It is a widely held belief that the best street food in Taiwan exists not in Taipei, but in Tainan. A former Dutch colony, the southern city was populated by refugees fleeing China during that country’s regime change of the 17th century, and spent 200 years as Taiwan’s capital before it was moved north in 1887. Compared to Taipei, the roads here are narrow (maybe don’t rent a car), and the architecture is as varied and captivating as the city’s xiao chi, or “little eats” — famed delicacies that today attract culinary tourists from all over Asia and beyond.
The upheavals that shook Taiwan at the end of the 19th century and after World War II — respectively, Japan’s colonization of the island, then a huge influx of Chinese as a defeated Chiang Kai-shek withdrew from the mainland — didn’t reshape the culture in Tainan nearly so much as they did in the north, and that includes the foodways. When it comes to old-style Taiwanese cooking, most will admit that Tainan is unmatched. The dishes here tend to be sweeter than their northern Taiwan equivalents, too, due to greater Tainan’s 400-year history as a sugar (and salt)-producing region. And because the southwest is known as the island’s rice bowl, vegetable patch, oyster bed, and piggery combined, Tainan cuisine benefits from being close to the ingredient motherlode.
While culturally distinct, Tainan is an easy one-night detour — or even an ambitious day trip — on any Taipei itinerary. Bullet trains operated by Taiwan High Speed Rail take between about 90 minutes and 2 hours from the capital; you can buy tickets at the main station just before departure, or from special kiosks at local 7-Elevens.
Once in town, the dense city center is ideal for a walking tour of Tainan’s most acclaimed spins on street food, aided by this guide to crawling your way through them all. English is less widely spoken here than in Taipei, but the welcome is just as enthusiastic. In the end, your persistence will be rewarded by a peerless day of eating, with enough scenic walking between stops to stave off the meat sweats.
Note: You can get from the station to the city center by the H31 shuttle bus to Jiansing Junior High School (about 40 minutes, free) or Shalun Branch Railway (22 to 28 minutes, $25 TWD, or 80 cents USD) to Tainan Station. The bus drops you less than 1000 feet from the first eatery described below. (Alternately, you could also hop a taxi to the same address for about $400 TWD/$13 USD). Before eating, you may want to look around Tainan’s ancient Confucius Temple ( 台南孔子廟), located nearby. If you take the local train, consider starting your food crawl at stop 3.
Steven Crook is a freelance writer and co-author of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai. He has called Tainan, Taiwan home for 24 years.Read More