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Since food tours are one of my favorite ways to get to know a new place it’s only natural that the first thing I looked up in Taipei was a food tour. And I was in luck – Taipei Eats is a small company that runs food tours in Taiwan. We met our guide Jean, as well as the six other people on other tour and were off. Our guide Jean, is originally from Taiwan but moved to Toronto at the age of 10 and came back to Taiwan three and a half years ago with her husband and child.
Our first stop on the tour was a local market – selling fruits, vegetables, seafood, prepared food, you name it.
Most things sold at the market are actually grown on the island. We stopped by during the day but in the evening hours from 4-7pm Jean explained that there would be even more prepared food sold. We learned that Taiwan is in the subtropical zone but also has high mountains and while most fruits are not native to Taiwan they had been brought over by explorers to been grown on the island. Apparently the Taiwanese love their fruit very big and very sweet.
Our first taste was of the wax apple, a fruit native to the Philippines but even sweeter when grown in Taiwan. I loved it. Super juicy and refreshing, with more water content than in an apple and lightly sweet.
Next fruit tasting was the guava, a fruit native to Mexico and South America. This fruit the Taiwanese like to sprinkle with salt and dried plum powder, and I kind of loved it with the seasoning. Guava has some really hard seeds that you don’t want to bite in to, so you have to be a bit more careful when trying this harder fruit.
The guava is available all year round and is high in Vitamin C. They say a guava a day keeps the doctor away, here.
I always love walking around local markets and just wandering around looking at everything and snapping pics. This market was no different, as you can see from the photos there is no shortage of things for sale.
Our next sample was caltrop – a type of water chestnut with the nickname – devil’s pod – can you see why? It is a cross in taste between a potato and a bean. They are steamed and sold as snacks. You just need to crack off that harder outside skin to get to the deliciousness inside.
This is grown in the swamps after rice is harvested. I personally loved this. I had never tried anything quite like it before.
Next sampling was a bite of the steamed buns with cranberry. Now the steamed buns I am not a big fan of. For one reason or another they just seem to remind me of Wonderbread (which I hate). They are just a bit too mushy and doughy for my taste. Always must try everything though.
And now for my favorite market treat – thousand layer scallion bread. This is made with spring onions, sesame oil and seasoning folded into dough. Very little oil is used to make these. The scallion bread is simply amazing, it is super soft and just packed full of scallion flavor. This was one of my favorite bites on the tour. Just so so so good. An absolute must try in Taiwan. Legend has it that supposedly Marco Polo tried this in China and then tried to recreate this at home in Italy and ended up with pizza instead.
After a brief walk from the market we arrived at stop # 2 – a betel nut shop. This shop is mostly frequented by taxi or truck drivers, and betel nut has the effect of caffeine or alcohol. Essentially it gets you a big high. You can feel heated, flushed, have heart palpitation, etc. It became popular in the 1970s as it was good for the workers in that it boosted production. Jean explained that shops would even hire Betel Nut Beauties – as in women dressed in bikinis or lingerie in order to entire the customers to pick that specific shop.
Unfortunately the long term effect of betel nut is oral cancer (it has a similar effect on the body as chewing tobacco). One of the women on our tour is a cancer doctor in the Philippines and she told us how many people she sees with oral cancer after a lifetime of chewing the betel nut. Another negative from the betel nut chewing is that it makes your entire mouth and teeth stained with deep dark red/orange. Not exactly a flattering look.
Since we were all there we decided to try this mysterious betel nut. What it is, is an areca nut wrapped in betel leaves which are smeared with calcium hydroxide for digestion. You bite off the tip on the nut and spit it out, then start chewing the nut, first spitting out the initial greenish liquid that seeps out. Then you continue chewing. None of us lasted too long. It wasn’t exactly a great taste.
But we all enjoyed trying the betel nut and after the tour I saw men (and sometimes women) chewing the betel nut all over Taiwan.
Stop # 3 was an iconic Taiwanese favorite – a stinky tofu shop! Traditionally the brine would be made with fermented meat, milk and vegetables and the tofu would be soaked for weeks or months. Now they use a veggie brine in which the tofu is soaked with for a few days.
Not all stinky tofu is the same. There are levels of strength from 10-13. Since it is fermented it is considered good for digestion (as it is a probiotic).
First we tried a raw stinky tofu. This is a 2-3 day fermentation with a level 13 in strength. Imagine a soft creamy blue cheese – that’s the best way to describe the raw stinky tofu. Though I must say in taste I prefer the blue cheese! This is the only shop in Taipei that makes this raw stinky tofu and I was pretty fascinated to try this. If you close your eyes you can taste the blue cheese resemblance.
Next we tried the tried stinky tofu – this is the one that is popular at the night markets. Most night markets make this through a process of flash fermentation, meaning it is put into brine in the am and fried in the pm, so it’s smelly but not as strong in taste.
To go along with the stinky tofu we sipped on winter melon tea (a mix of winter melon and lots of sugar), which is know to be good for cutting the taste of the stinky tofu. This famous shop (even visited by Andrew Zimmern) also makes a stinky tofu burger – which none of much felt like trying.
Stop # 4 was a small street side shop specializing in noodles and soup.
As you can see in the pictures this looks like a locals only spot with nothing written in English!
