Eating in Taiwan for Under $4 a Day

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EATING TAIWAN and eating and eating… and eating some more! Because Taiwan has so much to offer, whether you’re a nibbler or a feaster.

As you probably gathered by now, I was clueless about Taiwan prior to my arrival. Even upon arrival, the country was a little island of mystery to me. The interwebs wasn’t really helping much in unveiling any deep secrets about this darling, either. What do Taiwanese people eat? Food. You know, like, edible stuff with nutrients. Whatever. Clearly, if I wanted to learn about Taiwanese cuisine, I was going to have to take a deep breath and dive into WHATEVER this country had to offer. Let me tell you, sometimes taking a deep breath was a mistake.

Much of my first foods involved dumplings, bread, and bao buns. This phase of my trip didn’t last long, but there were a few adjustment days in which I was nervous to explore outside the safe confines of the bakery and steam baskets. Bakeries were on nearly every corner with free bread samples and a stench of butter like Alabama came over and brought the mashed potaters. Everyone enjoys a little sweet perfume, but let’s just say, if butter was a cologne, this one would be Axe body spray. Know what I mean?
Thus, if you have any sense of smell, you’re likely to get sick of this pungent scent. Still, their bread is oftentimes dairy and egg-free, and super yummy. Like this matcha bread I got for less than 50 cents. Simple, fresh, and as soft as the filter on your SnapChat. The first question every foreigner and traveler and tourist had concerning food was, “All these people eat is fried carbs, how are they so small?” And although the Taiwanese people deny these eating habits, they couldn’t deny two truths. One being that due to space, time, and money constraints, they hardly ever cook at home. The other being that because there’s “not much to do in Taiwan”, they eat all day. The latter seems like an excuse to me, but for some reason or another, the Taiwanese body hardly seems to hold onto its fried carbs for long. Who am I to fight their culture? I was craving carbs!

                     

When it came to dumplings, there was an endless number of shops, stores, stands, and cafés where one could buy a snack or meal. Some were big and fried, others were small and steamed. They were filled with pork, chicken, beef, cabbage, or anything else you may like. Sticky rice and noodles were also popular items. You could go to a stand nearly anywhere, select what you’d like in your broth (including the option of packaged ramen noodles) and they’d cook it all up for you. Alternatively, you could just go to a 7-11 where they had an entire aisle   devoted to noodle bowls. You could throw other foods in the bowl or just add hot water and eat up.
I also loved the huge selection of teas and soy milk available! Some were dairy, so keep and eye out! For 20 NT, I could grab a carton of no sugar added, high fiber soy milk, and happily sip away. Or just go to a corner cafe and get a warm soy milk for only 10 NT! Both options were delicious.

Speaking of 7-11, although this is a familiar stop to the Westerner, these were a unique brand of convenience. They did offer nuts, gums, ear buds, and soda, but they also had yams cooking alongside eggs in tea, and various other things floating around in hot water.

By the way, $10 NT (New Taiwan Dollar) is equal to 32 cents. Most things in the store, and many stores and stands along the way cost between 32 cents and 2 dollars. If you want to eat cheap, you can easily do this. I am not sure how much a yam costs, as I did not feel any dire need to eat a 7-11 sweet potato, but I believe they charge by weight, as is the case with the unpackaged corn. So, now you know.

Buffet meals also tend to go by weight in many restaurants. This is not to say there aren’t any all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets, of course! As much as Buddhist monks talk about letting go of desire, they too like to eat as much as they can. Right before restaurants close they sometimes will switch from “by weight” to open buffet. The rice and yummy hot soup are always free. There are also some spots that have an all-you-can-eat for 2 hours. This means, “Stop chatting and start chewing!” but it also gives it the feeling of a game show, so there’s that appeal. And if you’re not into buffet meals, you can also get a box to go!

At these buffets, I had some of the most incredible faux meats of my life. Though, the stinky tofu and seaweed knots weren’t bad, either.
Sadly, I learned that I’m not good at “by weight” food. I immediately started worrying if I was packing on too much. P.S. I was not.

According to a thing with stats and facts online, the average meal at an inexpensive restaurant in Taiwan runs a little under $4. Even a mid-range to pricey meal will go for about $11, so it might actually be a challenge if you’re trying to splurge…. That is, unless you go for the $300 bowl of beef noodle soup. But that’s definitely not vegan, and it’s definitely too much money for a bowl of soup. That’s your call, though. If you’re going with that journey, just buy a whole freakin’ cow, why don’t ya? Actually, I did see baby goats for sale somewhere. Almost bought one. As a FRIEND, NOT a MEAL!

My experience in Taiwanese restaurants was quite limited. With all the unique and delicious street foods, it was not necessary to stop into a restaurant, and also boring. Plus, with the language barrier, it was risky ordering food from a menu entirely in Chinese. Some places did have an English menu, but even this was vague and the waiters never knew what it said. If I did this, I’d stick with the vegetable option, or would only order  if I had a local with me to help. It was neat, you’d get a coloured pencil and mark off your order. This made it nearly impossible for them to get your order wrong!

Ma Po Tofu is listed as a veggie dish, but it is traditionally made with meat. Your handy-dandy Taiwanese friend will have to request meat-free!

