In Taiwan, most of people's time is spent around two things: eating, and talking about the next meal or next snack.
The little snack culture (小吃) in Taiwan may be difficult to understand for first-time visitors. The amount of restaurants and food stalls found in big cities like Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung, as well as tourist spots like Sun Moon Lake and Lukang is simply mind-boggling. Everywhere you look there are sings boasting the best noodles / chicken / BBQ on the island, and on every street you walk you are sure to be surrounded by smells of tofu, soy sauce, spices, and some hard-to-identify odors.
In western countries, when we think of fast food, we think burgers and pizza, McDonalds and Pizza Hut kind of chain stores. In Taiwan, there are also thousands of fast food and tea chain stores, both local and foreign brands. However, Taiwan has its own very unique home-grown type of fast food which is more accurately labeled street food or "little eats" as Taiwanese like to call them. In Mandarin Chinese this kind of snack is called "xiao chi, 小吃".
As I wrote earlier, fast food, or xiao chi, is found everywhere in Taiwan, but there are places where the concentration of stalls or small eateries is much higher. Night Markets are packed with them, and for most people, taking a stroll at a night market means eating different dishes and sipping tea more than shopping.
Tourist destinations and many towns in the countryside have "old streets, 老街" which are lined with stalls that sell basically the same kind of food you'd see at night markets. Some places have their own specialty, like Kenting Street is popular for seafood, Shenkeng (in Taipei) specializes in stinky tofu, and Lukang is famous for its oyster omelettes.
More and more, you can see night market foods from other countries such as falafel, pizza, sushi, Mongolian BBQ, and Mexican tacos. One reason why these street snacks are finding their ways on the Taiwan food scene, is the ever growing number of foreigners living here.
Throughout Taiwan, there are also more "special" or "exotic" kinds of food sold at traditional markets and old streets, which definitely don't fall in the fast food category. A good example is Snake Alley in Taipei, which sells, you probably guessed it, snake! These days, food like snake is exotic and strange even for normal Taiwanese. It's no longer part of the everyday culture to snack on snake flesh or drink its blood. For the younger generation, it is consumed for the thrill of the experience, and the photo opp.
In mountainous areas and along the East Coast of Taiwan where aboriginal culture is still strong, you'll find different kinds of street food.
By far the most popular kind of snack you can get is barbecued meat - more specifically pork. Mountain pigs, or wild boars, are still hunted in the traditional ways in some indigenous communities.
In the west, when we think of fast food, we usually assume it's unhealthy, deep fried, or filled with fattening ingredients, and wisely choose to eat it only once in a while. On the contrary, in Taiwan, there is a wide selection of healthy snacks, often vegetarian, which are not deep fried, but are instead steamed or boiled, such as corn, beans, and rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.
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