When we travel, we want to be able to enjoy local food. That’s why we put together the guide to getting “Hot and Noisy” in Greater China, for example.
But we also know we can’t do that every day because we’d explode. Particularly in places like Taiwan, where fried breading, sweet pastries and sugary drinks are what people eat every day. Particularly when visiting short term.
We generally maintain a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. What this means is still a work in progress, but it generally means opting for unprocessed, healthy, balanced foods most of the time, and allowing ourselves to indulge a portion of the time (say 10%).
This is hard in Taiwan, like it is in most of Asia. It’s cheaper to eat out here, and it’s what most people do. What makes this even harder is that most food you can find out is heavy in carbs, fat, offers a light amount of processed meat and is low in vegetables.
So how do we strike a balance? Good question. After looking up suggestions on where to get healthy food in Taiwan and coming up with nothing, I knew I’d have to do my own research, and that’s why I’m writing this guide.
What is “Eating Healthy”?
“Healthy” can include a number of intentionally restrictive diets, something short of the “I’m on vacation therefore I can enjoy life now and worry later”. You might be vegetarian, prefer not to eat fried foods, like to eat whole foods, eat more vegetables or whatever.
It would be hard to opt to eat out every day in Asia. No matter where you lie on the spectrum of readers of this blog, I doubt anyone would be in favor of downing fried dough sticks for breakfast every day, washing them down with sweetened boba tea and then rounding out the day with a hedonistic belly-flop into a pool of deep fried chicken, braised pork buns, sweet cakes and pork belly rice.
Unless I just described your perfect day, in which case you’ve disavowed me as a friend. I guess I deserve that.
“Healthy” is different for everyone. It depends a lot on your metabolism, your fitness and activity level, your insulin sensitivity (something I’m learning about), your goals, how long you’re staying in a place and how in tune you are with your body. For example, Jo definitely leans towards noodles and rice, which seems to work well for her. I, on the other hand, wage an unrepenting Battle of the Bulge.
So I’m not saying carbs or fat are bad. I am just saying that I (and readers here) lean towards making conscious choices, knowing all the options. Sometimes that choice is a salad, and sometimes it’s fried bread sticks.
So the below is a general guide aiming to answer the question: how does one get to make conscious food choices in a time and place of hedonism?
Firstly, ZOMG: Taiwan is the land of delicious fried carbs
Firstly, let’s get one thing out of the way. Taiwan is a great place to go if you really want to eat a lot of fried carbs of all forms.
The good news, if you want to see it that way, is that desserts are not terribly plentiful here. You won’t find many great ice cream places (just shaved ice, which is great but not in the same echelon). There’s mochi and sweet cakes, but they’re not everywhere. I don’t really think of things like tofu pudding (豆腐花, dou fu hua) in the same way I think of ice cream… it just seems vaguely healthy, and not as lustworthy.
Now for the bad news: you can do a lot of damage outside of dessert. Let’s go through the most commonly available dishes, why they’re great and why they’re not great in large quantities.
Beef Rice and Braised Pork Noodles (牛肉麵，滷肉飯)
Rice and noodle dishes are in every Asian country, but the Taiwanese do a few special dishes that are particularly mouthwatering.
On the noodles front, an old staple is “Beef Noodles” (牛肉麵, niu rou mian). This is a standard dish of Taiwan that you have to eat. It consists of heavy beef broth and chunks of braised beef. It’s salty and intense. I think the wonderful thing about it is the simplicity: it lets the main constituents (noodles, beef and broth) speak for themselves. The difference between average and great (fresh, well-textured) noodles is quite obvious even to the casual tourist.
As for rice, a similar staple is Braised Pork Rice (滷肉飯, lu rou fan). Usually consumed with a soup, this is thick noodles with a heavy meat broth chunks of braised pork. Seems harmless, but it’s really the cheeseburger of local snacks dishes. The meat is really tasty, but there’s not much of it used… it’s the fatty sauce, drizzled onto the rice, that really makes this a staple. The dish is fairly small, relatively cheap (around $1 USD), and available everywhere. When you eat it, make sure you eat it somewhere that does a good job (paste those chinese characters into Google Maps and go anywhere with 500 or more reviews).
In Taiwan, the dishes are easily interchangeable; you can get braised pork on noodles, or beef on rice in many places.
