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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Taiwan

Historic Diet

Taiwanese Food - Fried rice
Fried rice

Taiwan is an island and therefore the base of their diet is on seafood and locally available ingredients. The land is fairly fertile though as the island has good soil and receives regular rain. Rice grows well in many part of Taiwan as do fruits, spices, and herbs. The indigenous people of Taiwan primarily ate a diet with a heavy emphasis on rice and vegetables; seafood and spices only made an important supplement to these vegetables, but never made up the base of the diet.

Culinary Influences

The Chinese began arriving in Taiwan in the 1600s, but took years to immigrant in large numbers. None-the-less, this initial contact began the change in the Taiwanese diet. The new immigrants spread the popularity of pork and soy among others, but their numbers were too small to truly alter the indigenous people's diet.

The 1800s welcomed a number of foreigners on Taiwanese soil, but again few made a lasting impact on Taiwanese cuisine. The British, French, and Dutch arrived and left. The Japanese however came and although they didn't stay around for too long, they more substantially altered the local's diet.

Despite these very slight foreign influences from the British, French, and Japanese, what makes Taiwanese cuisine what it is today is from the constant wave of Han Chinese immigrants from the 1600s through the 1900s. These immigrants brought with them the food of their homeland and today Taiwanese cuisine is very similar to southern Chinese or Cantonese cuisine. Many of the Canton's popular dishes are also found in Taiwan, however many have slight alterations. Xiao-chi is similar to Hong Kong's dim sum as soy and oyster sauces have become popular in Taiwan as well. One of these aspects that differentiate Taiwanese food from Cantonese food is in the popularity of pickled vegetables in Taiwan.

Staple Foods

Rice: a common base for foods in Taiwan

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Ba-wan: a Changhua regional dish of fried dough stuffed with pork and vegetables
Beef Noodle Soup: the national dish, with an English name that's self-explanatory
Stinky Tofu: fermented tofu that smells and is often served as street food
Xiao-Chi: small plate foods, similar to Hong Kong's dim sum

Dining Etiquette

Taiwanese Food - Pork intestines
Pork intestines

Dining in Taiwan is very similar to many countries in the Far East. If you've never been to the Far East, etiquette, habits, and customs in Taiwan will seem very odd, and perhaps even rude, however there is good reason for the way they eat.

Arrive to the meal on time and let your host seat you. Once seated you'll notice you have little more than chopsticks, a spoon, and a saucer. The chopsticks are obviously for eating (never place these sticking up in the rice, it's a sign of death), but most locals will understand if you request a fork and knife. The spoon is for the soup, and the saucer is reserved for bones and shells that you pick out of your food.

When the meal arrives, the dishes (including the soup) are generally placed in the middle of the table. Before dining begins you may be offered a drink accompanied by a toast. The Taiwanese enjoy toasting and if you do toast over a meal, make sure you finish the entire glass when you drink. If you're asked to reciprocate with a toast, be sure to thank your hosts. After that first toast, eating will begin in order of honor so don't begin until you're directed to do so by your host.

As you eat the soup, suck it into your mouth so you make a slurping sound; this will cool the soup and all locals use this technique to prevent burning. The food shall be picked at with your chopsticks and in some cases may be eaten directly from the communal plates, as will the soup. If one of those communal dishes is fish, don't flip the fish over (locals believe it will flip over the boat of the fishermen).

When the starch, typically rice arrives, you should pick up the entire bowl and shovel it into your mouth bite by bite. Unlike mainland China however, you should leave a little rice and food on your plate at the end of your meal to indicate your host's generosity. When finished, join the locals with a tooth pick in hand to clean any remaining food from your teeth and get ready to indulge in tea as a dessert. Once the tea is finished however, you are expected to leave immediately. You won't be asked to leave, but you are expected to thank you hosts and depart at that time.

Most Taiwanese will order only as much food as is needed, however for business dinners or for celebrations, an excess of food should be ordered and the number of dishes ordered must always be even. In Taiwan the host must always pay for all those present.

Generally there is no tipping in Taiwan; however there are a couple exceptions. Restaurants catered to locals don't expect a tip, but western restaurants expect a tip; sometimes a 10% service charge will be added to the bill, but if not, tip up to 10%.

Celebrations & Events

A number of festivals in Taiwan are associated with varying foods, most particularly the Spring Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-autumn Festival, and the Lantern Festival. At the Spring Festival tangyuan (rice balls filled with nuts, bean paste, and more) is the food of choice and an essential part of this celebration.

The Dragon Boat Festival has a larger number of traditional foods and this begins with zongzi, which are rice dumplings wrapped in leaves filled with anything from meat to fruit. Other popular foods during this festival include mianshanzi (flour shaped into a fan), jiandui (fried cake), eel, eggs with garlic or tea, and pancakes (like crepes).

During the Mid-autumn Festival moon cakes are the most common food. These cakes are always filled with something, in Taiwan they are generally made from lotus seed paste or red bean paste.

Drinks

A unique drink in Taiwan is boba or "bubble tea," which is often served with milk and tapioca balls. If you're seeking out a familiar drink and reach for coffee, be aware that it is usually served with salt. Of course other popular international drinks are also available, including juices, milk, and soft drinks.

Taiwan has access to nearly every popular international alcohol, but local beers and rice wines are very common. For a more authentic beverage, reach for kaoliang jiu, which is a local sorghum wine. If none of this sounds appealing, many popular brands are available in Taiwan.

There is no consensus on the cleanliness of the tap water in Taiwan. Most hotels purify their water and restaurants generally boil their water before cooking with it so most water is safe. However the tap water from most homes is unsafe and should be avoided. Of course you may stay on the side of caution everywhere and avoid the tap water entirely. If you do decide to drink the tap water, remember that many people may have troubles adjusting to the local water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: March, 2013