Hungry Wanderer: A Taipei Street Food DiaryMay 19, 2019
- Mikka WeeWords
Taiwan is one of those countries that don’t require a lot of advertising to attract tourists. It might not be at the top of your must-travel lists, but it should be. It boasts a wealth of things for visitors to see and experience, like their majestic mountains, beautiful city lights, rich culture, and my favorite part, the delicious food. Taiwan is a destination truly worth visiting in Asia, if you don’t believe me, all you have to do is see (and taste) it for yourself.
In the city of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, people are friendly and the environment is fairly relaxed. The city’s unique street food offers a diverse set of choices for the hungry wanderer. Food is lugged around in wooden carts and steel trolleys. The vendors park a safe distance from each other, respecting the fact that they’re all here to make money. Surprisingly, despite the overwhelming number of merchants selling a variety of Taiwanese street fare, there are still a few special carts that merit long, long lines and calls for seconds and thirds. Here are a few that really captured my heart (and stomach).
This Egg Pancake was my entry point to Taiwanese street food. A soft pancake with a crunchy fried egg might not sound appealing, but your first bite will immediately change your mind. I tried my hardest not to order a second one because I knew I had to pace myself. It reminded me of breakfast made into a portable, handheld snack. Each is packed with so many savory flavors that are brightened up with the addition of chopped spring onions. You can also opt to have cheese added inside your pancake.
The first time I lined up for this, the man grilling the mochi strips signaled to me that they’d run out just when it was my turn to order. Devastated but undeterred, I came back a second time and was finally able to sink my teeth into his sticky-crisp mochi fresh from the grill. It was quite amusing to see it inflate once it hit the heat, then slowly shrink when poked (just like a deflating balloon) before the toppings were added.
Steamed Almond Cakes with Black Sesame and Crushed Peanuts
I’m not a fan of almond cake, but the smell of these freshly-steamed snacks in the middle of a chilly evening was quite impossible to ignore. It was reminiscent of our local puto, but more moist and airy in terms of texture. Flavor-wise, it wasn’t as sweet as its scent implied, but hints of the fragrant almond paired with the crushed, sweet peanut brittle resulted in a flavor combination worth remembering.
Small Sausage in Large Sausage
If it weren’t for the lady in front of me who ordered this first, I wouldn’t have known such a thing even existed. Under the meat sausage is a serving of glutinous rice packed inside a sausage casing. Grilled until charred and slightly crisp, it’s split vertically in half, then topped with pickled cucumbers in a sweet sauce and the aforementioned meat sausage. This made me shut up for a good half hour as I savoured the different flavors that were dancing in my mouth. This one is a must try.
Hot Star Large Fried Chicken
I wasn’t going to include Hot Star here anymore, but I changed my mind because of the novelty of eating the original version in the country that birthed it. Hot Star is a Taiwan street food celebrity, and yes, they use mutant-sized chicken, breaded, deep-fried to a shattering crisp, and dusted with five-spice powder. You can also make it your own kitchen or visit their newly opened Manila branch near Mall of Asia.
Peanut Brittle Roll with Ice Cream and Cilantro
This snack sounds absurd at first. It gave me a cold when I tried it, but it was worth it. This is a dessert made from an egg roll wrapper that’s sprinkled with grated peanut brittle, before being topped with two scoops of ice cream and a few cilantro leaves. The peculiar combination (and the long line) fueled my curiosity. Cilantro with ice cream? Who would’ve thought that was a good idea? But the earthy green added so much character and an unexpected punch to this dessert’s sweetness. Try it if you get the chance.
Fishballs are also mainstays in Taipei’s street food markets. There are different varieties and flavors available that come in a broth flavored with spring onions and cilantro (they seem to love that stuff here). A notable fishball variant I had was one in Jiufen, which was stuffed with minced meat. You have to wolf this down immediately, though, because it turns into cold soup after a mere 10 minutes.
My first encounter with this ghastly slab of soy was in Ximending, where its foul smell drove me to cover my nose. I spotted a few people lining up in front of a cart. When I went closer to investigate, the smell redoubled its assault on my senses. There it was, Stinky Tofu. JJ told me it’s worth trying out at least once, but I took one bite and I gave up. It might be an acquired taste, but it’s definitely not something I’d look for. Ever.
These sausages are as ubiquitous in Taipei as the Stinky Tofu. They are filled with more fat than meat, therefore expect it to be on the oilier side, but they’re very, very tasty. This is the same sausage placed on top of the Small Sausage in Large Sausage. I wanted it to be extra toasty and a bit more charred, but of course I didn’t know how to say it in Chinese.
Another common sight in Taipei is the dumpling. These ones and gyoza have very similar fillings, and the cooking method is identical, steamed with the surface fried. Served with soy sauce, this is a great snack if you’re looking for something more familiar and safe.
Imagine my excitement when I smelled these lamb skewers grilling away. Brushed with oil and five-spice powder, the meat was very tender and they took longer to cook than to eat. I finished all four sticks of glorious lamb in a heartbeat.
Lastly, the “tempura”. That’s they call it on the sign, but it’s not anything like the Japanese staple we’re all familiar with, far from it. These taste like kikiam, with the same texture as squid balls but a bit tougher, deep-fried in a thin batter. Five-spice powder as well as a bit of sugar is added, making it salty and sweet and very addicting.