新竹: Taiwanese Street Food Tour
Many memories of my recent trip to Taiwan recap an abundance of street food signs jostling for attention: ‘雞排’ (‘Fried Chicken Steak’), ‘臭豆腐’ (‘Stinky Tofu’), ‘餃子’ (‘Dumplings’), ‘牛肉麵’ (‘Beef Noodle Soup’). Row after row, placards rear wherever there is space to be seen. For street food vendors, there is little need for a unique business name to be noticed as local dish names are self-sufficient in reputation. Food traditionally plays an important role in East Asian culture and the Taiwanese have a reputation for treating culinary experiences with high regard, through ‘小吃' ('Xiao Chi’, literally meaning small eats) street food. More street food stalls can be found in Taiwan than Hong Kong or China in a given square mile.
Taiwanese cuisine is influenced by aboriginal, Qing Chinese, Japanese (pastes and soups), and modern Chinese tastes; Fujian, Sichuanese and Shanghainese which were carried over when the Chinese migrated to Taiwan, with continued evolvement into its own flavours. On my first day, I embarked on an informal food tour at the market by City God Template in 新竹 (Hsin Chu). I’ve tried a lot of Taiwanese street food from previous visits but it was great to indulge again after many years.
City God Temple Market in Hsin Chu.
蔥抓餅: Scallion Pancake
First up, was Scallion Pancake (蔥抓餅), which is originally from Shandong (山東) in China and typically served as breakfast. The savoury pancakes are easily found in Taiwan as a daytime snack. The original version is simple; made from fried dough, scallions and egg, served with a choice of sauces. Meats add richer flavours, and would usually be chicken or beef. The liquid flour mix sizzled as it spread over the frying board. Eggs were cracked over the mixture and a handful of scallions, leaves and flavoured powder sprinkled on top. The dough with its ingredients were flipped and tugged at repeatedly. There is an old Chinese story that Marco Polo loved Scallion Pancake so much that when he returned to Italy, this was re-created as what we now know as Pizza (although its origins have been disputed otherwise). Sauce was spread over the pancake with a brush, before it was served in a plastic bag. The folded pancake was warm and moist, and incredibly soft. A simple snack which managed to compact so much flavor without many ingredients. Delicious! My first snack well rated and devoured.
雞排: Fried Chicken Steak
We stumbled across J&G Fried Chicken (繼光香香雞), a known Taiwanese takeout chain, and tried their original crispy chicken nuggets which is essentially traditional Taiwanese Fried Chicken Steak (台灣大雞排 is usually served in chunks as large as 12 inches!) in small pieces. This is unlike the Western fast food chains, being in Taiwanese style with vendors keeping a close eye on the chicken, adding pepper and various chili and other flavoured powders as it is being fried, then seasoning again at the end. Furthermore, the batter’s texture is consistently thin. Given how easily fried chicken steak is found from smaller family-run food stalls, I was surprised there was a franchise, and worried its expansion would compromise on quality. However, I was very impressed (although this was slightly greasier than desired), the meat was stringy and succulent, and batter rich in spicy and garlic flavours. Personally, I think I prefer it served in the style of nuggets or popcorn chicken as opposed to a full steak which i’m unlikely to finish. J&G Fried Chicken is also in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore and even as far as Canada and Australia! That’s a long way from the family run street food stall set up in Taichung (台中) in 1973.
肉圓: Meatball Dumpling
Ba Wan, or Ruo Yuan (肉圓) was my favourite Taiwanese snack when I was younger. This can be described as a meatball dumpling made from a translucent, thin potato starch dough filled with pork, mushrooms, bamboo which is served with a mix of sweet and savoury sauces. It has been said that Ba Wan used to be emergency food during the alleviation of flooding, before becoming a widespread national dish. Admittedly, by the time I was a late teenager, I remember finding it underwhelming due to how much I romanticised the taste during the years I was away from Taiwan. However, due the keenness of trying different foods, I was willing to try again. As I complimented the dish, my food tour guide said this was one of the best stalls in Hsin Chu, but it used to be even better. This descended into a conversation with the vendor about street food family businesses being passed to younger generations and new chefs. It’s hard to replicate the same quality under new hands, and not all young people want to continue their family business today.
剉冰: Shaved Ice, Tofu Dessert
Chua Bing (剉冰) is a shaved ice ‘mountain pile’ served with other Chinese dessert such as: red or green bean, sweet potato, mango, matcha, tapioca or glutinous rice. For locals, the dessert’s coolness makes it popular in the summer time, but for tourists unattuned to hot Taiwanese weather, it’s perfect all year round. We went to a famous shop selling this for 50 years, which had been shown in the news (news clip can be seen here!). Usually the queues are long and we were lucky to go on a day when it was quieter.
I saw how it was made for the first time; a large block of ice is put under a machine spinning it against metal sides which scraped the ice, making small, thin pieces fall off. It’s a great snack when you feel like eating and drinking something at the same time, but the sweetness may leave you feeling thirsty. Whenever the beans and other dessert tasted too sweet, I tended to sweep over more shaved ice to dilute it.
I’m not a big fan of glutinous rice balls, but they are ever so popular in Chinese dessert and done well here. They are usually served with a light ginger syrup soup, and in this particular case, along with soft, sweetened tofu. Having dessert which is heavier on the ‘hard foods’ side (i.e rice balls and tofu) complimented the shaved ice, due to the contrast in consuming something filling and having something which melted away in your mouth with each spoonful.
花生冰淇淋春捲: Peanut Ice Cream Spring Roll (with coriander)
Of all the dishes, the Peanut Ice Cream Spring Roll (花生冰淇淋春捲) is the one I tried for the first time. I was surprised such a thing existed in Taiwan, given it seemed so unusual and more similar to the ice cream served in a sweet bun which I tried in Bangkok. When the man asked if I wanted this served with coriander, I thought I misheard, but upon realising this is exactly what he had meant, and seeing someone else pick up their snack with coriander in it, I decided to say no (for fear of turning it into something I did not like!). In hindsight, I would have tried this, as it turned out it wasn't something unique this stall was doing and the snack is normally served this way. This was unexpectedly good, somehow the roll and ice cream did manage to fit in taste, and the sugary nuts sprinkled on top added an extra crunch and flavor.
There are few posts which have made me feel so hungry as I'm writing. The list is non-exhaustive, with plenty of other local recommendations that I find myself repeatedly having without dulling the cravings! What other street food snacks have you tried from Taiwan which you loved? Let us know!