Street food is the culinary backbone of urban life in Taipei — no matter where you are, you’re never far from a stall slinging something steamed, fried, grilled, or soupy. Thousands of vendors across the city offer nearly as many distinct, finely honed slices of Taiwan’s singular cuisine, from braised pork belly on rice to blended juices, often for just a couple of bucks. While concentrated in night markets, top-notch food stalls can be found all over the city. And it’s as true as it is cliche: If you don’t have a guide, the most reliable way to find the best stall is usually to just follow the lines.
The story of every food stall begins with the person behind the cart (or handlebars, as Mr. Jhuo’s Beverage Tricycle would have it). Many are multigenerational family businesses that have been operating continuously for years, if not decades, rigorously refining their craft of a single specialty, day in, day out. This January, the photographer An Rong Xu and I wandered around the city, speaking with the proprietors, cooks, and assembly line workers at some of the city’s most iconic stalls.
Liu Yueh-jin, owner, Mama Liu’s Rice Rolls (劉媽媽飯糰)
Location: Number 88, Section 2, Hangzhou South Road, Zhongzheng District
Specialty: Fan tuan, a classic Taiwanese breakfast-to-go, made with sticky purple and/or white rice wrapped around a variety of fillings. Mama Liu’s signature fan tuan features a savory fried dough stick, pickled turnip root, stewed egg, and pork floss. (Fan tuan can also be made vegetarian or vegan upon request.) Other popular fillings include pork cutlet with kimchi, seaweed with burdock root, and a deluxe fan tuan with pork cutlet, tuna, corn, dough stick, and other ingredients.
I’ve been doing this for 15 years, 13 of them in this location. My son and daughter work here and we keep pretty busy. My fan tuan are quite famous. Whenever [Hong Kong movie star] Andy Lau comes to Taipei, he comes here for my fan tuan. If you’re going to sell food in Taipei, it’s gotta be delicious or Taiwanese people won’t come. [Gestures toward the long line outside her shop] Look at that line, they’re all Taiwanese — you can’t trick Taiwanese people. — Lin Yueh-jin
Lin Gui-mi, co-owner, Hsu-Ji Shui Jian Bao (許記生煎包)
Location: Shida Night Market
Specialty: Bite-sized juicy pork- and cabbage-filled buns with a crispy bottom.
This type of bao zi is called shui jian bao. We keep it simple and only have one flavor — pork and cabbage — but we sell thousands each day. For us, each and every aspect of the process of making a shui jian bao is important. You need to make sure the meat and cabbage are perfectly proportioned with the soy sauce, sugar, black pepper, and ginger. You don’t want the skin too thick, or it won’t cook well, but you don’t want it too thin, or it’ll break. My husband founded this place in 1984, it’s named after him, his last name is Hsu. But he’s too old to work now, so I stop by to make sure everything is up to snuff. It usually takes new employees two weeks to learn how to make a proper shui jian bao, but the better ones get it right in a week. — Lin Gui-mi
Jhuo Ming-chi, owner, Mr. Jhuo’s Beverage Tricycle (卓哥三輪車)
Location: Rest area at Daotou Park, at the tip of the Shezidao peninsula in northwest Taipei
Specialty: Brown sugar lemonade, soy milk, and coffee with milk. Frozen mangoes at the height of summer. Refreshment and old-school Taiwanese music in a scenic spot with mountain views on the side of Taipei’s mangrove-lined riverside bicycle path.
I’ve been selling cold drinks here in Shezidao for 15 years now. I ride my tricycle over here with a cooler full of drinks at 8:30 and go home at sunset. If I sell out of drinks before the sun goes down, I only do it on Saturday and Sunday, when more people cycle by here on the riverside path. It’s always nice to be around people, chat, make new friends. It makes me happy. Selling drinks in Shezidao is great, this is a beautiful place, with mountains, mangroves, and the rivers. I’m not here to make money, I’m here to be happy. — Jhuo Ming-chi
Tsai Chun-chia, co-owner, Dihuajie Old Style O-dei (迪化街古早味蚵嗲)
Location: Number 47, Minle Street
Specialties: O-dei, a crispy, salty, deep-fried cake made with cabbage, Chinese chives, and oysters. Freshwater clams brined in soy sauce, lemon juice, chile pepper, sour plum garlic, and licorice root.
