The moment we started exploring the streets of Taipei, one thing was clear: Snacking in Taiwan is serious business.
We first noticed rows of vendors in the hip neighborhood of Ximen, and a quick Google search shed more light on the subject. The people of Taiwan prefer to eat throughout the day instead of restrict themselves to three meals. In fact, Taipei is considered by many to have the best street food in the world. This was a welcome a discovery for us, as we prefer to eat small portions every few hours, too.
We immediately got to work trying the quick, cheap, handheld snacks the city has to offer. It would have taken months to sample everything, but these are a few of the snacks we tried, loved and would definitely eat again.
Gua bao. Also known as a “steamed bun,” “pork belly bun,” or simply “bao,” this Japanese-influenced street snack is like the Taiwanese version of a hamburger slider. Every vendor has his or her own variation, but the foundation always consists of a fluffy steamed bun and tender meat, usually pork. We ate ours with bean sprouts and a spicy sauce, but they are also sometimes served with pickled mustard greens, ground peanuts or cilantro.
Scallion pancakes. The showy technique used to cook and fluff these savory creations immediately caught our attention. Crispy, flaky and slightly chewy, we ate our scallion pancakes with bitter Thai basil, salty pork chop and fried egg. After cooking the pancakes on the grill, the vendors use flat spatulas to spin them around, fluffing the sides as they go. The pancakes are then given a quick brush of a sweet sauce, filled with ingredients and wrapped in paper, similar to a crepe.
Oyster omelettes. In Taiwan, omelettes aren’t just for breakfast, and oysters aren’t just an appetizer or happy hour snack. We wasted no time trying an oyster omelette (o ah jian), one of the most ubiquitous street snacks we saw advertised. When ours arrived, it was smothered in a sweet brown sauce, and filled with Chinese greens and large, fresh pieces of oyster meat. It wasn’t pretty, but it was delicious. Some say Taiwan is the only place in the world one can enjoy this iconic street snack.
Wheel pies. Many Asian people are lactose intolerant, so we were surprised how many street snacks in Taiwan are loaded with cheese. Apparently, a love for dairy is growing there, especially among the younger generation. We got our cheese fix eating wheel pies, a street snack that’s made by pouring a batter made of wheat, egg and sugar into round molds. We loved the curry, Thai basil pork and tomato sauce, but the pies were also stuffed with fish, corn, mochi, ice cream and chocolate. More traditional variations were filled with cream, red bean and sweet potato.
Grilled sausages and meats. It seems every country has its own variations of snackable meats, and Taiwan is no different. We saw vendors selling more sizes and types of sausage than we ever thought possible, including sweet Taiwanese sausage on a stick. Jake’s absolute favorite was da chang bao xiao chang, a hot dog-like snack made of a pork sausage with a sticky-rice “sausage” bun. I (Stacey) loved asparagus wrapped with thin slices of pork. Tender pieces of pork rib also stood out, mostly because they were cooked on the spot with a red-hot flame torch.
Octopus balls. “Saucey” and “gooey” are the best words to describe this snack that derives its roots from Japanese takoyaki. The batter balls are stuffed with seafood – octopus seemed most common in Taiwan – and then smothered with mayonnaise, barbecue sauce and/or cheese, depending on your preference. They’re tangy, creamy and yummy, but due to the heavy sauce and slimy texture, they’re not for the faint of heart. Nonetheless, the locals seemed to love them, as they poked them with skewers and popped them into their mouths in one big bite.
Boba tea. In Taiwan, boba tea – also know as “pearl tea,” “bubble tea” or “tapioca tea” – is a lifestyle. The drink, which originated in Taiwan but has become popular across Asia and the United States, is made with a tea base mixed with fruit or milk. Tapioca balls or fruit jelly are then added, creating a sweet drink that’s just as much a snack as it is a beverage. We enjoyed milky, caffeinated versions with tapioca balls in the morning, and herbal teas with colorful jelly chunks at night.
Dumplings. With Taiwan’s strong Chinese influence, it’s no wonder dumplings are such an important part of Taiwanese cuisine. Day after day, we nibbled on dumplings filled with pork soup (xiao long bao), shrimp and vegetables. They were typically served in bags, steaming hot and drizzled with dipping sauces – some spicy, some sweet. We also had our fair share of Taiwanese potstickers, which were delightfully soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.
Stinky tofu. To be perfectly transparent, we never tried this iconic Taiwanese snack, as I (Stacey) couldn’t stomach the funky stench long enough for Jake to place an order. Nevertheless, tourists who try this Chinese form of fermented tofu tend to like it, describing its flavor as far less pungent than its odor, and its texture as similar to soft cheese. We saw the cubes being deep fried to a golden brown and served with chili sauce. The dish is almost solely sold on the streets, and is also incredibly popular in China and Hong Kong.
Maybe next time, stinky tofu. Maybe.