It’s hard to define what constitutes traditional Taiwanese cuisine strictly. While specific notable influences are inherited from indigenous Taiwanese people, modern Taiwanese food is a unique amalgamation of influences from mainland China (particularly Hoklo people’s culinary traditions), Japan, Hakka people, and even certain Western trends.
In other words, Taiwanese cuisine in its current form results from particular historical trends, migration patterns, and colonization.
While defining authentic Taiwanese food can be difficult, it’s no doubt that it’s been unfairly denied the limelight. Fortunately, in recent years, Taiwanese cuisine has been slowly but surely gaining attention, with its signature dishes’ unique features and flavors becoming more recognizable.
If you’re interested in expanding your palette to authentic Taiwanese food, these are the items you need to keep in your pantry:
Classic Knife Cut Noodles
Classic knife-cut noodles are common in Taiwanese pantries due to their versatility. These noodles are typically made with high-gluten wheat flour, resulting in a highly elastic and chewy dough. They’re cut in thick ribbons and can easily be used for most Taiwanese noodle-based dishes, from soups to stir-fries. Thick knife-cut noodles are typically the noodles used for traditional Taiwanese beef noodle soup called Niu Rou Mian.
Guan Miao Noodles
Guan Miao noodles are a variety of hand-pulled noodles made with just wheat flour and water. They’re traditionally very thin (though not as thin as, say, angel hair pasta) and stark white. Very firm and moderately chewy, Guan Miao noodles are traditionally used for stir-fries due to their ability to maintain form and texture throughout the cooking process.
Yi Mein Noodles
Yi Mein noodles are a transplant from Cantonese cuisine. Classic Yi Mein (meaning “long life”) are egg noodles made with wheat flour. Their main characteristic is their length (hence the name) - on average, they’re over 12 inches long. Cantonese Yi Mein is golden-brown color and has a spongy, slightly chewy texture.
Taiwanese Yi Mein noodles differ from Cantonese in several aspects. For one, they don’t necessarily contain eggs. For another, their color may range anywhere from dark white to deep yellow. One thing that stays unchanged is the length. Taiwanese Yi Mein is just as long and sometimes even longer as its Cantonese counterpart.
It’s rather the name of a dish, not of noodle variety, though the term is used interchangeably to describe the noodles. Danzai noodles, also known as Ta-a Mi, is a Taiwanese shrimp soup. It calls for a specific type of “oil noodles”: greased egg noodles made with lye water. These noodles are sometimes called Danzai noodles as well, to clarify what kind of noodles the conversation is about.
Tainan-style Thin Noodles
Tainan-style noodles usually refer to dry ramen noodles that are air-dried, not deep-fried. They’re made with plain wheat flour and water and have a very firm and chewy texture. These noodles have a very plain flavor but maintain form well, and thus are very useful for heavily spiced soups and flavorful stir-fries. They are often used as a substitute for noodles requiring more time and labor.
Hakka noodles are noodles made with unleavened dough. They can be made with either rice or wheat flour, though wheat tends to be more common. The color may range anywhere from stark white to deep yellow. Hakka noodles are typically either dried or refrigerated before cooking, depending on the initial preparation method. Good Hakka noodles should be firm, moderately chewy, and not get lumped together during preparation. They’re traditionally used for stir-fries, but it’s not uncommon to have them served cold and strained or add them to soups.
Classic Chinese vermicelli noodles are made with rice flour, but Taiwanese vermicelli noodles can be made from either rice or wheat. They’re supposed to be very thin, firm, and chewy.
These noodles are most notably used for Oyster Misua, a traditional Chinese oyster vermicelli noodle soup popular in Taiwan. The Taiwanese version of the soup is made with thick and smooth stock, oyster chunks, and pieces of pig intestine.
Oyster Omelette Mix
Another traditional oyster-based Taiwanese dish is the oyster omelette. A traditional dish of the Hokio people, it came to Taiwan in the 17th century and has since become a signature Taiwanese food. It’s made by frying small oysters and covering them in beaten eggs mixed with sweet potato starch (for thicker consistency). A popular nighttime market snack, oyster omelette has often been ranked as the top Taiwanese food. Oyster omelette mix is a spice blend used to flavor the dish.
