Destin-Nation Taiwan: From Bubble Tea to Snake Venom

Destin-Nation Taiwan: From Bubble Tea to Snake Venom

david_hwang, flickr

There are many reasons to visit Taiwan, not the least of which is its delectable and eccentric eats. The country offers a wide range of cuisines defined by the legacies of occupying forces and the ingenuity of local chefs.
There are many reasons to visit Taiwan, not the least of which is its delectable and eccentric eats. The country offers a wide range of cuisines defined by the legacies of occupying forces and the ingenuity of local chefs.

There are a tremendous number of options here for travelers looking to eat out: Upscale sit-down restaurants, endless street food stands and small, vibrant cafes vie for travelers' attention. Taipei's numerous night markets keep the party going almost 24/7, and offer some foodstuffs visitors are unlikely to find being offered elsewhere in such a sanitary way. Think reptilian.

With flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles retailing for between $800 and $1200, Taiwan serves as a hub for Americans heading into Southeast Asia. But too many travelers fail to give the country its due as a destination in its own right. Those flying through Taipei International Airport should consider prolonging their stopover on Eva Air, Malaysian Airlines or China Airlines to take in the sites and a meal, or just a few meals.

Where to Eat in Taiwan
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Destin-Nation Taiwan: From Bubble Tea to Snake Venom

For a quality meal, try the upscale chain Ao Ba, which offers a modern version of traditional Taiwanese food. The chain is 40 years old and is on par with the National Palace Museum in terms of must-see locations in Taiwan. The staff here speaks English and is eager to help tourists choose courses well suited to their more Western taste.

For a classic Taiwanese dish, try the restaurant's soup noodles — not a particularly exotic dish, but a delicious take on a staple. For a slightly more adventurous option, try the pan-fried pork liver and top off the meal with a dessert of sweet taro soup (made by boiling coconut milk, sugar, and peeled taro, a starchy root). Though elegant, the restaurant's prices are reasonable and its location in Taipei makes it convenient.

Travelers looking to gorge should head for A-Po Tempura, a small shop in the Daan District of Taipei and order the A-Po Tempura bowl. Included in the bowl is one large piece of fish tempura, a smaller piece of fish tempura, tofu, fishballs, white radish, and a pig’s blood rice cake — all this a few bucks. The Taiwanese fashion of eating tempura is to leave some sauce in the bowl after eating the rest of the food and ask for a refill of soup, which the restaurant will do for free. The more tourists milk it, the better the value.

Taiwan is heaven for midnight snackers: There are several large night markets in every city that sell clothing, consumer goods, food — including xiaochi, Taiwanese dim sum, and drinks. Night markets tend to open around 6 p.m. and don't close until after midnight. They are also generally rather crowded, so be prepared. 

Shilin Night Market is Taipei's largest and most famous night market — its food court holds 539 stalls. One of Shilin's most tasty treats is aiyu jelly, a local delicacy that can be found in few other countries. The jelly, made from a Taiwanese figs, is normally considered a summer drink, but is sold all year round. To find it at the night market, look for booths with large silver tubs decorated with pictures of limes, or for signs advertising frogs eggs. "Frogs eggs" are large tapioca balls served with aiyu jelly in a lemon drink — so don't get queasy.

Adventurous gourmands head to Snake Alley, a night market in the Wanhua District of Taipei. The market is aptly named for its slithery menu: snake meat, blood and venom that purports to improve vision and increase men's sexual vitality. Of course the market also features fresh fruit stands and fortune-tellers. Though the market is said to have calmed down significantly in past years to cater more to tourists, anything and everything is offered here so tourists can keep their eyes peeled for peeled eyes.

If you have a tolerance for spiciness, Taiwanese mala hotpots are a must-try. The term mala is the combination of two Chinese characters: the first meaning "numbing" and the second meaning "hot," so travelers should be forewarned.

The traditional way of eating the dish is to wrap scallions drenched in mala sauce in large sheets of meat, which are then re-dipped into the sauce. A less spicy option is to use sa cha sauce. Travelers who wimp out will most likely be mocked. On the other hand, they won't be in pain.

One particularly good, if somewhat expensive, locale for mala is Taipei's Tai Ho Dian, which has fresh meat and a pleasant atmosphere.

In Taiwanese culture, tea is most often given as a gift. Visiting tea-lovers should keep an eye out for Wang de Chuan, a local brand that is not sold in the U.S. Between its artsy packaging (see above) and wide array of flavors available, the brand is perpetually popular for good reasons. The best place to go tea shopping is the Tea House on Changchun Road and Fuxing Sogo on the corner of Fuxing and Zhong Xiao.

Long before it became a drink of choice for U.S. college students, bubble tea — a sweetened tea often mixed with fruit or milk — was being concocted in Taiwan during the 1980s. To try the original, head to Chun Shui Tang on Nanjing East Road in Taipei City. With quaint decorations and an excellent food selection — this tea parlor offers an excellent deep fried sweet rice cake and is a great way to start off a day, especially given that it is surrounded by a number of pleasant shops.


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