The first Portuguese sailors to arrive at Taiwan were so enamored that they named it Formosa, or beautiful island. Today, this small island country continues to enchant visitors with its stunning natural beauty, its pulsating cities, and most importantly with its diverse cuisine.
It is well known by locals that the best and most authentically Taiwanese food is not found in upscale restaurants, but in street vendors carts, night markets, and small hole in the wall restaurants. Some of the more well known “xiao chi” are oyster and scallion pancakes, dumplings, fish balls, barbequed squid, and for the brave souls, stinky tofu.
Taiwan’s cuisine has been shaped in large part by its natural environment and geographic location. As an island nation the Taiwanese have harvested the sea throughout their history, making seafood a vital part of the country’s diet. Indeed, even if a dish does not appear to contain seafood chances are good that Taiwan’s famous fish paste was used in its preparation. Taiwan is also blessed with a lush tropical climate meaning that there is an abundance of fresh fruit including papayas, mangos, melons, and oranges.
Although Taiwan’s location forms the base of its cuisine, its dynamic recent history is the primary force shaping its eclectic cuisine. For the first half of the 20th century Taiwan was under Japanese rule, meaning there is a noticeable Japanese influence on Taiwanese cuisine. The most obvious signs of Japanese influence are in the popularity of sashimi and sushi, along with tempura style breaded fish and vegetables.
Following the defeat of Japan in WWII, mainland China was plunged into civil war, pitting the Nationalist party against the Communist party. With the victory of the Communist Party, the Nationalist party fled the mainland and established themselves on Taiwan. This mass immigration of main land Chinese is the most significant event in Taiwan’s history and has greatly influenced its cuisine. Many local derivatives of Chinese cuisine have found themselves to become standard dishes in Taiwan, such as the famed beef noodle soup.
Mainland China is a vast and diverse land with wide ranging culinary traditions. Bread and noodles form the staple of northern China, while for the hotter and wetter south rice is the standard. Cooking styles also vary across the expansive mainland with the eastern areas around Shanghai favoring sweeter dishes, while the western province of Sichuan is famed for its spicy foods. In Taiwanese cuisine, Hakka cuisine has a special place. The Hakka people are found mainly in the southeastern part of China, mainly Guangdong, Fujian, and diaspora all throughout the world that includes many Taiwanese today. Hakka food boasts a number of famous dishes known throughout China including salt baked chicken, duck stuffed sticky rice, the famed beef ball soup, stuffed tofu cube, and pork belly slice. All traditional dishes are made with a local twist owing to local creativity. Taiwan is, after all, the island that started the bubble tea craze that has overtaken Asia and abroad with its tea and tapioca pearls. Its unique location, history, and its people’s ingenuity have won Taiwan the rightful name as “island food paradise.”