Taiwanese food is delicious. Even the pickiest traveler will find several dishes to enjoy (and to miss upon returning to the US). Because dining out is so cheap, travelers can enjoy eating out in Taiwan’s many restaurants.
But, Taiwanese eating customs can be very foreign to the American. To avoid confusion, follow these tips.
1. Write down your order
Some restaurants leave a pad of paper on each table. Mark the dishes you’d like to order, then bring the paper up to the register. This system is pay-in-advance. Expect to pay for your meal when you bring your order to the server.
If you’re not sure what to do, take a look around. Pay attention to what others in the restaurant are doing, and do the same.
2. Get a feel for chopsticks
Even soup in Taiwan is eaten with both a spoon and chopsticks. Forks are usually not available, so it’s a good idea to brush up on some chopstick skills before traveling to Taiwan. If you’re really having trouble, it might be best to just carry a fork with you–although you might get some funny looks from locals!
Need a few pointers on using chopsticks? Watch this tutorial from Sheryl Ng of pinc.stuff:
3. Dig in ASAP (or at least don’t be offended)
In the past, most Taiwanese restaurants were family style, meaning that everyone ate from each dish. Today, many restaurants have switched to Western style service: each person orders their own dish. Because of this history, many Taiwanese people do not consider it rude to start eating if you receive your dish before everyone else.
If your dinner companion starts eating before you’ve been served, don’t take offense. They aren’t trying to be rude; it’s just what they’re used to.
4. Take tea after the meal
American restaurants usually serve ice water with every meal. But, the Chinese believe that cold water can be unhealthy. Instead of ice water, Taiwanese restaurants serve tea.
Look for a giant pot of tea on the side of the restaurant, with small paper cups that customers can use to get their own tea.
Most Taiwanese people don’t drink anything at all while they’re eating. The tea is used to clean the palate after a meal is finished.
5. Get a yummy dessert
You won’t have to look far to find dessert in Taiwan. Just don’t expect Taiwanese desserts to be as sweet as American pie. Here are a few sweet selections that are popular with the Taiwanese–and visitors to Taiwan!
Treats from a bread shop
Bread shops carry delicious sugary treats in unusual flavors. (Try red bean!)
Shaved ice (剉冰, cua2 bing1) consists of a scoop of ice cream smothered in a sweet fruit of your choice. Try shaved ice with mango. (Taiwanese mangoes are especially juicy and delicious.) Combine several flavors of shaved ice, or share with your friends. Most shaved ice dishes are huge, more than enough for a couple of close friends.
Boba milk tea
Boba milk tea (珍珠奶茶, zhen4 zhu4 nai2 cha2) is another popular treat. Black tapioca balls (珍珠, zhen4 zhu4) are mixed into milk tea (奶茶, nai2 cha2) to make this delicious concoction. When you order boba milk tea, you might be asked how much sugar (糖, tang2) you want in your drink. The normal amount of sugar is quite a lot, so ask for “half sugar” by saying “半糖” (ban4 tang2). If you don’t want any sugar at all, you can say “無糖” (wu2 tang2).
6. Watch the spice
Taiwanese food may be cooked with different seasonings than your body is accustomed to, so give your stomach a few days to adjust. When you travel to Taiwan, your body will be adjusting to the heat and a considerable time difference. Don’t overwhelm yourself with spicy and unusual foods.
In other words, don’t dig into the scrumptious night market food scene until Day 3 or 4 of your trip.