Soybean paste noodles with tofu may look meaty, but this dish was all veggie!Now, let’s talk street food. There are food carts everywhere, but you probably won’t know what you’re getting into unless you’re lucky and the worker speaks English, or if you have your translator with you. If you’re a devoted vegan or vegetarian, it’s not worth the risk of relying on gut feelings. However, for the more free-flowing folks, carts, and markets (particularly night markets) will be a super fun experience! The vendors practically throw samples of squid, pork, nuts, cakes, and congee at you. Samples of tea come at you every few feet, so you’re never parched. The most common tea involved ginger and some sort of sweet orange fruit mixed with brown sugar.
Once you sample something, the seller will assume you’re interested in buying. If you’re like me and are just curious, try to stay strong, smile, offer a “xie xie” (thank you) and walk away. Most often, I’d just grab some veggies. Some of them were too gorgeous to be real!

Are we in a cartoon?

This is not to say I didn’t purchase plenty of foods I tried, as well. Some of it was too yummy to walk away from! Rice cakes, tofu, ling nuts (shown below, shaped like mustaches), horse beans, and various other protein-packed snacks were my favourite options for morning breakfast. 

If you’re as cheap as me, you can even get by on a big stalk of broccoli. I snuck out some ketchup packets from 7-11 and went to town. Only got a few confused stares.
The morning market, while absolutely stuffed with people fighting for their lives (and the freshest foods) were a great place to find all sorts of odd fruits, veggies, and snacks to get me through the day. Jujube fruit quickly became a safe snack when my tummy was grumbling after a day of exploring. Jujubes were like small apples mixed with pears with a pit instead of a core. There were also bitter melons, star fruit, sugar fruit, wax apples, dragonfruit, guava, and various other fruits like nothing you’ve ever tasted before! If you pass by a stand selling candied tomatoes or strawberries (Tanghulu), I strongly recommend trying one bamboo skewer… or two! They really grow on you, and stick to ya.

If fruits and veggies won’t do the job, you can also try mochi! Not for the gluten-haters, but for the rest of us, these little sticky balls of glutinous rice are so much fun to eat, and the peanut one really takes me to a good place! The best ones I tried were a gift from a fellow traveler I met while exploring a mountain. Kindness is contagious and gelatinous! But there’s no gelatin in these bad boys! Quite messy, though.

Another option is living off the land! I don’t recommend it, but it’s not impossible. Sometimes you win… like when I came across a tree growing star fruits. Yum!

And sometimes you lose. Such as that time I was Couchsurfing on a farm and came across a stack of these unidentified brown things. Mushrooms? Poo? We’ll never know. But they were chewy and extremely salty. No, thanks.
As for dessert, I tried a few things. There were a few cakes made of sugar, flour, and water, I tried them. They were okay. I tried bubble teas and soybean cakes and whatever these lovely people could hand me with sugar. Nothing really won me over like these two heaping bowls of various matcha-flavoured things. 

They were both as delicious as they were gorgeous. On top, we have matcha rice ball with red bean barley and matcha ice cream over barley at a place in Tainan called Chun Barley. You can read about how I got from Taipei to Tainan through hitchhiking HERE.

First of all, I like anything that’s do-it-yourself. So, having the honour of pouring the matcha liquid with the delightful little jellies into the barley was so much fun! But the unique mix and surprising flavours and textures really got me excited. This meal/dessert was my zen moment in life. It was Nirvana. While I couldn’t find anything exactly like this elsewhere, I was quite pleased with the matcha shaved ice with red bean on top. The ice mixed with matcha created something mind-blowingly creamy and the savoury beans really kicked this up to something amazing.
Taro root is another option for turning into any form of sweet, meat, or treat. I saw taro being used in cakes and shakes, as well as seasoned as a perfect meat substitute. It’s a very versatile and healthy option, and I love the texture it can provide when used properly. No doubt, the Taiwanese did this. Whether fried up into balls or juiced for all its worth, the taro root is a magical friend.

Finally, I present to you a parade of beverages. Bubble tea is a given delight of Asia. Without question, you can and will get bubble tea everywhere you go. Just don’t puncture the seal and take it out of its bag until you’ve left the MRT subway station. Otherwise, people will glare at you or giggle. Scandalous.
I was surprised how difficult it was to find bubble tea made with soy milk, but once communicated, store owners were kind enough to inform me that they didn’t have this option. When I did find soy milk or settled for plain tea with jelly, the bubble tea was a real source of joy!

I also did try the local coffee and beer, but tea is my preference. There are Starbucks’ around, but it’s always more fun to check out the local cafe. The first one I went into, they told my friend and me we had to whisper. Not because we were so loud, but because it was a “quiet cafe”. Apparently, that’s something that exists. A great idea if you know what you’re getting into. Then, when we learned that pretty much all cafes have a minimum per guest, I guess we weren’t too happy with the place. We did our research after this experience and were much more comfortable and prepared in the future. The local beers were fine, quite like your typical Heineken or Budweiser but less watered down and so very cheap. The most common beer option was simply called ‘Taiwan Beer’, so that was easy to remember. There was also ‘Bar Beer’, but the yellow label just didn’t appeal to me, so I can’t speak for that one. Of course, you can also get imported beers, but those aren’t as cheap and I’ve had those before, so… why? If you just want to get water, bottles of water are always available, and there are water dispensers all over. As far as I know, the water is very clean and safe. At least, I didn’t get sick or die!

While food and drink were not my focus during my trip to Taiwan, the food and drink certainly found me. I was really happily surprised by all the delicious and special foods I tried! One thing is for sure in Taiwan, you never have to starve. Since I ate so much on the streets, I don’t really have restaurants to recommend! However, when you visit Taiwan, TRY everything you can! Talk to people, drink in the culture, and don’t miss all these really special experiences.

This is my Taiwan food post, but if you’re interested in knowing more about my experience in Taiwan as a whole and how I made my way from the Northern tip of Taiwan (Taipei) to the most Southern tip (Kenting) through the help and kindness of strangers, definitely check out this BLOG post.

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