A recurring theme in my pre-trip research was that Taiwan is home to some of the most exciting street food in Asia. What better way to be introduced to the Taiwan food culture, and street food in particular but to sign up for a Taipei walking food tour. Enter Taipei Eats.
The description of their Xinyi Tour captured my interest. It was just what I was looking for:
Taipei Eats Xinyi food tour takes you off the beaten path to experience authentic new age Taiwanese food. Our culinary walk will start at an atmospheric traditional market; from seasonal fruits to piping hot green onion bread, you will taste the best the market has to offer. We then wind through the backstreets to experience some of the locals’ favorite xiao chi, where you will sample anything from cold sesame noodles to Taiwanese burger to car wheel cake, or stinky tofu if you’re feeling brave! As our walk continues, we will visit an award-winning bakery and finally end the tour with a special Taiwanese icy treat.
I met tour guide Mike at the Yongchun MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station in Taipei’s Xinyi district. Taipei Eats is a relatively new company and I was the only one signed up on the day of my tour. I was to learn that Mike grew up in New York City and returned to his cultural roots in Taiwan about six years ago. As we wandered and talked, Mike’s love of Taiwan and passion for its food became abundantly obvious.
Yongchun MRT station is located beside the Yongchun morning market. Vendors spend 12-hour days at the market to bring customers the freshest of fruit, vegetables, seafood, meat and the street food for which Taiwan is famous. I shudder to think of the extra hours invested before and after merchants actually set up and take down their stalls.
Produce was beautifully displayed. Mike pointed out that fruits and vegetables with stickers are imported, and everything else is locally grown in Taiwan, with the majority coming from the southern parts of the island.
Whole poultry is sold with the head and legs intact, parts most western countries happily discard as inedible. Taiwanese love their chicken feet, a popular delicacy throughout Asia.
Yān xūn shāyú ròu (smoked shark meat) has the texture of sashimi. It was delectable, dipped in a combination of wasabi and soya sauce.
Lián wù (wax apples) are one of the most popular fruits in Taiwan. Their thin skins make them unsuitable for long periods in storage so they’re best eaten fresh when the flesh is succulent and juicy.
Despite its name, a ripe wax apple resembles an apple only in colour. It doesn’t taste like an apple, or have the density of an apple. Its flavour is similar to that of a pear, and it’s as juicy as a watermelon. One bite was enough for me to realize why this fruit is so popular.
These ròu wán (pork balls) are destined for soup, another signature Taiwanese street food that Mike indicated we would enjoy a little later. The fresh pork meat is pounded with a mallet until it attains a doughy consistency. When cooked in broth, the distinctive flavour and texture of the meat is retained while it absorbs the rich flavours of the broth.
The beloved cōng yóu bǐng (scallion pancake) is a popular street food snack. It’s a fried flatbread consisting of several layers of dough interspersed with chopped scallions – crispy on the outside and soft and chewy inside. The wedge-shaped servings are huge, sliced in smaller manageable portions with a cleaver.
Towards the end of the market, it was time for liáng miàn (cold noodles with sesame sauce), and soup containing pork balls similar to the type we saw on display earlier. The noodles were mixed with sesame oil, ground peanut, garlic sauce and diced cucumber – so simple to prepare but with a rich infusion of distinct yet complementary flavours.
Accompanying the sesame sauce noodles was wèizēng tāng (miso soup with egg drop, pork meatballs, tofu and scallions). It was the perfect fix on a rainy Taipei day. The pork meatballs had a unique texture and flavour with juices absorbed from the delicious broth of the soup.
The tour started at 11:00 am and I had prepared myself for the culinary adventure by having last eaten the day before. By this time, I was feeling satiated but the promise of additional tastings left me longing for more. With a Taiwanese burger next on the list, I was more than curious to say the least.
Guà bāo (Taiwanese burger) boasts braised pork, the perfect blend of lean and “not-so-lean” portions. The burger combines the salty and sweet flavours of pork with toppings of pickled mustard greens, ground peanut and cilantro served on a freshly steamed bun.
By this time I was struggling to find space for more Taiwanese delights. Mike suggested I try chēlún bǐng (car wheel cake) but as I’d already enjoyed this pancake concoction filled with sweet azuki bean paste a couple of days earlier, I regretfully declined.
It has been said that xiǎo lóng bāo may be a Shanghainese delicacy, but the Taiwanese perfected it. I had tasted xiǎo lóng bāo at Joe’s Shanghai in New York City but when Mike mentioned the option of trying a Taiwanese version I jumped at the opportunity. Known simply as pork soup dumplings in English, these tasty bundles of dough are meticulously filled with tender pork meatballs, folded and then steamed to perfection. When heated, hot soup forms within the dumpling.
Mike prepared a dipping sauce of shredded ginger, black vinegar, soya sauce, sesame oil and hot spices.
Converted from the 75-year-old Songshan Tobacco Factory complex is the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park containing the Taipei New Horizon building. In the basement is the bakery of Wu Pao-chun, a world renowned baking champion with many award-winning loaves to its name. The bread that won the international baking competition Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 2010 is the bakery’s lìzhī méiguī miànbāo (lychee-rose bread). It’s made with mullet wine, lychee and rose petals. According to Mike, the bakery is extremely popular and on weekends, the line of customers stretches for a considerable distance beyond the entrance.
We were there to taste the iconic Taiwanese pastry, fèng lí sū (pineapple cake) with its crumbly buttery crust not unlike shortbread and filled with a sweet pineapple jam-like centre.
Our walk past the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall led us to a hidden backstreet gem serving chuántǒng bīng (dairy-free ice cream). I opted for taro and peanut flavours. By this time I was struggling to find room and thankfully Mike agreed to share what amounted to a substantial serving.
Mike suggested I try tián tāng (sweet soup with beans, tapioca and tofu). My mind was willing but the body uncooperative by this point. This also meant chòu dòufu (stinky tofu) was out of the question!!
If you’re looking for an interesting, informative and fulfilling (with emphasis on “filling”) introduction to Taiwan’s street food culture, look no further than Taipei Eats. It combines a walk at a comfortable and relaxed pace, with food samplings at strategic intervals. Come hungry as the tastings are numerous and substantial.
Incorporate the Taipei walking food tour as early as possible into your visit to Taiwan as it provides a hands-on enlightening introduction to Taiwan’s food culture. Besides, Mike follows up with an email containing recommendations on some of his favourite restaurants and street markets and trust me, you’ll want to pursue some of his suggestions. His recommendation on the NingXia Night Market with easy-to-follow directions was superb. I went there twice it was that good!!
Thank you Mike for such an excellent tour and all the best in building a successful business. You’re off to a great start!
I love walking food tours. How about you? Is there a food tour anywhere in the world you would heartily recommend? If you’ve published a post or pictures, please include a link in your comments.