When Taipei applied to be a UNESCO city of gastronomy, it’s no secret that many islanders on Taiwan were left spluttering into their noodles.
Yes Taipei is the most famous destination here, but many of the dishes it was submitting were rooted from its oldest city, Tainan. Here, dishes are whipped up in makeshift kitchens and cheap food – particularly seafood – is king.
The challenge is locating the best flavors in a city where public transport isn’t readily available and many older folks only speak Taiwanese.
That’s where this list of 19 dishes for the travel crowd comes in:
1. Danzai noodles
This dish is as essential to Tainan food culture as Bruce Lee is to Chinese kung fu. It features oil noodles with minced pork and fresh shrimp in a shallow broth.
Translated as “peddler’s pole noodles,” the dish was invented in 1895 by Hung Yutou, a fisherman who sold it from buckets strung on a bamboo pole.
Hung’s legacy is two shops founded by his family. Of these, Du Xiao Yue has become one of the most popular restaurant chains in the country. Meanwhile, Hung Yutou Danzai Noodles is often said to be a more authentic local favorite.
Du Xiao Yue, No. 101, Zhongzheng Road, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6220 0858
Hung Yutou Danzai Noodles, 12, Lane 508, Chong De Road, Eastern District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 8 0023 4001
2. Shrimp rolls
These are Taiwan’s answer to Japanese tempura, except the shrimp is wrapped in caul fat and stuffed with aromatics like scallion before being deep fried. The most famous rendition comes from a store called Chou’s Shrimp Rolls, established in 1965.
Chou’s Shrimp Rolls (Original Store), No. 125, Anping Road, Anping District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6229 2618
3. Savory rice pudding, or wa gui
Wa gui is the local term for savory rice pudding, served and made in a bowl mixed with duck egg yolk, shiitake, pork, and shrimp. The pudding is made with rice milk and flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil so that it comes out a faint flush of brown.
Fu Sheng Hao’s has held the crown as the city’s wa gui king for three decades. Each bowl sells for about one U.S. dollar.
Fu Sheng Hao Ricecake, No. 8, Ximen Road, Section 2, Lane 333, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6227 4101
4. Tofu pudding
Taiwan’s tofu pudding (or douhua) is a variation of the soft, slippery soybean concoction found around Asia. Here it’s topped with a sweet sauce – usually with brown sugar, red bean, green bean, taro and, in summer, crushed ice.
Anping Bean Jelly’s douhua is considered an attraction in itself. Another vendor, Xiuan Biandan Douhua, started as a shaved ice shop before switching to douhua.
Anping Bean Jelly, 433 Anbei Road, Anping District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6 391 5057
Xiuan Biandan Douhua, No. 157, Ximen Road, Guohua Street Section 3, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6226 1069
5. Taiwanese meatball, or ba wan
Ba wan is a glutinous, half-translucent gem, most beloved for its Q (the Chinese term for al dente or chewy) texture. The mega-dumpling is a pocket of pork, shiitake and bamboo sprouts topped with sweet and sticky sauce. Some vendors like to add a sprig of cilantro for color.
The 4-decade-old Martial God Rouyuan near the State Temple of the Martial God makes a fantastic variation that draws long lines of hungry diners.
Martial God Rouyuan, No. 225, Yongfu Road Section 2, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6222 9142
Milkfish is a popular ingredient in Tainan. So popular that in Anping District it has its own museum selling products such as milkfish popsicles. Riding a fine line between salty and sweet, it’s not as fishy as it sounds.
Chih-kan Peddler’s Noodle serves a boneless pan-fried milkfish with a squeeze of citrus as well as soup with milkfish balls.
Chih-kan Peddler’s Noodle, No. 700, Minzu Road, Section 2, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6220 5336
Milkfish Palace, No. 88, Guangzhou Road, Anping District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6293 1097
7. Squid potage soup
Potage soup is a common side dish in Tainan where it’s sweeter than versions elsewhere on the island. While it’s available everywhere, there are few specialists.
Fushui Huazhi Geng serves squid coated in a paste of ground milkfish and flour, which is then boiled in a sweet, glutinous soup and seasoned with a pinch of cilantro and finely julienned bamboo.
Fushui Huazhi Geng, No. 216, Minzu Road Section 2, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6229 2975
8. Braised pork over rice
There are few things as comforting and sustainable as fatty pork cubes, braised for hours and served over rice with a sprinkle of cilantro. At Fu Tai, the incredibly soft pork belly melts in the mouth.
Fu Tai, No. 240, Minzu Road, Section 2, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6228 6833
9. White tapioca milk tea
Bubble or boba milk tea was invented in Taiwan, though its exact birthplace is fiercely contested. Some say it originated from Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taichung, central Taiwan, others insist that it came from Tainan.
