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Taiwan - Eating and sleeping
Taiwanese eat a lot and eat often, so it isn’t surprising that around one in six is overweight. Many young women, however, are stick-thin. As in other east Asian countries, rice and noodles are staples. Sweet potatoes, taros and yams are secondary sources of carbohydrates. As you’d expect on an island, seafood (hăi xiān) is common; much of the fish, however, is farmed rather than caught in the ocean. There’s a good selection of vegetables, especially cabbage, carrots, turnips and cucumbers. Vegetables are often fried with crushed garlic rather than boiled or steamed. Sweetcorn and various beans are common.
Pork is the most frequently eaten meat and those following a kosher or halal diet should assume that meat sauces are pork-based unless stated otherwise. Chicken and mutton are also popular. Most of the beef eaten in Taiwan is imported, and part of the population – perhaps one in ten – never eats beef. This prohibition dates from pre-industrial times when cattle and water buffalo were protected because they were needed for ploughing and manure. Venison, goose and duck are easy to find. You may also have chances to try turtle, pigeon, frog, snake or snails – but not dog meat, the sale of which has been illegal since 2003.
Island cooking is a version of Chinese cuisine. It isn’t especially spicy nor sour and doesn’t much resemble the food sold by Chinese takeaways in the UK. Rice is thought to be very important indeed – few Taiwanese go 24 hours without eating a bowl or two of steamed polished white rice (bái fàn). Noodles (miàn) are common; they’re usually served ‘dry’ with gravy (gān miàn) or with chunks of meat in a soup. Taiwanese cuisine has a vast range of broths and consommés. They differ from European soups in that the liquid is often clear and somewhat oily, and the ingredients (which may include large pieces of bone) aren’t finely chopped.
Breakfast (zăo cān)
Few Western visitors find the traditional Taiwanese breakfast of rice gruel, pickles, peanuts and dried shredded pork appetising. If you’re staying in an upmarket establishment you can expect a full breakfast buffet, but if you’re not you may want to buy something the evening before. In towns and cities there are plenty of breakfast eateries (approx 05.30–11.00 daily) that sell hot, inexpensive items like egg pancakes (dàn bĭng, you can ask to have bacon and/or cheese added) and hamburgers (hàn băo, usually pork). Hot coffee is usually available, though it may come in a can. At least once during your stay try doughnut sticks and hot soy milk. Some find this type of food a little too greasy, but on cold mornings it’s just the ticket.
Lunch (wŭ cān) and dinner (wăn cān)
The foods eaten at lunchtime are very similar to those eaten at dinnertime. Lunchtime is usually 12.00–13.30, though many restaurants open earlier and close later, if at all. In small towns and mountain areas, you might struggle to get a hot meal after 19.30.
In many eating establishments the menu is either pasted on the wall or resembles a form with boxes that you tick. Because English-language menus (abbreviated EM throughout this guide) are rare, you’ll be making good use of the food section of the Language appendix in this book. Pointing at what someone else is eating and holding up a finger or two to indicate quantity won’t offend anyone.
Local-style buffets are especially convenient for those who don’t speak Mandarin. They can be found throughout urban areas and vary considerably in terms of freshness and cleanliness. At one you’ll see anywhere between a dozen and 50 different trays of food, with everything from meat to fish to vegetables. Because the food gets cold quickly and the choicest items go quickly, it pays to arrive early – 11.30 for lunch, 17.30 for dinner. Grab a paper plate (or box if you want to take the food away) and use tongs to pick up whatever takes your fancy. At the end of the line you’ll be offered white rice; the cashier will then either weigh your plate or just take a look and come up with a figure. Unless you’ve really piled the food on, the meal shouldn’t cost more than NTD100.
Visitors should seize any chance they have to try aboriginal foods. They’re available nowhere else in the world and, in the opinion of many visitors, indigenous cooking tastes very good indeed.
Aboriginal feasts often include roasted or barbecued meat (some of it obtained by hunting), small fish and shrimp taken from mountain streams, and vegetables quite different from those seen in the lowlands. Until a few decades ago, millet was a staple food in many indigenous communities. To some extent it’s been replaced by rice, but at festival time millet-based dishes are prominent. It’s during such events that you’ll see the most authentic aboriginal foods, including items not offered in restaurants. Among the Bunun tribe, raw pickled flying-squirrel intestines are considered a special delicacy, as is what’s called ‘stinky meat’ – game that’s begun to rot after being left in the trap a little too long. It’s barbecued, fried with garlic and ginger, then served with a spicy sauce.
For aborigines living in mountain communities, hunting and gathering remain important ways of obtaining food.
