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They don’t call Tainan the street food capital of Taiwan for no reason.
What is Tainan street food all about?
Few would contest Tainan’s title as the food capital of Taiwan. The essence is street food, which follows an elbow-bumping trail of smokey barbequed squids and steamy cuttlefish stew in the night market to the overhangs that stretch along the sides of the roads. It doesn’t get more street than this. Food is cooked in open-air kitchens and served on collapsible tables with flimsy plastic stools. As you indulge, scooters and exhaust wheeze by.
It can be overwhelming and chaotic for first-time visitors. However, there is also simplicity in the unassuming quality of food here that one could appreciate. Beyond the crowds and fumes, what you see is what you get. There is no surprise and no sugarcoating (although Tainan food is thought to be sweeter in flavour compared to northern Taiwan).
This is a narration of the street food ventures that I’ve taken in Tainan. Follow along and you might acquire a taste for the southern flair.
Table of Contents
Ben Chan Beef Specialty Store 本產牛肉專賣店
Arriving in Tainan late in the evening, our Airbnb host was eager to introduce my friend and me to the food joints that the locals frequent.
As she dropped us off at the side of the road, I didn’t particularly have an appetite for the crude-looking storefront. Tables and red stackable stools spilled out onto the overhang. Above our heads, a dusty fan and single-tubed fluorescent lights each flickered to their own rhythms. Flanks of meat hung from a cart with a sign handwritten “beef hot pot”. The place oozed a permanent state of makeshift.
But we sat down anyway, with the revered beef soup on our mind.
Tainan beef is renowned for being slaughtered and served fresh, resulting in an elevated flavour of tenderness compared with frozen beef. As bowls of murky brown soup arrived at our table, the finely sliced pieces of meat were still slowly simmering to a delicate pink.
The broth was rich in colour and slick with grease but tasted incredibly light and refreshing. Its natural flavour was brought out by the only two ingredients used– vegetables and beef.
For such a simple soup, it was hearty and nourishing to the stomach and soul. Savouring each sip with a satisfying ahhh, I began to understand why this is a local favourite. It was that uncomplicated wholesomeness we craved after a long, tiring day.
Yu Cheng Fruit Store 裕成水果行
At our next destination, a three-tiered glass case at the front displayed the variety of fruits that were in season. We settled down at a table under yet another overhang and ordered its specialty– the mango shaved ice.
Seasoned visitors know that you come in the summer for the mangoes, and winter for the strawberries. And if neither, choose from staples such as the red bean shaved ice and assorted fresh fruit desserts.
The best way to eat the shaved ice is to bury the tiny plastic spoon deep into the ice. Then, scoop up all the ingredients for one big crunch of refreshing sweetness.
We were lucky that mangoes were in season. True to its name, the bowl contained a bed of finely shaved ice drizzled with mango syrup. Heaps of mango chunks fill the bowl, topped with a scoop of mango sorbet. It was more than plenty to share between the two of us. The tropical fruit and its variety of condiments melted at the tip of the tongue. With each bite, it cooled us off in the stifling warm air of a midsummer evening.
Shrimp meatball & steamed taro cake 蝦仁肉圓 & 芋粿
And if you ask a Tainan-ian for suggestions, they might point you to unlikely breakfast options such as the shrimp meatball and the steamed taro cake.
The place was called Chuan’s (川記). No more than two walls and a few tables and chairs, the menu was also minimalist. It consisted of all but two items, but had been a local staple for generations. For 70 years, Chuan’s opened its doors at 6:30 in the morning to greet locals with the two dishes that would keep them fueled throughout the day.
The first was the shrimp meatball, also transcribed as bawan for its Taiwanese pronunciation.
The shrimp meatball is similar to its distant cousin, the shrimp dumplings you see in dim sum restaurants. The filling of the meatball is made of shrimps and minced pork. It is wrapped and steamed in a glutinous skin and doused in a savoury sauce. As my teeth sank gently into the skin, it was a multitude of flavours and textures best described as Q.
What is Q? Think of a myriad of sweet and savoury food items: jello, noodles, mochi, bubbletea pearls. While they seem to have little in common, they in fact share the unique usage of this letter in the Taiwanese lexicon.
Anyway, linguistics lesson over. Back to the food at Chuan’s.
The next dish was the steamed taro cake. The cake was chunky and dense, packed with taro bits and topped with minced pork, producing a delicate blend of sweetness and savoury taste.
Behind this simple delicacy is the thoughtful interpretation of the locals’ faith. Originally served as an offering to the gods, the taro in the cake is finely shredded in keeping with the blessing 歲歲平安, or peace through the years.
Unfortunately, Chuan’s is now permanently closed. At this point, you are disappointed, annoyed even, that you just spent all this time reading about dishes from an eatery that no longer exists.