My family has been making o-dei for more than 30 years now. It’s not an easy snack to find in Taipei because it comes from southern Taiwan. That’s where we come from too. Most of our customers are from this neighborhood. We sell up to 200 o-dei each day. It’s the most popular thing on our menu, but a lot of work goes into it — we have to shell all the oysters by hand. A lot of people also like our turnip cakes; we also make those by hand. — Tsai Chun-chia
Yang Jui-fu, manager, Fuzhou Black Pepper Buns (福州胡椒餅)
Location: East entrance of Raohe Night Market
Specialty: Fuzhou-style pepper buns cooked in a tandoor-like oven until golden brown.
We only make one thing here, but we do it well. Each bun has a filling made with pork mince, black pepper, green onion, and our own secret mix of spices. I’d say what makes us stand out is that we use better ingredients than most other pepper-bun places. The green onion we use was harvested the day before in Sanxing, Yilan County, which is famous for its green onion. We’re well known for our pepper buns, and now have two other stalls, one in the Shilin Night Market and another on Chongqing South Road. — Yang Jui-fu
Chiang Hsin-ling, co-owner, Chiang Bao Zi (姜包子)
Location: Number 180, Section 1, Fuxing South Road
Specialty: Steamed buns with a variety of fillings, including vegan options.
I’m from the third generation of my family to work here, my grandfather started this shop four decades ago. He was born in China, so he made Shandong-style bao zi. In the beginning, we only sold three kinds of bao zi: pork, pork with cabbage, and pork with Chinese chives. Over the years, we’ve added new flavors like pork with sun-dried pickled cabbage, or vegetarian fillings like king oyster mushroom. Most of our customers are people whose families moved to Taiwan in the 1940s; they like bao zi a lot. Sometimes we get foreign customers waiting for the tourist bus for Jiufen near our shop. I speak a little English and love to introduce delicious Taiwanese food to people. I’m quite proud to work here. — Chiang Hsin-ling
Wang Cheng-hsi, owner, Yong Chang Traditional Soft Tofu and Almond Milk Shop (永昌傳統豆花杏仁茶店)
Location: North side of Yongle Market in Taipei’s Dadaocheng neighborhood
Specialty: Almond milk (note: contains dairy powder), fried dough sticks, soft tofu in almond milk.
I started this shop in 1997. This is my home; I live upstairs. My sons work with me during the week, and my wife helps out on weekends, when it gets busier. Every day I start work at 4:30 in the morning, preparing the almond milk and other things. I finish up at 7 and have breakfast, and then work until 4:30 or 5 p.m. In the hot months we sell soft tofu in cold almond milk and in the cold months we sell mugs of hot almond milk with fried dough sticks or sweet flaky buns. When we’ve sold everything, we call it a day. I’m 60 now, I’m going to retire in five years and leave it to my sons to run. It’s a lot of work, but we’ve made something to be proud of — you’re not the first media to come interview us. — Wang Cheng-hsi
Wu Tsui-fen, owner, Wheel Cakes (車輪餅)
Location: West entrance of Yongle Market, in the Dadaocheng neighborhood
Specialty: Chelunbing (“wheel cakes”), sweet and savory fillings like sweet cream, purple sweet potato, sweet red bean, or shredded turnip, cased in a griddle-cooked non-dairy/non-egg cake.
I’ve been selling wheel cakes here for 15 years. They’re a legacy of when we were ruled by Japan. It’s a Japanese snack, but us Taiwanese gave it our own style. Japanese wheel cakes are more cakey, but we make ours so that they’re nice and crispy on the outside. I live here in Dadaocheng, this is where I grew up. It’s great for traditional Taiwanese food. I make around 400 wheel cakes a day; all the different fillings sell well. I usually finish up around 4 or 6 o’clock, depending on how busy I am that day. Once I’ve sold out, I go home. — Wu Tsui-fen
Feng Yang-ming and Hsu Feng-ching, owners, Jinhua Fruit Seller (金華水果行)
Location: 118 Jinhua Street, Da’an District
Specialty: Fresh fruit juices and milkshakes, vegan noodles.
We’ve been selling fruit for eight years, and have been here for five years now. We started selling hot meals to make up for the slower fruit sales in the winter. Selling fruit is pretty relaxed, but the hot meals are a lot more work. I work with my wife every day from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., we’re really happy to be together. — Feng Yang-ming
I love eating (laughs), and I love cooking, so this is the perfect job for me. I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years. It’s nice to be able to give people delicious, healthy, natural food. We have a lot of regular customers. Our lion’s mane mushroom ramen and coconut milk pumpkin curry are pretty popular. A lot of people like our fruit and veggie juice blend, especially in the summer. We make it with carrot, pineapple, apple, celery, burdock root, and beetroot. Little kids with a sweet tooth like our avocado pudding milk. — Hsu Feng-ching