Joey Fatone is a man who appreciates a fine meal. Or even a mediocre meal. Really, just any meal. Accordingly, there was no hesitation when we asked to follow the erstwhile NSYNCer (and current Food Network host) around Taiwan for a week and document everything he ingested. There’s amazing food to be found across the country... and a few dishes that you could skip. Here are Joey’s takes on iconic and unusual Taiwanese fare.
A popular breakfast dish at any bodega, it’s made by mixing shredded daikon with water and rice flour and steaming until it’s a solid, gelatinous mass. Slice liked bread, grill for a little crisp, chop into cubes, add a splash of sweetened soy sauce, and... voila. “We didn’t know what this actually was until the plane home. Everyone just called it breakfast cake. I call it heaven on a plate.”
Niu rou mian (beef noodle soup)
“This is Taiwanese comfort food at its finest. You get incredible, big noodles and fork-tender, marbled beef that gives the broth this rich flavor. I could eat this for a month straight and never get bored. And those pickled greens on top (zha cai) give it a little zing. Be that guy who drinks the broth at the end -- you won’t regret it.”
The aboriginal Taiwanese hunt wild swine for days and there’s a big to-do when one is caught. On the left, a polished version from Kwangfu Hong Wa Wu restaurant. On the right, a rustic preparation by local guides while camping near Hualien. The guides don’t do frills; only meat, a sprinkle of salt, and fire. “When it came off the grill, there was total silence because everyone was busy stuffing their faces.”
“Mexico, you’ve got some competition for top street corn.” This roasted treat is found at the Raohe Street night market, the oldest and best in Taipei. After knocking a skewer into an ear, the corn drops into an iron oven. Seconds later, it’s charred and yanked out to get a coating of soy sauce, chili oil, and a secret sauce. Another quick round of flames and it’s done. “It’s got this amazing sweet, spicy, and smoky flavor all at once."
“This is the best grammatically incorrect fried chicken. We asked the vendor what spices he uses in the breading, but he wouldn’t tell us.” This batch was found in a night market in Kenting, but you don’t have to look hard to find some in any corner of Taiwan.
“Before you’re all, ‘Uh, pizza is not Taiwanese,’ I know. But this was really good pizza.” Uncle Pete’s Pizza in Taitong is helmed by a Tennessee transplant who moved to Taiwan for the surfing and never left. The toppings are eclectic and delicious. Interestingly, the dough taste fluctuates with the humidity, which affects how it rises. “It’s no L&B Spumoni Gardens, but Pete makes a damn tasty pie.”
Plenty of spots serve up bamboo vessels full of pouched deliciousness, but few do it better than Din Tai Fung. Head to the base of the Taipei 101 (a monolith skyscraper) to find this Michelin-starred eatery. And bring your appetite. Thanks to the glass kitchen, you can watch the army of chefs crank out dumplings at an alarming speed. “And you can easily polish off an entire order of the dumplings by yourself."
“In Taiwan, 7/11 is everything. You can buy booze, clothes, an iPod, receive a package, pay a traffic ticket, whatever." But the best part? “The chip selection is endless. The cream of the crop are Doritos’ BBQ Ribs followed by American Hot Wings, then Spicy Garlic. Although another strong contender: Chili Pea Crackers -- whatever those are. Skip anything seaweed flavored. It tastes like licking the ocean.”
Joey Fatone thinks you should only try, like, once:
“I know this is a duck head, but I have no idea how it was made. Apparently they chop this all up with a big cleaver, although I tried it whole. I can’t say I recommend it, but it’s not the worst.”
“I woke up at our hotel in Hualien, excited for breakfast. Then I got to breakfast. 'Loofah’ is luffa, an okra-like veggie that’s popular in China and Taiwan.” Eaten when young and green, it’s decent; allowed to mature and dry out, you get the bathroom scrubber. “I tried a small forkful, but this wasn’t for me.”
Iced beer with sherbet
“When we got to the top of the Taipei 101, there was an ice cream stand selling beer with a scoop of mango sherbet floating in it. We got two-for-one coupons for these, so I figured why not? When I tried it, I realized why not. This is not a winning combination. They put ice in the beer. Why? Why do you need ice in there?”
Joey wouldn’t try these, but the group did. Betel nuts are areca nuts that are trimmed, split open, and have a paste inserted in the middle. That paste is a mixture of nicotine and chemicals used to make concrete. Seriously. They’re sold on the side of the road for next to nothing and they allegedly give you a jittery high. We couldn’t finish the required three minutes of chewing (you don’t ever swallow), so who knows how buzzed you get.
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Sean Evans is a NYC-based writer and editor who desperately misses Taiwanese street meats. He tweets over here: @angryinparadise.