Taiwanese chili oil tends to be very simple. It usually contains only chili peppers (either crushed or ground), a vegetable oil, most commonly soybean, and some salt. Certain manufacturers may add sugar as well, though it’s not mandatory.
Mala Jiang is a traditional spicy chili sauce made by simmering mala mix (ground chilies and Sichuan peppercorns) in oil, with other flavoring ingredients. Depending on the recipe, this list may include garlic, fennel, clove, cardamom, ginger, star anise, cumin, Doubanjang, etc. Taiwanese-style Mala Jiang tends to be fiery hot, sometimes thickened with wheat flour and additionally flavored with soy sauce.
Doubanjiang is a spicy and savory bean sauce that originated in Sichuan cuisine. Traditional Sichuan Doubanjiang is a fermented mixture of broad bean paste and fresh chili peppers.
In Taiwan, Doubanjiang refers to a somewhat different sauce. Taiwanese Doubanjiang can be made either with fermented soybeans or broad beans, and it doesn’t necessarily contain chili peppers. Sichuanese Doubanjiang is spicy by default, but Taiwanese Doubanjiang can be either spicy or not. Some producers may also use the term to refer to sweet bean sauce, though this is incorrect.
Luckily, differentiating between Doubanjiang and sweet bean sauce is relatively easy. Sweet bean sauce (that’s actually called Tianmian sauce) is a thicker, smoother sauce significantly darker than Doubanjiang, a very dark brown or black in color.
Tianmian is made from soybeans, thickened with wheat flour, and often sweetened with sugar, though its flavor can range from sweet to savory.
Taiwanese Fried Chicken Seasoning
Taiwanese fried chicken is one of the most iconic dishes of modern Taiwanese cuisine. Taiwanese fried chicken is typically deep-fried twice, similar to Korean-style fried chicken. It allows for a less greasy, more crunchy, and delicate shell similar to Japanese tempura. The main difference between the two is that Taiwanese fried chicken is tossed with a specific spice blend that contains salt, various types of pepper (black, white, green chili), and allspice. While chefs can twist the recipe according to their taste, adding other spices, the salt-and-pepper combo stays constant.
Niu Rou Mian Seasoning
Niu Rou Mian is a traditional Taiwanese beef noodle soup. If there’s a Taiwanese food that can compete with Oyster omelette for the title of signature Taiwanese dish, it’s this one.
Niu Rou Mian soup is heavily spiced, with seasoning including black cardamom, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds, ginger, coriander, and bay leaves. Depending on the recipe, cinnamon, cumin, goji berries, and other spices can be added. You can make the blend from scratch, and ready-made seasoning can go a long way in preparing authentic Niu Rou Mian.
Bak Kut Teh Seasoning
Bak Kut Teh is a traditional Taiwanese pork rib soup. Similar to beef noodle soup, it’s heavily spiced. Traditional seasoning contains black and white pepper, star anise, cinnamon, garlic, fennel seeds, and a mixture of dried Chinese herbs (Gancao, Duhuo, Chuanxiong, etc.).
Seitan is wheat gluten made by removing starch from the wheat dough. A popular, high-protein product, it’s often used as a substitute for tofu or as a meat alternative (according to a legend, it was invented by Chinese Buddhist monks for this very purpose).
Taiwanese-style seitan is called fried gluten. It’s typically sold as mock/imitation abalone. To make fried gluten, seitan is shredded in small chunks and braised or canned in the soy-flavored sauce.
Taiwanese Peanut Soup
The world’s most famous peanut soup is likely African, but it would be tough to mistake it for Taiwanese peanut soup.
Taiwanese peanut soup is a sweet snack, where African peanut soup is savory, heavily spiced, and mixed with other ingredients like tomatoes, okra, and eggplant.
This peanut soup variety combines boiled peanuts with milk and sweetens the resulting thick mixture with cane sugar. If anything, it has more in common with Japanese sweet red bean soup than African peanut soup.
