Seven Rare, Unusual, or Otherwise Distinct Foods of Taiwan, Part 1

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.

This photo of aiyu jelly is by brappy! from Taipei (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This photo of aiyu jelly is by brappy! from Taipei (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

A drawing of bird's nest fern.

A drawing of bird’s nest fern.

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.

This photo, "Oriental Beauty", is by Cosmin Dordea, and licensed under Creative Commons.

This photo, “Oriental Beauty”, is by Cosmin Dordea, and licensed under Creative Commons.

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…

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4 thoughts on “Seven Rare, Unusual, or Otherwise Distinct Foods of Taiwan, Part 1

    • That trail is also the first place I saw a wild, male Swinhoe’s pheasant. I got to look at him for five minutes, which is quite something, since they are usually quick to flee from humans.

      It’s definitely worth spending some time in Fenqihu. I stayed there overnight. Though it’s probably not as nice now, since the trains are running to Fenqihu again, and it’s being swamped by tourists. Hopefully they are mostly daytrippers and it’s still possibly to enjoy the town’s charms in the evenings and early mornings without the crowds.

      I never did go on the Taihe section of the trail, but I reckon Taihe is not so different from Rueili. Am I wrong?

      • I have only seen the Swinhoe’s pheasant at the aviary. It would be amazing to see one in the wild.

        We went to Fenqihu a few years ago for a little bit and it was crawling with daytrippers. I am sure that it is nice once they leave though.

        The Taihe section was awesome just like the rest of the area. It has one massive set of earthen stairs to climb and an amazing bamboo forest. It really isn’t that long and that is why I hiked it since it was already late afternoon. A friend and I are actually making plans to hike to Fenqihu and back sometime but I need to set it up. So many places to go.

      • I’ve also seen wild male Swinhoe’s pheasants in Zhushan, though only for about 20 seconds. I may also have seen wild female Swinhoe’s pheasants, but they are much more difficult to distinguish from other species because they don’t have the flashy plumage.

        In any case, that’s a great place to go back if you want to spot wild Swinhoe’s pheasants. They are easiest to find in bamboo forests.

        Actually, the day before I saw the Swinhoe’s pheasant on the Rueili side of the Fenqihu-Rueili trail, I spotted a wild Mikado pheasant for the first time in … Alishan Forest Recreation Area, one of the most touristed spots in all of Taiwan. I totally did not expect to see a rare wild bird in such a touristy place. To be fair, in was on the trail to Datashan, which only sees about 3% of all visitors to Alishan FRA. I’ve also seen wild black-faced spoonbills in rural (coastal) Chiayi … which means that every species of rare bird I’ve seen in Taiwan, I saw in rural Chiayi.

        Also, I hope you read Part 2. I am curious whether you have ever tried foods #6 and #7 on the list…

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