Taiwanese cuisine is a remarkable legacy of culinary fusion, shaped by generations of brave sailors, people from colonial countries, and once prosperous merchants.
Taiwanese cuisine is a remarkable legacy of culinary fusion, shaped by generations of brave sailors, people from colonial countries, and once prosperous merchants. Hence, while the bustling night markets have become synonymous with Taiwanese food, they represent just a fraction of the island’s rich gastronomic heritage. Beyond the vibrant stalls and bustling streets, there is a world of flavors and culinary traditions waiting to be explored.
As we go beyond the popular notion and unveil the depth of Taiwanese cuisine, it is not just a journey through a vibrant mosaic of flavors, techniques, and ingredients brought together from all corners of the world; it is also an opportunity to be immersed in a captivating tapestry that tells the compelling stories of the people behind this culinary fusion, enriched by the unique terroir of the island.
Cuisine and the People
Taiwan’s cuisine is like a quilt: the colorful array of fabrics are the people who live on the island, the seams stitched together by the threads of time. Together, the image is a mosaic of gastronomic intrigue, delicious as a whole, but difficult to pick apart. To simplify things, we’ve divided Taiwan’s cuisine into the below categories of origin:
The Old Taiwanese (本省人)
The old Taiwanese group can be further divided into two categories: “Minnan people” and “Hakka people.” These peoples are both descendants of migrants from southern mainland China who settled in Taiwan between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Minnan cuisine is deeply influenced by coastal resources and is renowned for its distinctive sweet and salty flavors with an emphasis on seafood. With scallion, sugar, and salt as the flavor foundations, chefs create an extensive array of street snacks and meals that exceed the imagination. From savory duck pastries and steamed rice cakes to sweet and sour shrimp and red-braised fish, the culinary possibilities are endless. Soups also play a vital role in Minnan cuisine, with it being common to serve two to three different soups in one sit-down meal. Popular options include chicken soup, lotus soup, or even a pre-cooked seafood hotpot.
Where Minnan cuisine is sea-based, Hakka cuisine is a rooted in the agricultural and mountainous regions, showcasing a culinary tradition that is closely intertwined with the demands of labor-intensive work and the need for nourishment. The dishes, such as salty pork, water lotus fried with dried fish, and stuffed tofu, feature rich oils and salt that are essential for replenishing energy after a hard day’s work. These flavorful dishes are often complemented by generous portions of rice, providing extra sustenance for hardworking individuals. Hakka Cuisine is further characterized by its wide variety of preserved foods, ranging from bamboo shoots and mustard greens to preserved eggs and cured pork. These preservation techniques were developed to extend the shelf life of ingredients and ensure food availability in challenging environments. Despite the limited access to fresh ingredients, the resourcefulness of the Hakka people shines through in their utilization of every part of the pig, chicken, duck, and squid, crafting dishes that can be enjoyed both fresh and as leftovers.
The New Taiwanese (外省人)
In contrast, new Taiwanese refers to mainland Chinese immigrants who arrived in Taiwan in the early post-World War II period, bringing with them their own distinct culinary traditions rooted in regional cuisines. These immigrants included skilled chefs from renowned restaurants who reintroduced the flavors of the eight major Chinese cuisines to the island. As a result, it is not uncommon to find iconic dishes such as xiaolongbao from Shanghai, Peking duck from Beijing, kung pao chicken from Sichuan, and dim sum from Guangdong all within the same neighborhood.
Taiwan is home to a diverse indigenous population, encompassing 16 distinct ethnic groups such as the Amis, Paiwan, Atayal, Bunun, Tsou, and Yami tribes. Their history is
deeply intertwined with the land, spanning approximately 8,000 years. Indigenous cuisine has been primarily passed down through family inheritance, symbolizing cultural identity and a profound bond with the land and ocean.
These groups continue traditional practices of sustainable fishing, farming, and hunting and gathering, preserving native seeds and ingredients that form the foundation of ancestral recipes. Utilizing traditional cooking techniques like salting and slow smoking, the indigenous people create flavors that are enriched with spices sourced from the forest, resulting in a unique “flavor of layers.” One notable such spice is tana, which exudes an enticing blend of onion and Sichuan pepper aromas and is commonly used for stuffing fish, enhancing double-boiled chicken soup, and even infusing tea.
