Fifteen years ago, when I was in my last year of college, I considered applying for the Watson Fellowship, an award that basically funds a yearlong adventure in which you do something outlandishly bold like trek the Silk Road, study opera in Europe and Asia, or write poetry about lemurs on Madagascar. Unfortunately, I abandoned the attempt because one of the pre-requisites is that the adventure be unrelated to your professional goals, and my career orientated mind just could not come up with something I wanted to dedicate a year of my life to that was not related to the field of education.
“How about I study Taiwan’s educational system?” I had asked my school’s advisor for the award.
“How about you study the different foods of different regions of Taiwan?” the English professor suggested.
I frowned and looked away. “No.”
Thinking about it now, getting paid for an entire year to travel every inch of Taiwan and eat all of its different kinds of delicious food? WHY DID I SAY NO? Fool.
CNN’s recent article on Taiwanese cuisine, 40 Taiwanese Foods We Can’t Live Without by Huifu Wong reminded of this egregiously missed opportunity of a lifetime. So here’s my own countdown list of favorite Taiwanese dishes from a Taiwanese American perspective, albeit flavored with remorse after the jump.
Thanks to the fact that Los Angeles has one of the (if not the) largest concentration of Taiwanese Americans in the States, each food item below is linked to a Yelp location in Los Angeles where you can try out these Taiwanese delights.
10. Stinky Tofu
I can see the Taiwanese people lined up with nooses and burning torches at my door for this one. Stinky Tofu number 10? It should be number 1! I enjoy this flavorful, stench drenched delight today, but as a child, a banned everyone who ate it from sitting at my lunch table. It was definitely an acquired taste, and for Mother’s Day, when I offered my mom to take her to eat anything her heart desired, she dragged me to a wretched and decrepit hole in the wall dingy restaurant where they served the most disgustingly delicious steamed stinky tofu in town. I felt like the worst daughter that day, but immensely enjoyed the meal despite myself.
A deliciously balanced tea accompaniment snack, this “cake” is actually more like a small rectangular self-contained pie pastry with a chewy middle of preserved pineapple and a crumbly external crust. Pleasantly sweet instead of overwhelmingly so, I put this as my number 9 because I didn’t like it as a kid but love it as an adult, especially with my favorite Taiwanese High Mountain Oolong tea.
Luckily there’s a branch of this dumpling house here in Los Angeles just a few miles drive away from downtown, and the delicious variety of steamed and juicy dumplings are definitely worth the crowded wait and absolutely not overhyped. My first experience with Din Tai Fung dumplings, however, was happily in the original restaurant in Taiwan, where a waiter was holding a massive, beer-keg-sized tea pot with one hand and pouring hot scalding tea into everyone’s cup from three yards away. No joke. I’d hate to arm wrestle that guy.
7. Sun Cakes
Being a pretty diverse country with a rich history of political, social, and maritime economic influence, it’s hard for me to figure out what is originally Taiwanese and what is a Taiwanese version of something else from another country. I had thought every Asian everywhere had Sun Cakes, but when I shared it with a number of Chinese heritage non-Taiwanese friends, they said they had never had one until I handed them one. This flaky white pastry with a sweet but thin chewy layer in the middle is the most delicious with a tall glass of cold milk (and not the powdered kind bleh).
This is one of my favorites at Taiwan’s popular night markets, especially the one in the capital Taipei, the famous Shi Lin Night Market. It’s savory and chewy and a must have for any seafood oyster lover. And there’s something about eating it on fold out peeling flowery patterned tables and stools placed capriciously on uneven asphalt road under a blue tarp awning that makes it all the more delicious.
I do love mochi of all types, but I have to say the Taiwanese mochi are the very best. It’s not as dense as the types from Japan or Korea, and often the filling is on the outside and not the inside. The most delicious kinds are those sold on the streets of Southern Taiwan, where little old ladies serve them by cutting chunks of them out of a big glob of mochi into bowls of peanut powder or sesame powder and then serve it to you in a little plastic sandwich bag.
4. Shaved Ice
My mom always made shaved ice for community fundraisers, and yours truly spent countless sunny summer days manually shaving massive ice blocks into piles of snowflakes that were topped with boba, grass jelly, green beans, red beans, sweet syrup, and condensed milk among other toppings. At least I got to put all those upper body swimmer muscles to good use. Besides, nothing beats a nice big bowl of custom-made Taiwanese shaved ice on a hot Los Angeles day. Current reincarnations of the shaved ice in forms like snow ice are no less delectable.
Anytime anyone comes back home to San Gabriel Valley from where ever they may have wandered, stopping by a local Taiwanese breakfast place (especially with family and friends) is simply a must do. It’s no wonder these places tend to be packed to the brim and bustling with life, a veritable community hub where you see everyone in the neighborhood feasting on egg pancakes, peanut drink, mantao breads, and fried Chinese donuts dipped in freshly made soy milk.
There’s nothing more comforting and satisfying than a bowl of white rice topped with slices of savory-sweet red Taiwanese Sausage. Less oily than Filipino Longanisa but not as cardboard-dry as most red sausages served at Chinese restaurants, it’s the perfect balance of taste and texture, especially when they are freshly made at home. The best way to serve it is in one of those old school metal lunch boxes.
Egg, cucumber, and bean sprouts stacked on strips of steamed pork and shrimp wrapped in a egg roll skin powdered with peanut sugar is delicious when bought off of a street cart in Taiwan, but it’s even more heavenly when you custom make one at your home dining table with the family. Forget the fried fare–this Taiwanese burrito is sweet, savory, and refreshing all in one, and you don’t have to feel too guilty about having more than a few. Sadly, since this dish is more of a family home meal, it’s not often available for purchase. Nevertheless, it’s easy to find some recipes online, and every family sort of has their own set of favorite ingredients.
[Flickr Photo used under Creative Commons License via Eduardo M. C.]