In addition to the usual fizzy soft drinks and supermarket fruit juices, Taiwan has an excellent selection of fresh fruit and vegetable juices, plus milkshakes made with local fruit like papaya, pineapple and mango. Cold tea is drunk in huge quantities; a Taiwanese invention variously known as ‘bubble milk tea’ or ‘pearl milk tea’ (cold black tea mixed with milk and tapioca balls) has caught on overseas.
Taiwan Beer, a lager best drunk cold, is the most popular alcoholic tipple with more than 80% of the beer market. Popular imported brands include Heineken and Kirin (a Japanese brew). In many restaurants you’ll see refrigerators full of beer and other cold drinks. Just help yourself; the staff will add the cost to your bill. Red wine is far more popular than white wine and several local wineries have been launched. The best-known spirit is kaoliang – the Chinese name means ‘sorghum’, which is its main ingredient – and it’s made in Kinmen County and the Matsu Islands.
(Photo: Tea is incredibly popular in Taiwan © Taiwan Tourism)
Compared with other travel expenses, accommodation in Taiwan isn’t notably cheap. Hotel prices are almost always quoted in New Taiwan dollars (NTD). Credit cards are accepted by top- and mid-range hotels but often not by budget inns, homestays or campsites. Bargaining is occasionally possible at motels and mid-range places.
Rather than kettles in every room, in some establishments you’ll find filtered-water machines in the lobby or corridor. These provide both room-temperature and piping-hot water. The buttons may be labelled in Chinese only, so be careful not to get scalded.
Travellers willing to pay NTD3,000 or more per night will have plenty of options. In smaller towns and resorts you may struggle to find a hotel which has both personality and staff who have a good grasp of English. In all major towns, inexpensive hotels (often costing less than NTD1,000 per night) can be found near TRA stations. These places vary hugely in quality and you should be prepared to visit three or four before choosing one. Air conditioning and cable television are standard; if there’s a deficiency it’s likely to be the hot-water system. In cheaper inns, hot water is only available in the evening, as Taiwanese tend to bathe after dinner.
The emergence of homestays (mínsù) throughout rural Taiwan is one of the most positive trends in the country’s tourism industry. There are now thousands of guesthouses and in many you can learn a lot from the host family about local customs, lifestyles and ecology.
A huge variety of establishments call themselves homestays. Some, including several in Kinmen County and the Matsu Islands, occupy well-kept traditional buildings that would be tourist attractions even if they weren’t bed-and-breakfasts. Some newer homestays were purpose-built and are very luxurious; a few places that call themselves B&Bs don’t, oddly, offer breakfast. Many homestays in remote areas offer dinner to those who book it in advance but you may be expected to eat quite early. Even in low season rooms should be booked before arrival as many owners have farms to tend to and errands to run.
Foreign travellers face two language-related obstacles when it comes to homestays. Few homestay bosses speak English and some establishments are hard to find if you can’t read Chinese signs. It’s worthwhile looking through a homestay’s website before making a reservation, even if the site has no English, as pictures of the guest rooms are useful when judging whether a place meets your standards.
Locals will tell you motels prosper by providing places where people can conduct extramarital affairs. This perhaps explains why so many motels have large comfortable beds and are absolutely soundproof – just what you want for a good night’s rest. For self-driving travellers, motels are a value-for-money alternative. They’d be an even better option if more were located in city centres or proper countryside rather than dull suburbs.
Taiwan’s hostelling scene includes ‘youth activity centres’ managed by the quasi-official China Youth Corps (an organisation which until 2000 bore the magnificent moniker, ‘China Youth Anti-Communist National Salvation Corps’) and establishments accredited by the Taiwan Youth Hostel Association (www.yh.org.tw), the local Hostelling International affiliate. In addition, www.hostels.com lists more than 200 establishments around the country. Church-run hostels in places like Tianxiang and Fenqihu are usually good options. Staying in one can be especially fascinating if you run into a missionary priest or nun who’s spent decades in Taiwan and is willing to share some of his or her experiences.
If you do any serious hiking you’ll probably stay in mountain shelters. In some you can sleep for free but bunk space should be booked ahead of time. For a few, such as Paiyun Lodge on Mount Jade, you pay when you make the booking. Comfort levels vary greatly and depend on how new the structure is and how many people you’re sharing with. In many, no bedding is provided. The toilets may be grim and you shouldn’t expect shower facilities. Many shelters have a water supply but this isn’t always reliable; you may have to walk a considerable distance to fill your bottles.
Well-organised campsites with shower facilities can be found throughout east Taiwan, in Kenting National Park, around Sun Moon Lake and several other places. Expect to pay around NTD200 per person per night. It’s not worth dragging a high-quality tent all the way from your home country when a standard Taiwanese two-person tent, which you can buy from a hypermarket for less than NTD1,500, will do perfectly well. Some campsites rent out tents. It goes without saying that the drier, cooler winter months are the best time to camp. A useful website is www.taiwancamping.net.