Taiwan, like Singapore, is a foodie paradise. Food options here are tasty, cheap, and diverse. I may be starting to do more individual reviews and summaries on my old food blog at http://scrumptiousbeginnings.wordpress.com/, so be sure to check that out from time to time, but here is a brief overview of some of the experiences I've had in the past three weeks.
Taiwan has a famous night market culture. There are at least one or two night markets in each district of the city, with the most well-known ones being Shilin, Raohe, Shida, and Ningxia. In the early evenings, food vendors and stalls selling all sorts of traditional snacks, clothes, and random knickknacks will come to life, drawing in crowds of tourists and locals alike. Most of the foods at the night markets are pretty unhealthy, but at least the portions are manageable.
Shilin Night Market is the most touristy but also the largest. At the basement of the Shilin Night Market is a big food court. If you fight through the crowds of people to the front of the lines, you will see lots of fried goodies like tofu, fish cakes, seafood, and grilled squid.
Other stalls sell loads of meat on sticks. Multiple vendors specialize in big sausages wrapped in a blanket of glutinous rice - an Asian style hot dog.
I tried a Taiwanese specialty known as coffin bread at the Shilin Market. It's a very thick piece of toast, buttered and grilled, and then cut open so there is a box and a lid. Then, a creamy chowder of sorts, with various ingredients like shrimp, chicken, corn, and mushrooms is poured into the bread.
The bread is then cut up into squares and served with toothpicks. It's not exactly finger-food though, and can get a bit messy to eat. However, the pairing of the hot and crispy bread with the soft, savoury filling is delicious! It's a unique treat.
There are a lot of small family restaurants that dot the streets of the city. Many of them specialize in noodles and dumplings, and you can get a filling, fresh, homemade meal for around $3. The dumplings here are so much better than the frozen ones you will find in supermarkets. A lot of times, in the dumpling stores if you go during off hours you'll see the shopkeeper and relatives sitting in the back, folding hundreds and hundreds of plump dumplings, ready to be dunked into boiling water for the next meal service.
Most of these mom-and-pop places will also serve small dishes of vegetables and tofu, usually braised or marinated lightly in soy sauce and vinegars.
Steamed buns and breads are also quite common in Taipei, and there are local stands that sell these items for breakfast and snacks. They come in various flavors and fillings, from the traditional, like red bean paste, sesame seed, and meat fillings, to others like chocolate!
Finally, I want to introduce you to my favorite part of Taiwanese cuisine - these little stalls. I'm not sure if there is a proper English name for them, but I call them the veggie carts. Basically, there are a lot of fresh cold ingredients, ranging from chilled, soy-braised meats, to steamed broccoli, potatoes, and daikon radish. You indicate to the vendor which ingredients you want (usually around $1 for a portion of each), and then she or he will chop up your ingredients, drizzle on delicious brown sauce, sprinkle on some chili pepper, add in a dash of salted vegetables, and mix it all together for you.
It's then presented to you in plastic bag, and a long wooden skewer which you use to eat it. It's really fresh and tasty, and healthy. You can usually find these carts at most night markets, advertised by red lanterns. It makes a delicious snack or a takeaway meal in a pinch!