Taiwanese Food Culture
By Justin Stephenson
One of the first things a foreigner will notice when they set foot in Taiwan for the first time is the food-it’s everywhere! Every block has a restaurant and every corner has a food stall. The Taiwanese love to eat, and their diverse fare reflects both their multicultural background and traditional roots from which they come. Din Tai Fung, possibly Taiwan’s most famous export, is essentially a jazzed up dumpling restaurant, but if you get a single recommendation as to where to eat in Taipei, odds are it’s going to be to head to Din Tai Fung. What makes this remarkable is that Din Tai Fung specializes in serving Shanghai style dumplings, not Taiwanese. The huge range in styles of dumplings in the world are enough to set you staggering, but the essential difference between the Shanghai dumplings served at Din Tai Fung and the typical “dumpling” you’ll get at the standard Taiwanese eatery is the thickness of the dough the stuffing is wrapped in.
The Taiwanese love sushi and yakiniku, traditional Japanese food that has lingered on the palate of the Taiwanese since the Japanese brought them to Taiwan. Taiwan was under Japanese rule for only 50 years, but it was a time of dramatic shift in the history of Taiwan. Japan initiated reform to Taiwanese architecture, education, health and transportation, and of course, food. Cooking with ingredients like rice wine, miso, seaweed and many more can all be accredited to Japan. The international influences of Japan and China have created a very diverse, yet wholly Taiwanese, food culture.
Rice or Noodles?
Another aspect of Taiwanese food that separates it from that of mainland China is exemplified by the traditional Taiwanese restaurant Shen Yeh, located in Taipei. What started off as a small, back-alley food stand quickly evolved into a global brand specializing in recreating traditional Taiwanese food and serving it up as high-brow cuisine. Old-fashioned Taiwanese food like fried pork, turnip omelets, and congee pepper the menu. But it’s the seafood at Shen Yeh that really shows it’s traditional roots. Being an island in a fertile ocean, Taiwan has taken full advantage of their seaside bounty. Shen Yeh serves up a huge variety of traditional seafood, from oysters to shark to sea cucumber. The Taiwanese relationship to seafood sets it apart from traditional Chinese food, especially from the western provinces of China like Szechuan, which specialize in spicy vegetables and domestic animals.
Taiwan has incorporated international flavors and styles into their own unique food traditions, which make eating in Taiwan an experience unlike any other on earth. Their food is undeniably influenced by Chinese food, but the influences of Japan and their creative take on seafood distinguish Taiwanese cuisine. Not only that, but the 60 years since independence from China have brought forth innovative foods that are 100% Taiwanese. If you’re in Taipei, the one thing you’ll see almost as much as 7-11 is CoCo tea shops, a modern take on traditional Asian tea specializing in iced tea mixed with fruit or milk served with a helping of tapioca or balls, hence the handle “bubble-tea” or “pearl milk tea.” Food innovation is a thriving business in Taiwan, and as Taiwan continues to globalize, their cuisine will continue to adapt along with them.
History shows us that “traditional Taiwanese food” is an ever changing term. The Taiwanese have altered their diet over the centuries to match their palates at any given time. But what is for certain is that much of what’s eaten in Taiwan today is a melting pot of traditional and international flavors served up Taiwanese style.
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