The top five Taiwanese foods foreigners like

This week I attended a press conference for Taste of Taiwan Cuisine 2012.  The event, organised by the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), was to promote a month of food-related events happening in Taiwan in June.  Taiwan is keen to promote internationalization of its cuisine, and the Taiwan month of food is timed to coincide with other major trade shows such as Computex.  The peak event will be Food Taipei, a large-scale food exhibition to be held in two separate locations in Taipei from 27-30 June.

At the press conference, TAITRA talked about how Taiwanese foods (and brands) are establishing themselves overseas.  Referring particularly to Australia, they talked about how bubble tea shops are growing exponentially in popularity.  Other beverages such as those offered by the Ten Ren Cha tea house are also represented overseas, and there are now several branches of the legendary Din Tai Fung, including in Sydney.  Many of my Australian friends enjoy these foods but have no idea that they hail from Taiwan.

A key part of the event was unveiling the five most popular foods that foreigners like — presented by a team of high-split qipao wearing models.  I am not exactly sure how the voting was decided, but my impression was that the list came largely from a CNN report that detailed Taipei as being one of the ten best street food capitals of the world.   Certainly, TAITRA was impressed that Taipei made it into the top 10 list of cities with a street food culture and the report was a key theme they referred to several times at the press conference. 

So, drumroll please, the following are (according to TAITRA) the Taiwanese foods that foreigners most enjoy:

A model presents a plate with a Taiwanese hamburger on top

  1. Guo bao (刮包).  Also known as ‘Taiwanese burger’, this steamed bread and pork-belly combination has an almost cult-like following amongst some in the United States.  I first tried it at a venerable snack shop in Tainan (sampled before my blogging days).  It is surprisingly hard to find good specimens in Taipei, although there are some relatively good night market versions.
  2. Rouyuan (肉圓).  Also known as ‘Taiwanese meatballs’, these are very different from the Scandinavian kind.  Covered with a semi-transparent pastry film, they are then usually topped with a thick, slightly sweet sauce.  The result is more shapeless than the name ‘meat ball’ might suggest.  But don’t let this description put you off; a good rouyuan is real comfort food.  My favourite is a made by a shop that sells a fresh pork/prawn combination in Minquan Road, Tainan.
  3. Shengjianbao (生煎包).  Usually made of pork, these are steamed dumplings that have been half-panned fried.  The buns combine fluffy, fresh white steamed bread with the fried flavour of their fried ‘bottom’.  While technically a mainland import from Shanghai, they are now a popular snack food in northern Taiwan.  They are fairly easy to find, but my favourite is a small outlet just outside Exit 3 of the Yongchun MRT station.  My mother-in-law also makes a fairly mean version.
  4. Zhuxuegao (豬血糕).  Made from pigs blood and rice, this is a local delicacy and an acquired taste.  Even at the press conference, TAITRA acknowledged that is was something that ‘may give foreigners a bit of a fright at first’.  From time to time there is discussion about how best to translate the name into English.  It is usually rendered literally as ‘pigs blood cake’, which unsurprisingly does not sound too appealing.  I have tried it several times and don’t mind it.  My favourite version is on-the-stick grilled pigs blood cake served at a shop in the historic area of Sanxia, where it is dusted with a chilli/peanut powder mixture that makes it taste almost like satay.
  5. O-ah-jien (蚵仔煎).  This is a type of omelette that features Taiwan harvested oysters.  It is one of the top things to snack on when visiting the Tainan historical suburb of Anping, which uses produce from the local oyster industry.  But it is so famous that it has become a staple at most night markets throughout Taiwan.  Taiwan oysters are generally small and sweet, and rarely eaten in the shell.  The omelette is made from an egg/potato starch and tapioca flower combination with lettuce and oysters.  There is an art to the frying, so it is worth waiting around to watch the omelette cook.

VIPs present the top favourite dishes of Taiwan, as streamers are let off

So do you agree with the chosen top five favourite foreigner foods?  What are your favourite snack foods?  Do you like pigs blood cake, and if so where is the best place to try it?

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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17 Responses to The top five Taiwanese foods foreigners like

  1. Katrina says:

    Oh, my! I remember one of my first nights in Taiwan. My young guides took me to the night market and presented me with O-ah-jien (蚵仔煎). I went home and cried for hours. It was at that moment I was sure I would starve to death in Taipei. (Obviously, I have found many other things to like :) )
    Rouyuan (肉圓) – EEW, even after 18 years I don’t like them.
    Gua Bao is awesome in my opinion, but the Taiwan-style level of fat in it scares me.
    Pigs blood cake… can’t stomach it. My husband and his family won’t touch it, or any other innards, thankfully!
    Why isn’t pearl milk tea there? Is it food only? Or mango ice?