Tainan’s contender is Hanlin Tea Room, established in 1986 by tea expert Tu Tsung-ho. Tu originally used white tapioca, which explains why bubble milk tea is often referred to as pearl tea.
Hanlin Tea Room, No. 313, Minzu Road Section 2, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6221 2357
10. Oyster omelet
The oyster omelet was created in times of scarcity, hence its inherent simplicity. The bulk of it is sweet potato starch, oysters, egg, and lettuce. Bean sprouts are added for extra crunch, and it’s blanketed in a beautiful, sweet red sauce.
The owners of Old Fort Oyster Omelet, established in 1958, claim their ancestors were the first to serve the famous delicacy.
Old Fort Oyster Omelet, No. 85, Xiaozhong Road, Anping District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6228 5358
11. Coffin bread
Invented in the 1940s, coffin bread is the Taiwanese answer to the Western bread bowl.
The dish is a piece of remarkably thick toast that holds a seafood chowder pool with pork, mushrooms, peas, and carrots. It gets its name because it resembles a coffin.
Anping Guiji’s coffin bread is known for being incredibly crisp. For solo diners they have a miniature version meant to be devoured in one bite.
Anping Guiji local cuisine cultural restaurant, No. 93, Yanping Road, Anping District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6222 9794
12. Lu mian (braised noodles)
Lu mian (braised noodles) is a briny soup noodle, cooked into a cornstarch-heavy broth with fragments of wood ear, egg whites, and pork.
Ah Mei, at the tail end of the East Market, is a lu mian specialist making a delectable broth that can be paired with either oil noodles or vermicelli.
Ah Mei Noodles, No. 88, Minquan Road, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6226 9102
13. Pig’s trotter over rice
They may not seem appetizing, but pig feet are remarkably tender. When braised in an aromatic sauce of soy and herbs, they’re great over a hefty scoop of white rice. At Yi Deng Pin, the trotters come with braised tofu, egg and a generous portion of baby bamboo shoots.
Yi Deng Pin, No. 372-1, Anping Road, Anping District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6350 4128
14. Eel noodles
While eel noodles can be found throughout the island, they’re especially popular down south. Most vendors use farm-raised eels.
These are cooked and stir-fried separately to have a crisp outer layer and flavored with black vinegar and soy sauce before being whipped up with a clump of oil noodles in broth with wood ear mushrooms.
Eastern Castle Noodles, No. 235, Ximen Road, Section 1, East District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6209 1235
15. Turkey rice
Shredded turkey over rice has never tasted this good. The poultry is extremely aromatic and tender – a result of hours of work. The rice is infused with the grease and juice of the turkey.
Vendor Roubo Huoji Roufan, which translates Uncle Meat’s Turkey Rice, has been around for 70 years and sells single bowls for less than a dollar.
Roubo Huoji Rou Fan, No. 12-2, Gongyuan Road, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6228 3359
16. Duck soup pot
The Ah Mei restaurant is known throughout town for classic Tainan dishes, including its specialty duck soup pot. Chinese cabbage is cooked till dissolved in a broth of pork bones, garlic, fried dried brill. The duck is poached, marinated, then slow cooked in the broth for three hours over a charcoal fire while more ingredients are added.
The restaurant’s been around for 50 years and seats are tough to come by.
Ah Mei, No. 138, Minquan Road, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6222 2848
17. Eight treasure shaved ice/soup
Shaved ice, or baobing, is a trendy Taiwanese dessert that’s recently taken a life of its own.
There are hundreds of versions, but one Tainan vendor sticks to tradition, flavoring it with “eight treasures,” including glutinous rice balls, green and red beans, and peanuts. During the wintertime, it’s especially great in soup form – served in a hot sugary broth.
Shi Jing Jiu, No. 246, Minzu Road, Section 2, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6223 2266
18. Spanish mackerel
Spanish mackerel is a prized fish in Tainan and can be bought pre-butchered at any day market around town. The fish’s peak season is from late summer to early autumn. The most common and best way to sample Spanish mackerel is pan fried with a wedge of lemon.
Fu Tai, No. 240, Minzu Road, Section 2, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6228 6833
19. Zong zi
Zong zi is a tetrahedral-shaped pocket of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf.
It’s a Taiwanese staple during the annual summer Dragon Boat Festivals and is also a common breakfast, but around Tainan it’s said to have a better texture. The perfect texture for the steamed sticky rice should be fine, chewy and moist. Meat rice dumplings (rou zong) and vegetable rice dumplings (cai zong) are equally filling.
They’re best served with sweet soy sauce and with grated peanut powder on the side.
Yuan Huan Ding Cai Zong Rou Zong, No. 40, Fuqian Road, West Central District, Tainan, Taiwan; +886 6222 0752
Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in New York and Los Angeles.