Eating and drinking
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.
As with any east Asian country, noodles are a staple of the Taiwanese diet © liou sojan, Shutterstock
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. 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.
Tea is grown and drunk in huge quantities in Taiwan © Taiwan Tourism
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.
Compared with other travel expenses, accommodation in Taiwan isn’t 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 that has both personality and staff with a good grasp of English. In all major towns, inexpensive hotels (often costing less than NTD1,500 per night) can be found near TRA stations. These places vary hugely in quality and you should be prepared to visit a few before choosing one. Air conditioning and cable TV 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.
Homestays (mínsù 民宿) can be found throughout rural Taiwan, 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 bosses speak English and some establishments are hard to find if you can’t read Chinese signs. It’s worthwhile looking through an establishment’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’), establishments accredited by the Taiwan Youth Hostel Association, the local Hostelling International affiliate, Church-run hostels and various private-sector operations. Both inexpensive private rooms and dorm beds can be booked through www.hostels.com.
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 and several other places. Expect to pay around NTD200 per person per night. It’s not worth dragging a highquality tent all the way from your home country when a standard Taiwanese twoperson tent, which you can buy from a hypermarket for less than NTD2,000, 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.