The vast majority of people familiar with Taiwan love the food. Taiwanese cuisine is basically a blend of Fujianese and Japanese cuisine influenced by indigenous cuisines, which has drifted from both Fujianese and Japanese cuisine over time.
The cuisine which is most similar to Taiwanese cuisine is Okinawan cuisine (another melting pot of Chinese and Japanese cuisines on a subtropical island), so much so that if someone told me that the ‘traditional’ Okinawan meals I had were actually Taiwanese, I would have believed them. Taiwanese people who have been to Okinawa have also told me that Okinawan food seems to be just like Taiwanese food to them. And if you look at the labels of some of the ‘Okinawan’ specialties sold in touristy parts of Okinawa, you might notice that some of them are imported from Taiwan.
When I say a food is ‘distinctly’ Taiwanese, I mean it is a food which is primarily consumed in Taiwan and not in other parts of the world. For example, even though Taiwanese people eat a lot of stinky tofu, is not distinctly Taiwanese because it is also widely eaten in certain parts of China. Likewise, even though mochi is very Taiwanese, it also happens to be very Japanese. Thus, they are not distinctly Taiwanese foods. That said, I do give myself a some wiggleroom with regards to whether a food is exclusively Taiwanese.
So here are the seven foods, presented in order most common to rarest.
1. Aiyu jelly
Region: Everywhere, but originally from rural Chiayi
This is a very common food in Taiwan, so much so that I don’t feel it belongs on a list of ‘rare’ foods at all. However, my research indicates that it is only produced and consumed in Taiwan and Singapore (and I am guessing that, due to a lack of farmland, the Singaporeans have to import the raw ingredients from Taiwan).
I really like aiyu. It is sweet and a little sour and very refreshing.
Aiyu jelly originated from Chiayi county, and the best aiyu I’ve had was in rural Chiayi, made from wild plants. There are also some villages which specialize in farming the plant in various parts of Taiwan. I’ve even been at the very spot on the Fenqihu-Rueili Historic Trail, where a man bent down along the path to drink water from a pool, only to notice the distinct taste and texture. He figured out that the water became that way because some seeds had fallen in it, and he figured out how to make jelly from the seeds. His daughter, Aiyu, sold the jelly in Fenqihu, and the jelly was named after her.
Here is a blog post about the Rueili-Taihe trail, which is connected to the Rueili-Fenqihu trail, though unfortunately since the blogger went to Taihe and not Fenqihu he probably missed the spot where aiyu was discovered.
2. Shansu (Bird’s Nest Fern)
Region: Everywhere. It is one of the most common plants in Taiwan, and it grows abundantly in every county except Penghu.
Bird’s nest fern grows in many subtropical and tropical Asian countries, but Taiwan is the only place where people actually eat it. It’s a fairly common vegetable in Taiwan.
Personally, I agree with all of those Asians who refuse to eat it. It is my least favorite Taiwanese vegetable. I much prefer another species of fern which Taiwanese people eat and which is eaten in other countries where it grows, probably because it actually tastes good. But hey, this is a list of rare, unusual, and distinctly Taiwanese foods, not Taiwanese Foods I Like. Shansu is common, but it is unusual, and as a food, it is distinctly Taiwanese.
3. Oriental Beauty Tea
Region: Hsinchu County
This is a kind of tea which is only grown in Hsinchu County (though there are similar teas grown in a few other spots). It is an unusual kind of oolong tea. Oriental Beauty Tea cannot be grown with pesticides because it requires a certain kind of insect to bite the leaves and flavor the tea.
I think most of the Oriental Beauty tea I’ve had was low-grade and/or adulterated because the price was too low to be high-grade/pure. The one time I’ve had Oriental Beauty tea which I am sure was the real thing, it was refreshing and a bit tangy. It’s not my favorite kind of Taiwanese tea, but it’s nice and different.
There is a more detailed description of this tea at this blog.
The next four foods appear in Part 2…