But the shrimp meatball and steamed taro cake are very much alive and well. In fact, you can find both dishes throughout the city and right next door at Hsu’s, which has been featured on a travel show. I have included Hsu’s in the map at the end of the post. Some have noted a slight difference in taste, with Hsu’s being more flavourful and softer. Whatever the case, at least for now, the nostalgic flavours live on.
Du Xiao Yue Danzai Noodle 度小月擔仔麵
Danzai noodle is the most-searched keyword for Tainan, as well as the 130-year old legacy of Du Xiao Yue, now a franchise renowned across the Chinese-speaking world. The pride and joy of Tainan, danzai noodle brings the city onto the food map and has been featured in state banquets as well as served on flights.Numerous accolades later, it remains a must-eat for both locals and visitors.
Though packed with flavours, danzai noodle is served in a small bowl and regarded as a light snack. The two essential ingredients are the shrimps and the minced pork. The shrimps’ tails are kept on for freshness and ease of picking. Furthermore, you’ll notice that the dish is often cooked while sitting on a low stool. This is due to the labourious and time-consuming task of slow-cooking the minced pork. The noodle comes in a light broth but can also be served dry. I recommend ordering the dry noodle for stronger flavours. But then again, this delightful snack will probably have you ordering seconds.
A Yu’s Beef Hot Pot 阿裕牛肉涮涮鍋
It was approaching dusk and we were famished, having spent the entire day on the scooter hitting up spots all over town. And now he’s insisted that we ride for another two hours to the opposite end of the city for some beef shabu–shabu.
Meanwhile, I was about to cook him for dinner.
Admittedly, good food is always worth the time and effort. This was confirmed as families stood outside the restaurant and at the 7-Eleven next door. Still, many more parties were waiting to be called for their turns even as we finally approached the restaurant a little past eight in the evening. We hung around for another 40 minutes in near-starvation before being seated and able to order.
Hot pot is one of the greater joys in life when shared with a group of friends or family. The communal cooking experience over the warmth of the pot is just pure hygge (that and roasting marshmallows). Knowing this, A Yu’s tables are large and round, enough for a whole family and a few friends to tag along. Also sizable are the portions of their menu items. Being just a table of two, we ordered only one plate of sliced beef and vegetables. As the broth, infused with the goodness of the vegetables and the meat bubbled hungrily, so did our stomachs. The beef, fresh and tender, was good to eat after just five quick swishes in the broth. In no time, we cleared the plates.
Short on cash but craving for more, we added an order of the cheapest thing on the menu– a plate of testicles. Would you try it?
Huang’s Shrimp Roll 府城黃家蝦捲
Stepping inside this 30 year-old eatery, you’ll find it featured in a newspaper article on the wall.
A full order at Huang’s gets you two rolls deep-fried to crisp, golden perfection. Simple but not skimping on taste, the inside fillings are a mélange of cabbages, green onions, and of course, shrimps. Don’t leave it out for too long— it’s served piping hot and should be eaten as such. It’s that brief moment as the burning sensation lingers on your tongue that you shove in a couple slices of pickled radishes for a balance in flavours and to cool your senses. And if that’s not enough flavour for you, there’s also the dip, made of a sweet sauce and mustard.
The article was right– it’s a snack that hits the spot, and a taste to relish.
Ding Fu Fa Lard Bibimbap 鼎富發豬油拌飯
As I struggled to translate the dish names, my non-Mandarin speaking boyfriend joked how there seems to be a Taiwanese take on everything. There’s the Taiwanese hamburger (gua bao), the Taiwanese pizza (oyster pancake), and now– the lard bibimbap.
Unlike some other spots on the list known for their long history, this is a relatively new eatery. Ding Fu Fa recently picked up steam for serving traditional eats with a vintage vibe. It boasts modern touches such as a colour-printed menu complete with a Facebook QR code. At the same time, the interior features red bricks and wooden tables reminiscent of the old times.
The food served here is simple and no-frills, with the most popular on the menu being the lard bibimbap. So-called the bibimbap, it is customary to give the lard and shallot flakes a good swirl in the rice before eating. You can opt to coat the rice with a runny yolk for a richer flavour, though I imagine eggs were quite a luxury in times when people made do with a meal of rice and lard. We also ordered stir-fried greens, oil tofu doused in soy sauce, and the meatball soup sprinkled with finely chopped celery, all common dishes in a Taiwanese kitchen.
While eating, I could hardly tell whether the feeling of nostalgia came from the food or the fact that our Tainan trip was drawing to a close, and that it would be a long while before I find these dishes on my table again.
Garden Night Market & Anping Old Street
It seems strange to talk about street food in Tainan without mentioning night markets and old streets, where tantalizing options by the dozens vie for the attention of your tastebuds.
At the same time, it is difficult to even begin to list the options, as street food really is everywhere on the streets of Tainan. So I leave it to you, fellow food lovers, to follow your tastebuds (and the map) to find the most unremarkable stalls, hiding the best culinary secrets of Tainan.