Fried Chicken and Pork Cutlet (雞排，豬排)
The fried chicken cutlet (and its close relative, the fried pork cutlet) is one of the first things you should eat at a night market.
They’re pre-prepared, usually, but they’ll throw it back in the fryer for you for 30 seconds before serving it so you get it hot, oily and crispy.
Taiwan is an expert at frying food. I did not know this, as I have never seen it anywhere in China or indeed the rest of Asia (I haven’t been to Korea, but those guys also indeed know what’s up).
I haven’t had much fried chicken in my sheltered life, but I can testify that some of it made me shut up and unable to process what other people were saying. Highly recommended.
As with most delicacies, there’s good chicken and then there’s great chicken. Freshness goes a long way. My personal favourite is Angel Fried Chicken (天使雞排, tian shi ji pai) in Kaohsiung, in the Raohe night market.
Dumplings (餃子 and 鍋貼, jiao zi and guo tie) should need no introduction. Suffice it to say that there are good and bad dumplings, but there is always some place where they’re churning them out by hand (one sign that it’s food worth eating). Like elsewhere in China and Japan, they come in steamed, boiled and pan fried formats.
Nearly all dumplings have pork in them with at least one vegetable. If you are vegetarian, occasionally you might find non-meat dumplings, but they’re rare.
Braised pork buns (割包)
Don’t let anyone tell you these are a ‘Taiwanese Hamburger’ (割包, gua bao). I think that’d be an insult to both sides; it’s just as much a hamburger as a hamburger is an open, bready dumpling.
Key ingredients to the gua bao is braised pork,an extremely fluffy bun, ground peanut and pickles. I mean I’ve seen these in the several I’ve eaten..
The light and fluffy bun is an excellent counterpart to the heavy braised pork, which is further complimented by the cilantro and sweet peanut.
Bubble tea (珍珠奶茶)
Taiwan distinguishes itself from most of greater china in being more innovative when it comes to the application of sugar. Not quite at the levels of France or Italy, but much of what you know of Chinese bakeries like 85 degrees (think: sweet breads and buns) originated in Taiwan. Or at least was popularized here.
Bubble tea (珍珠奶茶, zhen zhu nai cha) is actually quite often just sweet milk (the tea is optional!). The best thing about bubble tea is what they put into it, which is invariably tapioca pearls, plus one of a few other common things: brown sugar syrup, cake/custard, matcha powder, cream and jelly. The result is something like a frappe – milk-based, but heavily doused with sugar and fats, and probably about 500 calories of deliciousness in total.
Where to Eat Healthy in Taiwan
OK, with that out of the way, let’s look to how we can do a little better on most days, to make way for the fried chicken others.
Eating healthy in any country means finding healthily (not deep-fried) cooked meat, vegetables, fruit and nuts. (And coffee. But that’s for another story.)
Here’s what we learned.
Buffets/self-service kitchens (自助餐廳, zi zhu can ting)
These became our staple. You grab a plate or a to-go box and you choose your meats and vegetables, piling them on. They’ll give you rice by default, but you can choose to not have it.
You can choose from a variety of meats, ranging from deep fried chicken and fish to poached fish, boiled chicken and braised pork. Usually people get one meat and three vegetables and eat it with rice, a package which sets you back about $80-100 ($2-3 USD). However, because we tend to eat only two meals a day and eat fewer carbs, we’ll load up on vegetables and get a second protein, and usually spend about $150/meal (about $5). Still pretty good value. Each protein was around $1-2 each; each vegetable about 20-30c each in USD.
The vegetables on offer include broccoli, soy beans, green things like spinach and local equivalents, celery and a couple of others. There are usually a couple of local dishes available too, like egg and tomato, baked tofu and a few other local delicacies.
The main downside of buffets is that they’re not the most delicious food. The food is often tepid and rarely freshly made (like, maybe 30-60 minutes out of the cooker); when it’s fresh it’s actually delicious, like when they pull fried chicken right out of the fryer. The second downside is that sometimes the food is a little oily — you have to get the right dishes (just look for the ones that aren’t bathed in oil.). The third downside is that you have to get there between 11am and 12pm for the food to be at its most diverse and freshest. Don’t go at 2pm. It’s the same price, and not great food.