Indigenous cuisine also embraces local ingredients like millet and mountain peppercorn, known as “maqaw”, integral to dishes such as wild boar BBQ and spiced sausages. Another culinary gem is the renowned dish of “abai” and “cinavu,” originating from the Rukai and Paiwan languages respectively, featuring rice filled with tender pork, wrapped in false sourwood and peach tree leaves, and steamed to perfection. These dishes not only tantalize the taste buds but also evoke the rich heritage of the land.
Fusion: From Fine Dining to Casual Meals
Throughout the 20th century and up to the present day, the defining characteristic of Taiwanese cuisine has been its remarkable fusion of flavors. With the ocean surrounding the island and mountain ranges spanning from north to south, Taiwan is blessed with a diverse range of ingredients. The local indigenous and Han flavors, combined with waves of outside culinary influences, have seamlessly merged to give rise to the distinct “salty-sweet” trademark of modern Taiwanese cuisine. Meanwhile, the dining culture has also evolved to offer a diverse range of options, ranging from upscale fine dining restaurants to humble street stalls, making it easier for travelers to find the desired culinary experience.
Banquet Cuisine (酒家菜)
The exquisite banquet cuisine emerged during Taiwan’s Japanese colonial period. These banquets, hosted by influential figures in grand restaurants, featured captivating
entertainment alongside a fusion of local Taiwanese flavors with imported ingredients. In 1923, during Emperor Hirohito of Japan’s visit to Taiwan, he indulged in an extravagant feast of swallow’s nest, pigeon eggs and crab. Banquets like this one symbolized the transformation of Chinese chefs, adapting their creations to suit Japanese palates while striving for culinary excellence.
Over time, the focus of banquet cuisine shifted, with the importance of socializing eclipsing that of the quality of the food. Informal gatherings centered around drinking, featuring half-course banquets with flavorful soups and hot stir-fried dishes. Deep-fried and grilled delicacies also became more popular, as they perfectly complemented the lively alcohol-imbued atmosphere.
In the 1980s banquet cuisine experienced a decline in popularity due to shifting economic trends. However, in recent years the tradition has made a remarkable resurgence fueled by nostalgia and, most importantly, Michelin recognition (the guide listed Taipei for the first time in 2017). The third generation of restaurateurs has embraced this culinary tradition, reviving time-consuming dishes like deep-fried pork ribs, tonic soup chicken-in-tripe, and Buddha’s temptation. Today, banquet cuisine continues to captivate diners with its intricate dishes and skilled chefs.
Taiwan’s Omakase restaurants are a place where menus are absent and the chef takes center stage in curating the dining experience. Around 20 years ago, this concept made its debut in Taipei’s neighborhoods where they can still be found today, typically tucked away in undisclosed apartments or elusive alleyways, with limited seating of up to ten tables, creating an intimate and exclusive atmosphere.
In these restaurants, the chefs often go beyond the mere combination of flavors and ingredients, encompassing cultural and historical contexts, drawing inspiration from comparisons with other regions. For example, in order to connect taste profiles with memories, scenes, and emotions, one chef uses kombu salt-marinated Pacific saury paired with grated lemon zest, steamed egg custard, pan-fried tofu, and avocado, in order to present the essence of the breathing sea of Taitung.
In the modern world of foodies, it not surprising that this distinctive dining experience is no longer confined to streets of Taipei. Omakase restaurants have found their way into the fish villages, rice field huts, and mountain tribes across Taiwan, providing a platform
for independent chefs to reconnect with their culinary origins and embrace the concept of “terroir.” Indigenous chefs, in particular, possess a deep affinity for this style of dining, finding inspiration in the wild spices from the mountains, seasonal pattern observations, and ancestral cooking techniques. When the atmosphere is just right, the chef may even serenade guests with indigenous songs accompanied by a guitar.
