If you find yourself in Taiwan during winter season, there are certain types of food that you should definitely must, and just to be a little more extra, certainly surely try. If that’s not enough to emphasize my point, I don’t know what will.
Honestly, the only thing I used to love about winter was that it’s good for my skin. It shuts up my pores, normalizes my T-zone, and pinches my cheeks with natural blush. However, as I sipped hotpot soup and scald my mouth again this time of the year, a familiar warmth crept inside me and I realized how much I missed that. Wish I can wax poetic on this feeling for existential reasons, but really it’s just these winter foods that work their magic, to their full capacity, come winter. Even the coldest temps on a spring/autumn day don’t make it as satisfying to thaw from the inside when you eat certain winter foods in Taiwan. The way it cancels out all that literal chill is just, no words. No. Words.
As an extra warm-blooded mammal, being born in a tropical country, it’s a no-brainer why winter is a huge challenge for me. It’s during this season that some of my usual comfort foods just don’t cut it, so I go for these faves I’m about to share. There are others too that locals love to feast on during winter, such as duck in ginger soup, ginger tea, but for me, these foodS with a capital S are my personal go-to when brutal cold days are being, well, brutal. They’re also lovely to share with friends, over good conversations, while passing time in a cozy space with a hot cup of tea in hand.
I don’t have any hotpot favorites in Taiwan simply because I think all of them are da bomb. When I first came here, it was January and supposedly the start of winter’s peak so every weekend we ate hotpot like it was the only thing available to eat. I never got tired of it. Ever. Even to this day. No matter if it’s an expensive hotpot place with the most complex broth that’ll put chemistry to shame, or an el cheapo hotpot whose boiling broth was enough to make us believe it’s clean…here ya go and take our money!
Actually, the main thing I love about Taiwanese hotpot is that beef bagoong-like sauce that you can drizzle with soy sauce and then sprinkle with freshly-minced garlic and chopped green onions. Life is byooootipul, just thinking about that. Also, veggies here have a fresh sweet taste that doesn’t go away. No matter how long they’re blanched in hot broth, even if they go limp, they keep that freshly sweet taste.
Broths are often fused with Chinese herbs like ginseng, and seaweed is a staple way of putting that umami taste.
I’ve had hotpots back in the Philippines, but nothing came close to what I have here in Taiwan. It’s the details that make each hotpot place stand out, though you’re getting the same set of foods, doing the same process of cooking it on your table. There’s also the Japanese-style hotpot, where each person has their own small pot to cook in as opposed to traditionally sharing in one big cookathon of flavors. And recently, Thai-inspired broths have also been coming into the hotpot scene. But no matter which hotpot you try, aside from the beef sauce, don’t ever EVER forget to try the lean, fresh cuts of meats. They ain’t just red for a visual reason. 😉 You MUST try them.
If you want to have the ultimate experience, so far, I’ve had the best hotpot buffet in Mala Hotpot. Try to Google which branch is closest to you, and also make reservations weeks, even months ahead, because they get full during winter. Also, note that they have a 2-hour dining time limit when it’s peak season.
If I’m feeling patay-gutom and lazy to cook hotpot , or simply can’t wait to scald myself back to normal temperatures, I go for luwei. It’s actually a local Taiwanese snack you can find in most night markets. A luwei shop/cart looks like a mini grocery, with pockets of food items categorized into noodles, veggies, and frozen foods, complete with your own shopping basket. What gives it away is the steaming broth and the laoban (stall owner/seller) behind it, waiting patiently to gorge you into gastronomic goodness.
While you don’t cook your food as with hotpots, you get to pick the ingredients of your luwei. You get a basket then fill it with veggies, mushrooms, tofu, crab sticks/meats, squid balls, and other seafood…balls…and whatever other stuff offered in that mini grocery. Finally, you get to decide which meat to put in, or none at all if you’re going vegetarian, and then select a type of noodle to go with it. Luwei doesn’t usually come with rice, unlike hotpots do. I get the instant noodles because they just taste really well with all the veggies, sort of like the yin to the yang of all the other healthy stuff in my luwei.Then, you’ll hand it over to laoban, and they’ll ask you, la ma? (spicy?). They will braise all the items you picked in the spicy or non-spicy broth, to cook the luwei for you.
