The view from the top of Yushan, Taiwan's tallest mountain.
Travel

There’s more to Taiwan than just night markets and cats

Oct 10, 2018

Taiwan, in my opinion, doesn’t get its full due in the marketing department. Travel guides and the occasional visiting journalist tout it as a night market haven, flush with meat skewers, hot pepper buns, and plates of stinky tofu.

Food is the main—and most repeated—talking point, used by countless bloggers and Instagrammers who all frequent the same places in Taipei. Others fixate on the Taiwanese obsession with cats. The world’s first cat cafe allegedly spawned in Taipei, and there’s even a cat-themed town inundated with stray, yet very tame, felines.

Indeed, there is a lot of food, and there are a lot of cats. But Taiwan is much more than the regular rolodex of curiosities. As someone who has unwillingly circumnavigated the island twice this year already (a story for another time), I’m of the belief that Taiwan is highly, highly underrated. Here are some of my favorite overlooked things.

This tofu in Hualien is made with water from a mud volcano.
This tofu in Hualien is made with water from a mud volcano. / Photo: Nicholas Ko

Mud volcano tofu

There’s a town up in the mountains of Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast that fashions tofu out of mud volcano water. What is a mud volcano, and what does it have to do with tofu? Nic, our videographer, and I took a train out to this remote town and had the pleasure of eating its special tofu with a drizzle of soy sauce and a dab of wasabi.

(Watch: How tofu is made with mud volcano water)

The view from the top of Yushan, Taiwan's tallest mountain.
The view from the top of Yushan, Taiwan's tallest mountain. / Photo: Shutterstock

A hundred peaks

Although Taiwan is a subtropical island, it boasts an incredibly diverse collection of high-altitude mountains. There are over 300 peaks that top 9,800 feet, and 100 of them have been compiled into a list called the Baiyue, a sort of bucket list for avid Taiwanese hikers. The tallest is Yushan, which stands 12,966 feet above sea level.

Aeles Lrawbalrate, an indigenous chef in Taiwan, uses foraged ingredients from the jungle in her dishes.
Aeles Lrawbalrate, an indigenous chef in Taiwan, uses foraged ingredients from the jungle in her dishes. / Photo: Nicholas Ko

Indigenous culture

There are theories that Taiwan is the birthplace of Austronesian culture. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find communities of people on the island who still hunt for wild game and forage for native plants.

I spent one month with a host family that belonged to the Rukai, one of 16 recognized indigenous ethnic groups in Taiwan, to learn more about their practices and my own indigenous roots.

I found out I was part indigenous through genealogy tests, which led me on a wild goose chase that eventually ended in the home of one of the last remaining shamans of the Puyuma tribe, who, through splitting bamboo for three hours, deduced that my ancestors came from the Amis tribe.

It’s a piece of speculation that I can’t factually verify, but it was fun regardless and makes for a good story.

(Watch: A Rukai chef seeks to reverse the effects of colonization in her village)

Surfing in Taiwan's east coast.
Surfing in Taiwan's east coast. / Photo: James Wendlinger/SCMP

Riding the waves

Although they live on an island, Taiwanese people don’t really swim. In 2009, only 42 percent of students said they could swim. The fear of water dates back to the 1940s, when the coastline was restricted due to fear of a mainland Chinese invasion.

A lot of spectacular beaches are practically deserted all year round, even on the balmiest and clearest days, but the surfing scene has really taken off in the last decade, especially in the town of Dulan on the east coast. Highly recommended.

(Read more: Fire fishing in Taiwan)

A grilled meat vendor in Tainan.
A grilled meat vendor in Tainan. / Photo: Antony Dickson/SCMP

Southern fare

Tainan, located in the south, was once the capital of Taiwan and has, hands down, its best food. I’ve been consistently disappointed by the state of food in Taipei since I started visiting in the mid-90s, but Tainan continues to impress. If you find yourself in Taiwan, I advise looking past the typical gastronomic recommendations.

The entrance to Raohe Night Market in Taipei.
The entrance to Raohe Night Market in Taipei. / Photo: Shutterstock

Capital concessions

Okay, I'll indulge you guys a little bit with some of my go-to spots in Taipei:

  • Din Tai Fung: OG XLB. Tender pockets of hot pork soup in dumpling form. DTF, as its cheekily referred to by some, now has locations all around the world, but the original restaurant hails from Taipei and there’s always a long line.
  • Raohe Night Market: Frankly, night market food isn’t what it used to be. Vendors used to be mostly mom-and-pop vendors, but times have changed and food tends to be more gimmicky than it is substantial. Raohe is one of few that has stayed consistent in quality. The black pepper bun vendor located at the tail end of the market is well worth the hype. 
  • Addiction Aquatic Development: Colorful sashimi platters galore in a highly photogenic setting.
  • RAW: The high-brow darling of Taipei by chef Andre Chiang featuring delicate plates of food with Taiwanese ingredients, rotating according to seasons and personal whims. Reservations are mandatory.
  • Yong Kang Beef Noodle Soup: Hearty, star anise-heavy bowls of noodle soup topped with generous chunks of beef tendon and flank.
  • Jin Feng Lu Rou Fan: Buttery chunks of fatty braised pork draped over white rice.

This essay was originally published in the Goldthread newsletter. To get this and other great content first, subscribe here.