I’m going to do a series of short articles introducing traditional Taiwanese foods, as opposed to Taiwanese takes on Chinese cuisine. The distinction is somewhat arbitrary and difficult to define, but I would consider these to be Taiwanese dishes. For the tourist to Taiwan, these are the things you should try.
I’d like to start with one of my personal favorites—Taiwanese hamburger. In Chinese it is called ge bau (割包), but don’t call it that, it marks you as a neophyte to Taiwanese food. Call it gua bao (刈包), the Taiwanese way of saying the dish.
Gua bao is made from a steamed flat mantou (Chinese bun). The particular mantou used is two flat breads, shaped like half-circles, joined together along the straight spine. You can open the mouth of the mantou and place the ingredients between the two pieces of bread. It is vaguely like pita bread, though the bread itself is thicker, fluffier, and whiter. If you’re familiar with Japanese food, it is essentially the same as harata buns. The Japanese absorbed this dish during their Taiwanese occupation.
In the classic gua bao, the bun is filled with pork belly that has been red-braised, meaning stewed in a combination of rice wine, soy sauce, and various spices. The resulting meat is fatty (it is uncured bacon), soft (it is stewed), savory, with the taste of five-spice powder. Pork belly is a common dish in Taiwan, usually served with pickled or lightly cooked vegetables, to cut the meat’s richness. Naturally when somebody decided to create a pork belly sandwich, some of those side dishes made it into the gua bao, specifically pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and Taiwanese-style peanut powder. These three ingredients are what makes it Taiwanese gua bao.
The pickled mustard greens are made by taking a head of green mustard and fermenting/pickling [lacto-fermenting] it in a similar manner to sauerkraut or kimchi. The result is a slightly tart and zesty green vegetable. The fermentation process, unfortunately, takes away some of the mustard’s vibrant green, and also makes it a bit limp. To counteract the poor visuals, and add a more lively mouth-feel, fresh cilantro is added. (The cilantro is usually chopped with the stems to maintain as much crispness as possible). It could hardly be called a Taiwanese dish without cilantro—it’s on almost everything. The final ingredient is the Taiwanese peanut powder. It is made of finely ground peanuts and finely ground rock sugar.
If you go to a shop and order gua bao you usually are offered a choice of lean meat, fatty meat, or a mix. In general, the fattier the better, I personally prefer lean or perhaps mixed, but it is meant to be a very fatty dish. If you’re going to try it, I’d recommend putting your cardiologist on speed dial, and trying a rich one. That’s really how it is meant to be eaten, and it is delicious—umami, sweet, salty, and tart rolled into one aromatic bundle. It has diverse textures and colors. Plus, it is messy enough to eat, that it is guaranteed to keep the kids entertained. It is awesome.
If you want to try this Taiwanese delicacy, the best place to begin your search is in, or near, a night market or wet market. That’s always the place to begin any quest for traditional Taiwanese cuisine.