No food guide to Taiwan would be complete without a nod to the island’s famed night markets. A visit to any of Taiwan’s night markets is sure to offer an experience filled with delectable street food, carnival-style games and trendy shopping outlets. From Taipei’s Ningxia Night Market to Kaohsiung’s Liuhe Night Market, these bustling markets span multiple blocks, enticing travelers with mouthwatering aromas and long queues for popular eats.
The development of Taiwan’s renowned street food culture can be traced back to its early origins as a hub for agricultural laborers from China’s southern provinces in the 17th to 19th centuries. These workers could often be found carrying a wide array of cold and hot snacks for sale. Over time, these early food vendors learned that following the people led to more sales, so they began to congregate near temples during religious festivals and the likes. As the local economy grew, dedicated streets for vendors emerged, giving rise to the vibrant phenomenon of night markets that can still be seen today.
A wander through Taiwan’s night markets is a feast for both the eyes and the stomach. Here Taiwan many cuisines are blended together into a creative street-food style snack. Just pick a stall and indulge in iconic delicacies like oyster omelets, Taiwanese fried chicken with its crispy shell and savory seasoning, braised pork rice for a comforting and satisfying meal, of oyster vermicelli noodles with their rich broth and delightful textures. And, don’t miss out on the scallion pancake, a flaky and savory flatbread that can be enjoyed on its own or as a flavorful wrap with various fillings.
Military Dependent Village Restaurants
In 1949, as the new Taiwanese were moving to Taiwan, soldiers were amongst them. These soldiers set up military dependent villages for their families, and naturally, there
was food. The cuisine was a fusion of China’s eight major regional cuisines, resulting in a wide range of flavors that included salty, sweet, spicy, and sour. As intermarriage between new Taiwanese and old Taiwanese increased, the cuisine began to incorporate old Taiwanese characteristics as well. Economic constraints and material shortages during this time put further strain on the cooking, leading to simplified cooking methods and an abundant use of flour-based food such as noodles and steam buns.
To earn some extra money, military families opened small shops where they sold homemade snacks. Even today these types of restaurants can still be found surrounding the military dependent village areas, often in stall-style or restaurant settings, and sometimes even within night markets.
Of the many military dependent village cuisine, a few dishes stand out. First, beef noodle soup (牛肉麵), which is now considered Taiwan’s national dish. It features slow-braised beef, pickled mustard greens, and the distinct Taiwanese touch of five-spice powder. Second, xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings (小籠包), made internationally famous by the Taipei-started Din Tai Fung restaurant, now a major chain found around the world. Third, sour cabbage and pork hot pot(酸菜白肉鍋), which is a flavorful dish featuring fermented sour cabbage, tender pork slices, and a tangy chicken broth, all enjoyed with a special sesame sauce.
Vegetarian cuisine in Taiwan has experienced a rapid rise in recent years, becoming one of the flourishing segments in Taiwan’s diverse food culture. The roots of vegetarianism in Taiwan can be traced back to the Dutch colonial period, when the old Taiwanese brought Buddhism to the island.
Today, in the 21st century, Taiwan boasts a thriving vegetarian scene, with high-end vegetarian restaurants scattered throughout metropolitan areas and dedicated sections for vegetarian options in convenience stores. According to World Atlas, Taiwan is home to over 2.5 million vegetarians (13% of the population), ranking it third globally and has approximately 6,000 vegetarian restaurants, catering to the growing demand for plant-based dining options.
To challenge the stereotypical impressions of vegetarian cuisine, which were often associated with bland or heavily processed dishes, Taiwanese restaurateurs have invested
into creating innovative and flavorful dishes, blending the foundation of traditional Chinese cuisine with the spirit of cultural diversity and innovation that characterizes Taiwan. For example, dishes like “braised oyster mushroom in sweet soy sauce,” featuring handcrafted lotus leaf pancakes wrapped around thinly sliced oyster mushrooms infused with the flavors of sweet soy sauce, paired with crispy fried rice cakes and cucumber strips, pays homage to the classic roast duck pancake. Another dish, “snow cabbage golden brick,” combines stir-fried snow cabbage and dried tofu, wrapped in bean curd skin, and is served in in large cubes. These dish offers a satisfying texture and abundant protein, rivaling meat-centered entrees in both taste and substance.