Hidden from small

Musician Travel Tips 2019: Taiwan Edition

October 28, 2019

Welcome to Taiwan, first stop on The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2019 Tour of Asia and the official birthplace of the global sensation known as Boba Milk Tea (or Bubble Tea). We are so excited to return to this amazing country with our beloved Orchestra colleagues. Given the nickname “Formosa” by the Portuguese in 1542 because of its mesmerizing beauty, this is where we grew up learning how to appreciate everything Taiwan has to offer, especially the food. And when you ask any Taiwanese living abroad what they miss most about Taiwan, the universal answer is the food. There are so many amazingly delicious delicacies on this island, it’s simply impossible to introduce them all. So we’ve decided to show you some of our personal favorites based on our roots, from the south to the north.

First stop, Kaohsiung City. Situated in the south, Kaohsiung City is Taiwan’s largest seaport and with that title comes the abundance of freshly caught seafood. My favorite dish is seafood porridge. Porridge is always considered as a homey comfort food, like chicken noodle soup in the US. People in Taiwan enjoy it for breakfast or any time of the day. Unlike northerners’ congee, the Kaohsiung-style seafood porridge is made with Katsuobushi(柴魚)(shredded dried fish) broth, rice, bamboo shoots, scallions, and various kinds of seafood: shrimp, fish fillets, cuttlefish, clams, and crab meat. Kaohsiung-style porridge is very similar to Japanese Chazuke (茶泡飯); the ingredients are simmered in broth for hours to bring out the sweet flavor of Katsuobushi, adding the rice to soak in extra flavor, and the seafood on top brings a refreshing taste of the ocean. The restaurant Fragrance (香味) Seafood Porridge, is only open during dinner hours. People line up for some time before the doors even open. There are only two offerings on the menu: the Seafood Porridge and the Stinky Tofu. The seafood is always measured and weighed for precision, and each is made to order. The cost is just $6.00 US, and the freshness of the seafood never disappoints. Most importantly, it warms your heart and your appetite with its simple ingredients. Don’t forget to add some ground white pepper to the porridge.

Leek Box, a pan-fried savory pocket pie filled with chopped leeks, scrambled eggs, rice noodles, shrimp, and all kinds of spices, was originally a staple street food from northern China. Around 1949, at the end of Chinese Cival War, many Kuomintang soldiers and their families retreated from the Mainland to Taiwan for what they thought would be a temporary stay. Nobody really expected to remain permanently in Taiwan. However, as time went by, the soldiers and their families stayed on, and their food culture began to mix with that of Taiwan. Leek Box is an example of what resulted and has now become extremely popular. The small food stall (矮厝仔) located across from Weiwuying National Kaohsiung Performing Arts Center serves what some consider the very best of this popular street food. Prepared with the freshest local and organic ingredients, it should satisfy any gourmet lover’s taste buds. Additionally, their meat pie (餡餅) is also the best. It’s very similar to xiaolongbao (小籠包) or soup dumplings. However, the meat pie has a crispy crust and is pan fried. The juicy fillings are made with seasoned minced pork and chopped green onion. In contrast to the crispy outer skin, the inside is filled with soup. Perfectly seasoned pork brings out the sweetness of the green scallions. These are tasty even when they are no longer piping hot. The serving portions are huge, however. Don’t be greedy. One per order is enough.

Traditional style black (milk) tea is one of a large number of teas in Taiwan—Oolong, high mountain green tea, black tea (Assam), to name just a few—and you can’t ever get bad tea in Taiwan. Bubble Tea was invented in Taichung. It has become wildly popular nowadays. You can get it on any corner of the world, including in some unexpected neighborhoods in Philly. But just like the vintage fashion trends always making a comeback, traditional-style black (milk) tea has regained popularity. The best black teas are from the mountains in the Sun Moon Lake area in central Taiwan, and they’re actually called Red Tea (紅茶) in Mandarin because of their red-brownish color. The stable temperature and humidity all year long beautifully affects the color of these leaves. One can only get traditional style black (milk) tea at specialized tea shops these days. I recommend LaoChiang (老江紅茶). They have been in business for 66 years, led by two generations of tea sellers. Their traditional style black (milk) tea has a natural sweetness and intense rich flavor at the beginning, with a hint of mint and cinnamon, and finishes with a twang of an aftertaste of coffee-like aroma. With fresh milk from a nearby farm, the blend of the bitterness of black tea and the sweetness of the dairy makes a perfect pair.

Taichung City, the second most populous city situated in the western part of central Taiwan, is where both sides of my family are from. Tucked inside an alley near the Cultural Heritage Park in the South District is a hole-in-the-wall place that serves my absolute favorite breakfast item, MiGao (米糕), or rice cake. The name is only there to fool you. It is neither a cake nor the white rice that you are thinking of. It is long-grain sticky rice in a small bowl topped with mouthwatering braised ground pork and pickled cucumber, with braised hard-boiled egg or pork ball as add-on items. Optional sauces on the side are sweet ’n’ spicy pepper glaze, and my personal favorite, garlic purée (not approved by my stand partner that day). Only available in the early part of the day, it’s also served with a side of bonito broth (free refills). I almost can’t decide whether I come here for the rice or the soup, it’s that good! 