    I thought tempura Taiwan-style and their fried chicken stands might be on that list. Or the rice dumplings eaten for Dragon Boat Festival. But, in all seriousness, I think visitors should go try a real, homecooked meal by a grandmother. THAT’s where the power of Taiwanese food really is.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      I think the jelly-like quality of O-ah-jien takes people by surprise; usually you expect an ‘omelette’ to have more egg than starch. A friend always orders oyster omelette without the oysters. She gets odd looks, but she is pretty happy with the end result. I don’t mind this dish, but only once in a while. I find the accompanying sauce too sweet.

      I do, however, like rouyuan. But I try to go easy on them since I read somewhere that they are surprisingly high in calories. Same as gua bao for similar reasons — too much like McDonalds in that it is easy to eat high amounts of fat quickly with all that soft, steamed bread and delectably tender fatty pork.

      I am surprised mango ice didn’t make the final cut, and not sure why other foods/beverages didn’t, either. No Taipei beef noodle soup, for that matter (or perhaps they were trying to avoid discussion of ractopomine, even though all the noodle soup beef is Australian and therefore doens’t contain it anyway.) I guess the vision of what is actually ‘Taiwanese’ is still unclear. Agree that homecooked is best. Some of these home staples are only starting to make it onto restaurant menus (e.g. Shin Yeh’s approach), and I suspect many never will.

  2. channamasala says:

    I don’t think Zhuxuegao is that popular among foreigners generally.

    This list is good but isn’t my personal top five.

    Mine are Tainan shrimp roll rice, BBQ stinky tofu (especially with the spicy pickled cabbage, but without is fine too), hongyou chaoshou (the wontons cooked in spicy red chili oil), stinky tofu deep fried with thousand year old egg, and mountain pig, whether with black pepper, grilled or in sausage form. If I could pick two more I’d say thin oyster noodles and “stuff on sticks”. I also like the black sugar moji filled with peanut paste and Hakka ban tiao noodles. And who can leave off the fried chicken with basil?!

    I do like the half-fried buns, I do like oyster omelets, I do like mba wan (the glutinous rice dumplings) – pretty much anything but zhuxuegao, bitter melon, four god soup or anything with innards that haven’t been done well (I can do innards but not if they are too chewy or slimy). Guo bao are good, but not my top pick.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      You like stinky tofu including with deep-fried thousand year egg? I will egg thousand year old egg if I have to but can’t say I am a huge fan. But I was drooling just thinking of your list of favourites. I definitely like BBQ-on-a-stick things, especially BBQ octupus/squid. And I love mochi, too, especially the fresh ones dusted with peanut paste. I haven’t tried hongyou chaoshou and suspect I am missing out! But oddly, I actually really like bitter melon. I have heard it is really good for you, so maybe I am reacting to some deficiency my body must need.

  3. Eileen says:

    black pepper cake 胡椒餅 is one of my top favourites. I had to wait 8 mintues to get right out of the oven black pepper cake 胡椒餅 and it was so worth it. Iwas visiting Taoyuan. I miss the ice cream in Taitung. I actually can’t get enough of stinky tofu.

    “I also like the black sugar moji filled with peanut paste and Hakka ban tiao noodles.” <— agreed!
    "hongyou chaoshou (the wontons cooked in spicy red chili oil)." <— exactly.

    My husband makes awesome Guo bao. I like Guo bao only if it's done right. I've had so many that was…..dreadful. I miss the one place right off from Shida road. (sigh) That woman was a genius.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      A husband who makes guo bao … you are one lucky lady! Is it a lot of work? Does he make the buns from scratch, or does he have a secret way of making the process easy?

      I like black pepper cake as well, although I try not to eat quite too many pastries. I don’t always succeed in ‘trying’ not to, though!

      • Eileen says:

        Guo bao is not hard – just time consuming. (shrug) I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I can make a mean gou boa. In gou bao, it’s all about the pork….or so I am told by people who make guo bao very well.

      • taiwanxifu says:

        Sounds delicious! And yes, agree, it is all about the tender meat inside. I was talking about guo bao today with a friend who said he had a really good version in Tainan made with pork tongue. Sounds odd, but if done well I imagine it would really work as well. Oh, and I always used to refer to this dish as ‘gua bao’, but found more internet results of ‘guo bao’ so used that. Perhaps a native speaker could shed light on the difference; I am pretty sure they are the same thing.