Hot Pot (火鍋, huo guo)
Hot pot is fairly well-known across Asia, particularly China or countries whose cuisine has been influenced by China. You might know it as Shabu Shabu. While it can be very unhealthy if you get the hot and spicy kind like those common in Sichuan and North China, hot pot can be very healthy if you opt for basic ingredients and a low-fat soup base. You don’t have to get just hot water; you can get a bone broth or a vegetable soup base, and then get a range of meats including chicken, lamb and maybe some fatty beef and pork (live a little!). They’ll usually give a bunch of vegetables either at low price (if it’s the kind of restaurant where you order everything), or include it with the soup.
The cheapest kind of hot pot is a little like a buffet. You start out the front and grab a bowl, loading it up with vegetables and meats as you go. You pay for it. Then they cook it and bring it to your table, where you can add sauces and spices. Actually I’m not sure this is hot pot; I ate at these places a few times and forgot to check what they were called, but it’s effectively the same thing.
More expensive hot pot restaurants will have you go in and sit down. Then they’ll set your table on fire and place a pot on top, in which you do all your own cooking.
As for carbs, a good healthy option at hot pot is to get yams and roots in the soup, or lotus. Also, grab a little rice or maybe some yam noodles, which are deliciously gelatinous. Treat yo’ self.
Convenient Meals (便當, bian dang)
Convenient meals (便當, bian dang) meals are a staple of the way people eat in Taiwan. They have rice, a major protein and three side dishes, usually some combination of pickles, something egg- or tofu-based and a vegetable. If you think this sounds a lot like a Japanese bento box, it’s because it’s the same fundamental concept! Same original etymology, though pronounced differently in Japanese, and the same characters (弁当, which are the same, just the Japanese simplified variants).
How healthy these convenient meals are depends largely on the vendor, and on how deep-fried your meats are. Opt for a boiled chicken, grilled pork or poached fish, go light on the rice and you should be fine.
The best bit of convenient meals is that they’re universal and cheap. You can get them before you get on to a train. You can get them ON a train, still for only $80 (less than USD $3). You can even get them multiple times on a multi-hour journey, so it isn’t obvious you’re not eating much rice because you’re a rich foreigner. (Yes, this was me. At least I’m embarrassed about it.)
The other part that’s great is that you get to share in something a lot of local people do. Everyone on the train will be eating the same pork as you, so you can know you’re sharing in the same sounds of appreciation.
DIY at Wet Markets (菜市場)
I know you’re eyeing the night markets, and so you should. Go get yourself some chicken cutlet, then let me tell you about wet markets. These are some of my favorite places, because you get great mileage as a foreigner here and get to chat a little with people as you buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
It’s hard, other than at wet markets, to buy fruit. At night markets, they’ll sell them to you all cut up for $50 a container (about $1.70 USD). It’s not too much, but you just feel like you’re getting ripped off because all the fruits are the same price. Who pays the same for melon as they do for dragon fruit? You can also go to supermarkets, but even budget supermarkets package their fruit so much that even you know you’re paying too much for the privilege of imported and over-packaged fruit. Not worth it.
No, you get your fresh fruits and vegetables at markets. Look up ‘market’ on google maps. You might have to wade through a street of stalls selling clothes before you get to the right place. Also, don’t leave fruit shopping for the afternoon. You can only get fruits and vegetables in the morning, from around 6:30 am through to about 1pm, whenever they run out, or pack up and go home.
A fresh produce market is a great place to soak up a little of local culture. Taiwanese vendors try to teach me a little of one of the local Taiwanese languages, like numbers or bargaining words.
On that note, bargaining is totally normal: if you get a few things that add up to $215 it’s fine to say “give it to me for $200”. They always say yes. I probably should be pushing it further. (Some local person is reading this and balking at how I could possibly spend more than $100 at a time in a market.)
Desperate Times, Convenient Measures at 7-11 (qi yao yao)
Taiwan is replete with convenience stores, with 7-11 and Family Mart among the most common. They have barely any healthy foods, but they can be a source of a few things if you’re desperate:
- Fresh, unsweetened tofu or soy milk (you have to read the characters 無糖 to know which have no sugar)
- Boiled eggs (tea eggs) for a protein snack on the go
- Bananas (never anything else! Sometimes I’d kill for just an apple)
… And that’s pretty much it. Much of the food in the fridge is processed and sweetened, so there’s nothing particularly healthy about them. That said, we’ve eaten them a few times. Hey, they’re not that bad (like beef, egg, a misc vegetable and rice), they’re convenient and the price is right!