Taiwan is a charming, compact island rich in flavor and thick with luxury. From its capital of Taipei City, to the lush green hills of Nantou County, to the scenic coastal cliffs, the country has much to offer travelers. And like all good world-class locales, at its heart is a culture of culinary delights that range from familiar to exotic, and always worth trying.
Located just 100 miles southeast of mainland China, Taiwan boasts all the modernities of the Western world while retaining its tribal heritage. In the country there are pristine, mountainous forests and spotless hiking trails, often dotted with colorful temples and picturesque villages.
In the cities, there is thoroughly modern architecture—including Taipei 101, the second-tallest skyscraper in the world—along with exquisite restaurants, and some of the world’s most impressive subway networks, complete with punctual, affordable trains and courteous riders.
In fact, one of the country’s most remarkable aspects is its balance of pragmatism and fun. Unlike New Yorkers and other big-city dwellers, Taiwanese people are consistently obliging, multi-lingual, and happy to have you visiting their vibrant island.
Taiwan’s urban areas also have thriving queer communities, with lesbian and gay visibility reaffirming the country’s overall sense of coolness. Right away it’s hard to miss cute tomboys and their girlfriends holding hands everywhere you look, especially in its three largest cities of Taipei, Taichung and Tainan.
Of course there’s also a bit culture shock that can strike a first-time visitor. Locals sporting medical-style masks are a common sight (the best are ones with Hello Kitty or leopard-print patterns). Many thousands of scooters flying around are a reminder to obey “Don’t Walk” signs. And then there’s the food, with delicacies like beef-tendon noodle soup (they say eating collagen is amazing for the skin) and whole-fried seafood. And yes you’re invited to eat everything including head, tail and fins.
However, it’s important never to let exotic menus intimidate you. Remember that on the sea-wrapped island of Taiwan, fish, seaweed and tofu are fresh and local. And the native chefs have clearly mastered the art of tantalizing flavors. Unlike familiar Chinese food, Taiwanese restaurants find unique variations for familiar ingredients—like pressed caviar, pickled greens, dried fish, and bubble tea (it was invented in Taichung after all).
One of the best sources of local cuisine is the ubiquitous night markets. They serve as common hangout spots every single night of the week in every city, bustling with shoppers seeking everything from clothes and bags, to chopsticks and scooter accessories.
They are also where you’ll find that most notable of Taiwanese fare, stinky tofu. Perhaps the most pungent food in the universe, it’s hard to get your head, much less your mouth, around this typical Chinese snack made from tofu and fermented brine. On the plus side, it’s usually deep-fried, and if you’re lucky there’s a flavorful and innocent sauce to go with it.
The night market stands are a virtual wonderland of foods largely uncommon in Westerners’ diets. Behold, kebobs of duck, goose, pig, and cow liver. Or how about some chicken gizzards (stomachs and hearts, that is), or whole-grilled squids?
Again, let these unfamiliar tastes not deter you! Trust that Taiwanese dishes tend to taste far better than they look and smell. Take the beef-tendon soup for instance. At one of Taipei’s most famous, still family-run favs, Lao-Zhang (lao-zhang.com.tw), the smooth, flavorful beef noodle soup will have you ordering a second bowl to go with your dried-anchovy-and-pepper salad.
Innovative combinations also lead to tremendous feasts. It may mean multiple seafood items as a single dish, such as a sea urchin, abalone, shrimp, soup with oyster mushrooms and snap peas. No other dish can pack in so much to mystify your taste buds.
There are many more familiar Asian dishes that will wow you too. The top of that list includes the handmade dumplings at Din Tai Fung (dintaifung.com.tw), which began in Taipei but is now a growing international restaurant chain. With shrimp, pork, soup, truffle and other fillings, these dumplings are impossibly light and succulent, and should not be missed.
Because Taiwanese meals traditionally come in several courses, you’ll get the benefit of exploring many choices at each restaurant. Along with house specialties that usually feature a fresh, seasonal fish, noodles and vegetables also will lead to your being full well before dessert.
Speaking of dessert, there are two places that are worth going out of your way for. At Taipei’s Yong Kang 15 (also the address) you will find perhaps the best fruity desserts on the planet—do not leave Taiwan with trying the “mango shaved ice.” The other dessert hotspot is Dazzling Café, which has two Taipei locations, and specializes in sweet “toasts” topped with honey, sauces and chocolate fondue (dazzling.cafe on Facebook).
Now about that gay scene—The Red House (redhouse.org.tw) is Taipei’s hub of all things queer. Named for its recently renovated, 1908 Red House Theatre, the area is now home to a huge patio surrounded by bars, each with their own outdoor seating areas. Start with a cocktail here and then head to Luxy (luxy-taipei.com) for Wednesday ladies’ night, and great house DJs every other night. You can also chime in at any of the endless karaoke joints, many of which have busy gay nights (the best hot karaoke bars change often, so ask around).
Lesbians should not miss Les Love Boat (lesloveboat.com), a popular LGBT store near Taipei University. There you’ll find clothes designed especially for dykes and tomboys, including special-fit tank-top-style binders, along with movies, books, toys and more. Les Love Boat also has a fortune teller in-house, and offers several kinds of massage. Nearby, Gin Gin’s (ginginbooks.com) is Taipei’s go-to shop for LGBT literature and events since 1999.
And don’t forget to consult fridae.asia and the multi-national utopia-asia.com websites to see what’s happening during your visit to Taiwan. Because one thing’s for sure: In busy, booming Taiwan, the travelers who show up ready to get in the mix will have the most fun.