When I went to World Travel Market in London last month, I met up with the Taiwan Tourism Bureau to talk about what really draws me to visit Taiwan – the food! Recently voted the world’s best destination for food by CNN, Taiwan offers endless opportunities for culinary exploration, right through from traditional dishes and street food snacks, to weird and wonderful creations. Eating little and often is common practice where Taiwanese foods are concerned. Travellers have been known to visit purely for the xiǎochī; small, yet substantial snacks that form a staple part of Taiwanese cuisine, usually found in night markets.
If I went to Taiwan, I’d feel like I was in a food lover’s paradise, although this isn’t always a good thing, as it can make it difficult to stick to a healthy diet. The temptation of Taiwanese food is strengthened by its cheap cost and accessibility from street markets, and this becomes even more of a challenge for Taiwan’s growing expat community.
Luckily, there are a number of go-to Taiwanese foods that are packed with nutritional goodness – here are 11 of the most popular healthy dishes to try in Taiwan:
Eating seasonal food is seen in Chinese culture to help you live longer – and as spring is a time for growth, it is the ideal time to eat an asparagus salad. Green vegetables not only contribute to healthy growth, but the colour green is also associated with the liver, and seen to nourish it. Eating this dish is thought to help with the body’s ‘spring clean’, with meat and fats usually avoided in the process. The dressing is usually made using plum vinegar, which adds flavour without the high calories. It is rich in phenols, with antioxidant properties, and is thought to protect against various illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. It’s also consumed in Taiwan as a drink.
Ribs stewed in medicinal herbs
Adapted from the Chinese meat soup ‘bakkutteh’, pork bones are usually slow-cooked with over fourteen herbs, roots and dried fruits to make this warming dish.
Essence of chicken soup
In Chinese medicine, chicken essence supplements are used to support health, promote healing and increase metabolism. A study evaluated the effect of chicken essence on stress and results indicated that students taking chicken essence daily over two weeks achieved better results in wellbeing tests than those who took a placebo.
The soup form not only enhances the taste, it also contains small proteins that are ideal for easy absorption and are thought to increase energy levels.
Dong quai duck
The ‘dong quai’ in this dish is a herb often used in Taiwanese foods to balance hormones, increase libido, detoxify the body, encourage blood circulation and reduce anxiety. Dong quai duck is usually served in a broth with noodles and often includes goji berry, cinnamon, ginger and additional herbs.
Clam and ginger soup
This dish is what it sounds like – a simple seafood soup. The Taiwanese believe that drinking soup during meals can aid digestion and ginger has been known to relieve stomach problems.
This popular snack originated in New Taipei City. It consists simply of eggs that have been repeatedly stewed in soy sauce and dried to create their black appearance. It may not look appealing to expats unfamiliar with the dish, but iron eggs are a nutritious favourite among the locals.
A simple high-protein omelette made from oyster and eggs. An oyster omelette usually contains sweet potato, which is known for being high in vitamin B6 and iron, as well as being a source of stress-reducing magnesium. They are also a good source of vitamin D to help to boost energy levels and build healthy bones, heart, nerves, skin and teeth. This is one of the quickest healthy Taiwanese foods you can make, ready in just a matter of minutes.
Despite the off-putting name of this dish, the flavour is said to be delicious. The nutritional benefits in tofu are enhanced during the fermentation process, which produces probiotics. The brine it’s soaked in consists of fermented vegetables, dried shrimp and herbs to enhance the flavour and smell. It is often served with a sweet and spicy sauce.
Replacing meat with tofu can help expats looking to reduce their cholesterol. Nutrition Research also found evidence which suggests fermented soy products could be more successful at preventing or delaying type 2 diabetes, than non-fermented soy beans.
Pechay Taiwan in garlic oyster sauce
Pechay Taiwan is likely known to expats as pak choi. Simply boiling this leafy green and combining it with fried garlic in oyster sauce, can create a delicious and healthy dish. Pechay Taiwan is high in vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium, which are essential for strong bones and glowing skin. It can also aid digestion and hormonal balance.
Snow fungus jujube lotus seed soup
Although a soup, this dish has dessert-like properties – it’s stewed with rock sugar and the snow fungus has a jelly-like texture. The snow fungus contains iron, vitamin C, calcium and phosphorous, but is completely tasteless.
Red dates are added to this dish to provide the slightly sour yet sweet flavour and lotus seeds are added to help calm nerves and aid sleep.
Shaved ice with fruit
In Taiwan, commonly called the ‘Fruit Kingdom’, it’s quite normal for meals to finish with fruit, as opposed to sugary desserts. Shaved ice is like ice cream, but usually only contains a fraction of the dairy content, and the toppings are typically fresh fruit such as mango.
Choose your food carefully…
It should be noted that certain ingredients ought to be avoided by expats suffering from underlying health conditions. The sodium found in plum vinegar, for instance, can contribute to high blood pressure. The herb, Dong Quai can also act as an anticoagulant, causing complications for expats taking blood pressure medication. If you have a health condition that may be affected by your diet, make sure you have international health insurance in place.
Moving abroad can be a daunting prospect but incorporating traditional foods into your diet can not only aid with the transition, but also add variation to expats’ existing Western diets.
Do you like the sound of Taiwanese foods? What dish do you think you’d enjoy the most? For inspiration on things to do and see while in Taiwan, check out this handy Taiwan itinerary.