When it comes to street food in Taipei, few places rival Dadaocheng, a riverside district on the western corridor of the city.
That’s because Dadaocheng, founded in the late 19th century, is one of the few areas in Taipei that has escaped the jaws of modern development and remained surprisingly intact.
It’s a quaint and living snapshot of old Taipei. The district’s main artery—Dihua Street—is graced with ornately decorated teahouses, neo-Baroque architecture, bright Fujianese temples, and crimson brick structures.
The district was founded by a group of merchants originally from Fujian and blossomed into a trade port because of its convenient riverside coordinates. It became known for its global tea trade, which attracted more people.
And with more people came more food.
Today, the food stalls that line the streets are some of the main attractions. They’re sometimes called the “kitchens of Dadaocheng” because the food is cooked and consumed on the spot.
And because Dadaocheng was the commercial center of old Taipei, its cuisine became a hodgepodge of influences from different traders.
Some of the strongest influence came from Fujian and Guangdong, the southeastern provinces where a majority of Taiwanese people claim ancestry.
“Migrants from those places brought cooking techniques and dietary preferences with them,” says Steven Crook, co-author of A Culinary History of Taipei. “But of course they had to adapt to what was available and which crops thrived here in Taiwan.”
According to Crook, Taiwanese cuisine developed using what grew well here or what could be hunted, fished, or foraged. Meanwhile, wheat products and widespread use of oil for frying came much later.
“I think braising is the key technique in Taiwanese cuisine,” he says. “Soups are central.”
At Dadaocheng, you can get a taste of the diversity that defines Taiwanese cuisine. Here are five dishes you might find on the streets.
Four spirits soup (四神汤)
Four spirits soup is a pork-based broth with a motley of herbs. The “four spirits” refer to Chinese yam, poria cocos (a Chinese fungus), the seeds of the prickly water lily, and lotus seed. It’s supplemented with pig fallopian tubes, pork intestine, pork stomach, pork liver, and pearl barley. Its roots, like many Taiwanese dishes, can be traced back to Fujian.
Fish ball soup (鱼丸汤)
“Q,” the Taiwanese equivalent of al dente, is prevalent throughout Taiwanese cuisine. It’s the springy, chewy texture associated with tapioca balls—and fish balls, when done right, should also have that “Q” bounciness.
Jiaxing Fish Balls (佳兴鱼丸店) has become known for delivering on that promise.
The Fujianese-style fish balls—made with shark meat and a pork meat center—are served inside a bowl of clear broth.
The restaurant offers a range of condiments, including salty chili sauce and mala sauce—icons of Sichuanese cuisine—as well as shacha sauce made with fried shrimp, fried shallots, and chili paste.
Yi noodles (意面)
Yi noodles originated from the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan. Not to be confused with Cantonese yi noodles (伊麵), Taiwanese yi noodles are traditionally made with flour and duck eggs, without any water used during the kneading process.
“As you press on the dough, it makes the sound yi, yi, yi, because it’s hard to knead,” says Tina Fong, co-founder of Taipei Eats food tours. “That’s why they call it yi noodles.”
The noodles are served with a sweet bean sauce made from fermented red yeast, flour, fresh shallots, fresh chives, and sugar.
Stinky tofu (臭豆腐)
Stinky tofu is a malodorous clump of stench and umami, made possible by a miscellaneous brine of vegetables and shelled shrimp. The tofu is fermented for days, sometimes weeks, to achieve its namesake odor.
A common legend about stinky tofu’s origin dates back to the 17th century and involves a shop owner in Beijing who made too much tofu one summer and left his stock sitting for a few days.
One store in Dadaocheng called 阿华大肠面线臭豆腐—or Ah Hua for short—serves pieces of fried stinky tofu with thick sweet soy sauce and pickled cabbage.
Rice vermicelli (面线)
Ah Hua also serves a bowl of rice vermicelli, also known as mee sua in Hokkien, the dialect of Fujian province.
Fundamentally, mee sua is a thick soup with silky-thin rice noodles. It’s harmonized with wood ear mushroom, squid, and garlic paste.
Depending on whether you’re in northern or southern Taiwan, restaurants will also add pork intestines (in the north) and oysters (in the south).