Here we sampled cold wheat based noodles with sesame oil and shredded cucumbers. I loved this refreshing summer noodle dish, which as Jean explained is also good for hangovers! At this shop they make everything themselves, even toasting their own sesame seeds.
For our second course we sampled a miso egg drop pork ball soup. The prevalence of miso in Taiwanese cooking comes from the 50 year Japanese occupation of the island from 1895 to 1945.
The pork balls are made from a big piece of pork meat pounded with a mallet and dropped into the soup as balls. Now the soup I loved – the pork balls not so much. The fascination in this region with food turned into balls – fish balls for example, I will never understand. I prefer my protein not in ball form, but I can respect everyone has their own taste and I did enjoy trying the pork ball!
And this is a photo of our tour group which the shop owner (the woman in the back) happily making her way into the photo too. Our tour group consisted of 4 family members traveling together from the Philippines, an American couple from California, and us.
As we were leaving the noodle shop it started pouring. The rain was really coming down, but not to worry, Jean had things under control. She quickly ran out and purchased a poncho for each person on the tour! I thought this was incredibly thoughtful and I really appreciate this extra bit of service on the tour.
Fully dressed in our yellow ponchos we waddled over to our next stop – a bubble tea shop. Bubble tea is a Taiwanese invention that started out initially as a joke since normally tapioca is added to dessert but one man decided to add the tapioca balls to tea as a joke and the concept took off. This shop makes the balls from real cassava. We took Jean’s lead on the ordering – earl grey tea with milk with 30% sugar. Good to know that you can order based on percentages of sugar!
The bubble tea was great. A nice cold treat to break up our meals!
Next stop a full on sit down restaurant. The owner of this restaurant came to Taiwan from Shanghai in 1946 to escape war and he started with a push cart on the streets of Taipei with steaming baskets of dumplings. Now this restaurant is a locals favorite spot for xiaolongbao – soup dumplings, made with pork, gelatin or aspic. Only Taiwanese black pig is used to make these and more specifically the meat from the hind leg is used as it is more tender.
There is a specific dipping sauce for these dumplings. You want a ratio of 3-1 rice vinegar to soy sauce and the way you eat these is you add some ginger to the sauce, dip the dumpling into the sauce, place it on a spoon, make a hole to allow the soup to escape and then eat up the dumpling and the sauce.
Din Tai Fung is the world famous chain for these soup dumplings, but we went to the more local favorite spot.
The second dish we tried here was the pan fried bun made with fluffy pork with ginger, scallions and seasoning. These are a bit different because they are pan fried and crispy on the bottom, an effect that is achieve by first pan frying them and then adding water and covering the pan to steam them until cooked through.
I loved both the soup dumplings and the buns. Both were tender and so delicious, just brimming with flavor.
As we left the restaurant we were treated to dessert. A dessert like no other. This baked egg tart might have been one of the best desserts we’ve ever had in our entire lives. The shortbread crust was crunchy and delicious but that filling inside, so soft and tender was simply amazing. I mean I have no words. It was like eating a cloud.
Dave and I went back to this bakery multiple times just in search of this amazing egg tart. Hands down the best egg tart in the world (and we sampled quite a few in Taiwan, Macau and Portugal – where these traditionally hail from).
We also got to try a pineapple cake – a classic souvenir brought back from Taiwan. The pineapple cake was good, too but easily overshadowed by that massive egg tart.
After filling up it was time for a walk. And with the rain we stopped by the Sun Yat Sen memorial for a bit of cover and a quick walk around the building.
Then we were ready for more food. This time we stopped in a local shop where we would sticky rice with pork. This dish is made with long grain glutinous rice with a pork sauce made with soy sauce and sugar cooked in a 1000 year pot.
In the pot you never let the sauce level go below half and you just keep on adding and adding to it to keep the flavors developing, hence the name 1000 year pot. This dish is served with pickled daikon, boiled peanuts and fish floss.
What is fish floss you ask? Well it can be made with swordfish which is steamed and cooking in soy sauce and sugar then dry cooked until it reaches this cotton like texture. I loved the fish floss. It is super fluffy and cottony and just melts in your mouth. The complexity of flavors in this dish and how each ingredient complements the next is amazing. One of my favorite dishes on the food tour. This is a classic dish from Tainan, so if you’re heading there you can try it there too!
For our last stop we went to a local sorbet shop. Here the sorbet is made from scratch everyday with water, sugar and fruit. No artificial flavors! We sampled the taro, salted plum and lychee. All the flavors were delicious though the taro was my favorite — it was super super creamy and not too sweet.
Some of the other flavors offered include mung bean, peanut and longan.
Overall we had an absolute blast with Jean on our Taipei Eats food tour. She was a super informative guide, brimming with information and took us around to so many different food spots in the city. On this tour you truly get to sample so many different bites of food that you will have a much better understanding and grasp on Taiwanese food culture.
I loved trying all the food on the tour and could not be happier to recommend Taipei Eats for any trip to Taiwan.
We took the Xinyi food tour which is held Tues, Wed, Fri and Saturdays from 11am-2:30pm for $70 USD.
Many thanks to Taipei Eats for hosting us on this food tour. As always all opinions express here are our own.