Luwei broth is more fused with herbs and spices than hotpots so they look thicker. Most of these herbs are typically used in traditional Chinese medicine, and luwei makers have their own secret recipes so there’s really no single flavor to the broths, unlike hotpots which can taste a bit familiar anywhere in Taiwan. There’s so much umami taste in a luwei, which in effect, makes it such a unique healthy option that locals actually eat year-round.
3. Tofu pudding
I grew up loving taho back home. But here in Taiwan, taho is just one of the many ways locals enjoy tofu, and our Pinoy taho may be its simplest dessert permutation abroad. My favorite here is warm tofu pudding fused with sweet ginger soup and sago. I like it most during winter because tofu traps warmth in it and spreads that warmth in your mouth as you eat it–just make sure that the tofu is warm, not hot, or else you’re scalded for days. I’ve also discovered that warm tofu pudding flavored with brown sugar water and fused with ginger is just too divine for words. It’s the perfect concoction of warm, spicy, and sweet, naturally-flavored with soy. In Taiwan, there are plenty of options to go with tofu pudding, such as red beans, peanuts, and sago a.k.a. zhen zhu, among others. You can also order them cold, so they’ll come in with shaved ice.
Most of the tofu pudding shops here in Taiwan are good, but my personal favorite is Lovebrother Tofu Pudding. It’s near Exit 3 of Dazhi MRT station. They only have one purpose in their selling life, which is to sell tofu, and they’ve been doing it FOR YEARS. They’ve got such a homegrown product that can never be tasted elsewhere, unless they expand. The ayis who woman the place definitely got their recipe on point, and even though they don’t have an English menu, you can easily order with the help of Google Translate. A trip there is so worth it because they make their own tofu–which is not too silky, kinda reminds me of almond jelly, but soy flavored.
4. Taiwanese beef noodles
Beef noodles is just beef noodles until you experience it here in Taiwan. That sounds like I am pimping it but, well, can’t do it enough. It’s one of their national dishes, I think hehe. By default, I would recommend Din Tai Fung’s, but if you’re feeling extra adventurous, I would recommend the popular Yong Kang Beef Noodles near Dongmen station. However, this is a very local shop so be prepared with Google Translate before you visit (if you don’t have someone with you who speaks Mandarin). What makes Yong Kang Noodles extra good is that they let you choose which kind of broth to go with your beef noodles. They’re famous for their clear yet oh-so-tasty broth.
Taiwanese beef noodles, to me, is a perfect harmony of Japanese and Chinese influences. The broth kinda reminds me of the beef broth I get to eat in Chinese restaurants in the Philippines, but the noodles look like a smaller udon. I also think that what makes the beef noodles here unique is that it seems to be infused with tomatoes, and the beef is just falls-off-the-bones goodness every. single. time. The meat also comes in many different forms—there are beef shanks, beef bones, and lean meat, among others. The broth can also range from clear to reddish because of chilis.
Also, eating noodles in Taiwan is extra da bomb because you can slurp your noodles and eat from the bowl to your heart’s content. It’s partly a Japanese influence, and it’s the best way to show laoban what you think of your order.
5. Ice cream
I know, I know, this isn’t exactly Taiwanese. But I just want to include this here because it’s one of the most gastronomically clever things I learned in Taiwan. A local friend once told me, it’s best to eat ice cream during winter because that’s when you actually taste the ice cream as it is. In summer, it melts easily or usually when you consume it you don’t really enjoy the taste, only the cool feeling it gives you. At first I was like, uh, okay. But then I tried it and man, my friend spoke truth! Seeing people queue up for Cold Stone even on winter made total sense now.
I’d recommend you try those towering ice cream cones while walking in night markets, swaddled in layers of clothes and a jacket. The juxtaposition somehow works visually haha. It is so oddly satisfying and you don’t have to worry about constantly licking off melted, dripping ice cream.
So, the next time you find yourself in this beautiful island on an otherwise chilly, unforgiving temperature, fret not. There’s a positive side to that. And that positive is an experience you may not get anywhere. I think eating hot food in Taiwan’s winter is a test of patience, a battle of (literal) burning wills, and overall just a satisfying experience that extends to more than just filling up one’s belly.
Instead of cocooning yourself in your accommodations, Google a hotpot/luwei/beef noodle shop near you, and then cap the meal off with warm tofu or, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, go get that tall cone of ice cream or mango bingsu!