Directly across the street from the Cultural Heritage Park is the 90-year-old delicacy stable Taichung Meatball (台中肉圓). Taiwanese meatballs are one of a kind. Sized like a Japanese dorayaki, this savory delicacy uses a glutinous, tapioca-texture-like casing, and hidden inside is amazingly spiced and seasoned pork, deep fried, then garnished with soy garlic gravy and cilantro. The complexity and harmonious mixture of flavor and texture makes this famous delicacy a superb representation of the central Taiwan region.

When it comes to traditional snacks/desserts in Taiwanese cuisine, people often think of pineapple cake, shaved ice, or Boba Milk Tea. But the one thing that trumps them all in my book is DouHua (豆花). Often referred to as tofu pudding or soybean pudding, this silken tofu-like dessert is best served chilled in a bowl of light brown syrup, sometimes with a hint of ginger. Popular toppings are red bean, mung bean, peanut, or barley, all cooked thoroughly to a consistency comparable to congee. I stumbled upon this hidden gem, Acorn DouHua (果核豆花鄉), in the north section of Taichung City a few years ago. It just happens to be around the corner from where my late mother’s family lives. Newly established by a young, hard-working couple, this place also offers hot-pressed sandwiches as combo options. But what is most impressive is their commitment to using only the freshest and finest ingredients. I absolutely love pure honesty in my food. Their DouHua is supple, full of pure soybean flavor, the toppings are cooked just right, and the sweetness of the syrup is perfectly balanced with all the other ingredients. Yes, I wrote their five-star TripAdvisor review because I’m such a fan!

Popcorn chicken is a street food that every tourist must try when they visit Taiwan. You may say all popcorn chicken tastes the same, but in fact the different crispy layers covering the chicken can completely change the taste of the dish. Taiwanese call popcorn chicken Xían Sü Jï (鹹酥雞) and it is one of the popular foods you’ll see in night markets. Different food carts like to use different flavored powders to customize their own popcorn chicken and the most common ones are black pepper and spicy. They also have seaweed, plum, and even curry! The taste of the crispy layer can be altered based on the flour they use to fry the chicken: some are really crunchy and some are smooth.

Everyone loves to eat shaved ice in summer, especially during the really hot summer season in Taiwan. One of the flavors I love is mango, which is one of the most popular fruits in Taiwan. And—maybe I’m biased—I think Taiwan has the best mangos. Mango shaved ice is usually topped with large chunks of mango and dressed with condensed milk. At most places the ice itself is made of water, but some shops use mango juice instead as their main ingredient. There are so many different flavors of shaved ice: strawberry, matcha, taro, and all kinds of others that one could never imagine. There are also toppings to add to the delicious dessert, such as boba, red bean, small rice ball, jelly, and more.

One of the most well-known Taiwanese dishes is beef noodle (牛肉麵). As a native Taiwanese, beef noodle is a dish we eat very often and is a must for visitors. The soup and noodles can taste very different depending on the restaurant, so make sure to pick the right spot. 72 Vary Beef Noodle (72變牛肉麵) is one of the must-eat restaurants for me whenever I go back to Taiwan. Don’t worry, they don’t have 72 kinds of beef noodles! They have two types of soup: braised and stewed. My personal favorite is the stewed beef noodle. It is extremely delicious (and the restaurant even offers a free refill), and the noodles are more on the chewy side. They cook the beef bones in a stew for 72 hours in order to make the soup. It’s full of a rich sweet bone taste and goes really well with the tender beef and chewy noodles. In addition to the main course, the restaurant also offers side dishes. My favorite is a mixture of many ingredients: eggs, seared seaweed, tofu, peanuts, and pig ears. The spices they use on this dish are really unique—a soy-sauce base with a bit of a burned taste, and for sure other secret ingredients as well. 72 Vary Beef Noodle is right next to a metro station and therefore very easy to find on Google.

By now you must be thinking, when are they going to talk about the other world phenomenon, the most famous food item perhaps in all of Chinese cuisine? Those incredible buns, or Xiao Long Bao, that are so juicy, full of soup inside that you just can't resist putting the entire thing into your mouth even though you might risk burning yourself! THE XLB place, Din Tai Fung, in Taipei is THE original, THE first restaurant. But guess what? Let's just give it an honorable mention for its fame, and we don't have to actually talk about it. Instead, we can talk about the Stinky Tofu, which is really the delicacy for the most sophisticated palate. It’s a dish that is more controversial but equally iconic. All the time we Asians complain about the variety of stinky cheeses around the world, this is how we get back at you. This makes the worst cheese smell like air fresheners. Stinky Tofu is fermented in brine for months, deep fried to perfect crispness, then served with garlic soy sauce, hot pepper sauce, and a side of Taiwanese cabbage kimchi. Sounds harmless, right? But that legendary smell! Often found in night markets throughout Taiwan (yes, find a night market in Taiwan and go; we won’t validate your visit to Taiwan without a trip to the night market), this odor does not need any introduction. It assaults your senses, regardless of any mental preparation you’ve done. Think of all the negative adjectives to describe a foul smell and that still doesn’t do justice to the strength of this stink. It’s a smell that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Our advice? Just embrace it. Once you get past that initial shock and come back to your senses, take a leap of faith and just go for it. Your taste buds will tell you to love it and hate it at the same time, and you’ll have that second bite before you even realize it. It’s that magnetic! Remember the time you ate some fancy cheese that smelled so bad your kids ran away, but you said it’s the best you ever had? Yeah, exactly.

There they are. Enjoy this magnificent island that we call home. We can’t wait to hear about your own Taiwanese adventures!