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 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. 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.
No longer regarded as a subset of or inferior to China’s culinary traditions, Taiwanese cooking emphasises neither spiciness nor sourness. Dishes are usually steamed, stewed or stir-fried. Taiwanese make the most of local seafood, and of the fresh ingredients that are available year-round.
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Rice was once thought to be very important indeed, but consumption has fallen dramatically in the past few decades as wheat-based alternatives became widely available. Even so, few Taiwanese go 48 hours without eating a bowl or two of steamed polished white rice (bái fàn 白飯).
Noodles (miàn 麵) are common; they’re usually served ‘dry’ with gravy (gān miàn 乾麵) or with chunks of meat in a soup. Taiwanese cuisine also has a vast range of broths and consommés that 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.
Visitors should seize any chance they have to try indigenous foods. They’re available nowhere else in the world and, in the opinion of many people, indigenous cooking tastes very good indeed.
Indigenous 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 indigenous 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 indigenous families living in remote 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 60% 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 there are several local wineries. 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.