  4. Stephen C says:

    Here’s this foreigner’s rating of the 5 foods on the TAITRA list:

    1. Gua Bao: Love it! The shop I usually go to also has Four God Soup (四神湯) which has become a comfort food for me when I’m sick (which I still can’t believe because in the US I wouldn’t have touched intestines with a ten foot pole!)
    2. Rou Yuan: Ugh! I don’t like the sauce nor the jellylike covering.
    3. Sheng Jian Bao: I’m not sure I’ve ever tried this.
    4. Zhu Xue Gao: The taste isn’t bad, but I can’t get my mind past the blood part.
    5. O-a-jien: OK, but I only eat it when friends insist “this night market has the best!”

    Here’s my list of 5 that I would really miss if I left Taiwan:

    1. Three Cup Chicken (三杯雞): For a short time (too short!) San-Bei-Ji Doritos were available here, and now my nearby bakery is carrying mini loaves of bread with 三杯雞 cooked inside…yum!
    2. Tu Tuo Yu Soup (土魠魚羹): Fried mackerel in a thick noodle soup. Probably my favorite night market dish.
    3. Cong You Bing (蔥油餅): Green onion crepe. I especially like the style that’s thicker and packed with Yilan onions.
    4. Fan Tuan (飯糰): With egg and the churro-like You Tiao (油條) inside, it’s my favorite Taiwanese breakfast item.
    5. Sweet Potato Leaves (地瓜葉): Simple but delicious with whatever sauce they put on.

    I have to add one more, a snack I usually see sold at touristy areas. It doesn’t seem to have an official name, just something like Peanut Ice Cream (花生冰淇淋). It’s a won ton wrapper (I think) stuffed with ice cream, shaved peanuts, and cilantro (coriander).

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Thanks for your comments on the list!

      I love three cup chicken as well, but like the same dish made with squid even more. I haven’t seen bread with ‘san bei ji’ instead, but I can imagine it would be delicious.

      I have not seen tutuo yu soup, but I have fond memories of eating fried mackeral for lunch every other day with my homestay family in Tainan. I also like congyoubing, especially the round, snail-shaped ones. I try to avoid eating too much on account of the fat content in them, but it is one snack that is very hard to resist. And Mr Taiwanxifu loves sweet potato leaves. I tried to grow them back home in Asutralia once, but as we were in drought they didn’t get enough rain. Not like here where sweet potatoes seem to grow all by themselves!

      I also like peanut ice-cream, and coincidentally my boss at work also nominated this as one of his all-time favourite snacks. There is something about the combination of flavours that is so uniquely offbeat but yet works. I think the ‘skin’ is ‘runbing’, the same one as Taiwanese style spring rolls (although apparently runbing are a precursor to Chinese/Vietnamese springrolls).

      • Stephen C says:

        I didn’t know there was a 3 Cup Squid dish–sounds yummy and I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it.

        The snail-shaped cong you bing were the ones I was thinking of; I call them “Yilan style”, lol.

        Yeah, that weird combination of flavors in the peanut ice cream is what really draws me to it. Thanks for reminding me that it’s a spring roll wrapper; I looked it up and now I’m going to try to remember the name runbing pi 潤餅皮.

        [Do I dare admit that I must be only person in Taiwan who isn’t a guava fan?]

      • taiwanxifu says:

        I never really ate guava before I came to Taiwan, but I don’t mind them. But I’m sure there are other people’s who don’t like guavas. Mr Taiwanxifu won’t touch mangos, even the famous export-quality mangos from Tainan. Or lychees for that matter.

  5. Susie Johnston-Forte says:

    Hi! I am enjoying your articles about Taiwan. Our son lives in Taipei (Ban Chaio City) and we often visit. Your posts will be helpful for us in planning some new activities. So thanks!

    BTW, my very favorite food in Taiwan is the peanut wrap that one can get at night markets. Yum!! Also, we really like minced shrimp wrapped in lettuce. Of the “top five” I love the dumplings. And, no, I’m not partial to pig’s blood rice squares. Ewww.

    Thanks again for your stories. Excellent! If you have other suggestions for us, we’d love to hear them!

    Susie

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Hi Susie, thanks for your comment. What is your son doing in Banqiao? Does he like Taiwan? We had a lovely Chinese New Year banquet with family in Banqiao this year … I am not sure if I can remember where, but will see. Mohave you been to the Museum of World Religions in Yonghe? I took mybDad to it recently, and he enjoyed it.

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