles with oysters
Beef noodle soup [ Recipe ]
Dumplings (jiaozi) – Boiled and steamed. Potstickers, steamed bread dumplings (bao zi, xiao long bao).
Tea is rarely taken with meals (but soup almost always is).
- Tea – Taiwan people are inveterate wulong drinkers. Black or green tea is often considered second-rate and is only used in flower or scented teas of cold tea concoctions (usually tea shakes) such as fruit tea, etc.
- Bubble tea – A local invention.
- Winter melon tea
- Soybean milk – Usually sweetened.
- Papaya milkshake – Delicious, just finish it within 20 minutes or you will get a nasty surprise; it will solidify into a bitter custard
- Kaoliang (sorghum) liquor – Traditional staple of the Taiwan hard drinking crew.
- Taiwan Beer
- Shaoxing wine – Until ten years ago, a very popular drink, now under an onslaught of imported choices: wine, whiskey, beer. Not normally used as a cooking wine.
- Millet ale – The traditional drink of the Taiwan aborigines.
- Rice – A hybrid of long and short grain, developed during Japanese rule in the first half of the 20th century, has long been dominant. It is quite sticky.
- Tofu – In many forms.
- Water caltrop
- Thousand year-old egg
- Salty duck’s egg
- “Barbecue Sauce” (sha cha jiang / sand tea sauce) Used in cooking and as the base for hotpot dipping sauce.
- Dried pork and fish floss
Try these Taiwan recipes
More information about Taiwan food
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When did Tea Arrive in Europe from China?
About 1610, around the same time that coffee arrived from its native Africa. Tea, however had much earlier reached other lands closer to China’s borders. It came to Japan, for example during the early part of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–807).
Read more Chinese Food Facts