Taiwanese Eight Treasure Congee
Original Chinese Eight Treasure Congee is a ceremonial dish traditionally prepared and eaten during the Laba Festival - on the eighth day of the twelfth month. As the name indicates, the congee contains eight main ingredients, a mixture of various beans, nuts, and fruits. However, those eight main ingredients vary from region to region, and the Taiwanese version is no exception.
Taiwanese eight treasure congee usually contains some combination of red beans, mung beans, black beans, glutinous rice, oats, barley, peanuts, job’s tears, logans, sesame seeds, and is sweetened with sugar.
Taiwanese Tea Eggs
Tea eggs are popular snacks that originated in China but are now popular all over Asia. It’s made by re-boiling a slightly cracked boiled egg in a special brew made with tea and spices. The cracking is necessary to create signature brown marbling. How dark the egg gets depends on how long they’re soaked in the tea. In Taiwan, tea eggs are one of the most popular convenience store foods.
Taiwanese tea is considered one of the most high-quality in the world. It’s usually separated into four main types:
Black tea that’s the most oxidized and thus has the most robust flavor. The most famous black tea in Taiwan is Assam tea, beloved for its rich malty flavor and deep color.
Green tea hasn’t gone through an oxidization process and thus has a relatively mild but deep floral and fruity flavor. In Taiwan, green tea is a popular base for flavored tea drinks, with jasmine flowers and fruits being popular options.
Oolong tea is quite possibly the tea that Taiwan is known best for. Over half a dozen cultivars are grown in Taiwan, each with different flavor profiles. The higher the elevation the oolong tea is grown at, the higher the price - these teas are renowned for their unique sweet flavor.
White tea is young and minimally processed, with a delicate, slightly sweet flavor. It’s the least popular tea variety among the four, and you’re not likely to find many (if any) options at a grocery store.
Taiwanese Milk Tea
The famous milk tea, nowadays known as Bubble tea, was indeed invented in Taiwan! The Taiwanese version of the drink may use any of the abovementioned tea types or a blend of two, milk, and chewy tapioca pearls (boba).
The drink has significantly evolved since then, with additional flavorings for the tea, chewy jelly instead of boba, adding ice cream or fruit to the drink, effectively turning it into a shake, etc.
Taiwanese manufacturers like 3:15 PM have long cottoned onto the drink’s popularity and provided instant milk tea packs for those who want to make the drink quickly at home. T. Grand Assam offers various flavors (strawberry, apple, vanilla, etc.) with different tea types.
Taiwan has some unique snacks that definitely deserve a place in your pantry if you’re a snacker. Crunchy ramen snacks (dried ramen bites), shrimp and cuttlefish crackers with intense seafood flavor, and potato chips with original flavors like seaweed and oyster omelet come to mind.
Taiwanese desserts can be no less unique. While classic fruity flavors are popular here, pay attention to taro-flavored cookies and crackers, which are particularly popular here. I Mei has a few exciting options.
Jelly is a popular treat in Taiwan, arguably more popular than any candy. It’s a signature ingredient in Bubble tea but is also often consumed as a standalone dessert. Popular varieties include coconut jelly, lychee jelly, and Aiyu (a fig variety) jelly.
Grass jelly made from a type of mint variety is another famous jelly. This one is a bit bitter and usually served either in a cold drink or with fruits.
Taiwanese Pineapple Cake
And last but certainly not least, another iconic Taiwanese food. Taiwanese pineapple cake is likely the best-known dessert in Taiwan. These are soft, spongy sweet pastries made with ample butter and sugar and filled with either pineapple jam or whole slices.
Traditionally, Taiwanese pineapple cake used to be a ceremonial food, but the sudden pineapple surplus on the local market in the 20th century and the government’s promotional campaigns made pineapple cake night synonymous with Taiwanese dessert.
Taiwanese pineapple cakes are so popular nowadays that they’re one of the most famous souvenir items among tourists.
Taiwanese Castella Cake
Another dessert the country is known for, castella cake, was introduced to Taiwan during the Japanese occupation. But modern Taiwanese Castella significantly differs from its Japanese parent. It’s more soufflé-like and has a soft, custardy center. Arguably, the popularity of Taiwanese castella has since surpassed the Japanese original.