Our guide, Tina Fong of Taipei Eats, is laughing: "That sign above us reads 'Everything on Earth smells sweet, but only I am stinky!'" We are in a shophouse in the city's central Xinyi district, where a server is dishing up the pièce de résistance of Taipei Eats' Iconic Food tour: the most utterly pungent stinky tofu, one of Taiwan's most famous dishes. Its distinctive aroma is thanks to a long process of fermentation. Biting into it yields a flavour like a cross between durian and Roquefort, with the consistency of cottage cheese.
An acquired taste? You bet. But that's only just the tip of the food iceberg in Taipei, where, at every turn, visitors will find mom-and-pop shops serving burger-sized gua baos stuffed with unctuous shredded pork and winding wet markets selling everything from nose-to-tail pig carcasses to Taiwanese guava and water chestnut.
Taipei metro, left, and water chestnuts on a Taipei Eats Food Tour
If this sounds like heaven, welcome to Taipei. With a population of only 2.6 million, the city has consistently punched above its weight when it comes to food. Take, for instance, the restaurant chain Din Tai Fung, which started off around the corner from Dongmen station and now sells steaming-hot xiaolongbao in 13 countries. Or Erchen Chang, the Taipei-born co-founder of BAO, the small-plates empire that introduced the pork belly bun to London.
But Taiwanese food is more than fluffy baos and soup dumplings. The island nation's indigenous history and subsequent waves of immigration and occupation - alongside its voracious appetite for new flavours and its unique subtropical and tropical microclimate that lends itself to cultivating ingredients including millet, purple yam and jujube - have given it an exceptional and hyper-distinctive food scene.
In Taipei, you can go from exquisite high-end restaurants such as Taïrroir, which got its third Michelin star in 2023, to stuffing your face with street food at one of the 30 or so markets in the greater metropolitan area. Then, there are Taipei's late-night rechao eateries, where beer flows freely and rib-sticking stir-fried meat and seafood comes flying out of the kitchen (vegans can get stuck in courtesy of Chao, a popular plant-based rechao spot).
In Taipei, you can eat from the crack of dawn to post-cocktail hours
You can quench your thirst with every sugary-sweet variety of bubble tea under the sun; dairy-free-friendly Nap Tea has multiple outlets across the city and does a mean creamy foam topping on its teas. Alternatively, partake in Taipei's booming coffee culture at spots such as Normal Coffee, which roasts its beans in the back of the shop, or Simple Kaffa, founded by World Barista Championships winner Berg Wu.
Top everything off at Yu Pin Yuan Iced and Hot Tangyuan, with its signature dessert of glutinous rice balls on syrup-sweetened shaved ice. Alternatively, go to Raohe Street Night Market and try some fried milk on a stick. That's right - fried milk on a stick. It's truly delicious.
Taipei was first settled by the Ketagalan people, one of the many Aboriginal communities that first lived in Taiwan. As Hakka and Fujianese migrants made their way over from China in the 17th century onwards, methods of cooking, including braising, came with them - best exemplified in the classic dish lu rou fan, or braised pork belly on rice. In 1895, Japan occupied Taiwan and brought with it Japanese seasonings, bento boxes, rice balls and more. In the 20th century, refugees fleeing the Chinese Civil War transported a mainland palate and dishes including beef noodle soup. Taiwanese chefs didn't just adopt these cuisines wholesale; they improvised and made them their own. Japanese tempura, for instance, became tian bu la - fish paste, made extra-chewy with the addition of tapioca flour and found deep-fried at pretty much every night market in Taipei.
Bread on offer at a Taipei night market
In Taipei, you can eat from the crack of dawn to post-cocktail hours. It's not unusual to get to a famed breakfast spot at 10am and find a long queue, or to see drinkers at a noodle joint past midnight, although many restaurants will shut in the afternoon to prepare for evening service. Some popular spots will also sell out of food long before their closing time, particularly at night markets, where many stalls wrap up by 10 or 11pm.
Don't let a big crowd put you off or make you assume it's a tourist trap. It's often an indicator of good food and, more often than not, time will pass quicker than expected as Taiwanese cooks can seemingly get through orders faster than one of the country's high-speed rail trains. And while speaking Mandarin is a definite plus, many restaurants and street-food stalls have staff who know some English, or menus translated for English-speaking tourists.
A last word of advice? If you're coming to Taipei, make sure to bring an extra stomach - or at least elasticated sweatpants. You're going to be leaving with a full belly.
Eat your way around Taipei: a guide for foodies
Where to stay
The Door Inn, left, and Villa 32
The Door Inn
Not every space-constrained hotel in Taipei has windows, so make sure you check the room listing first. Thankfully, this isn't a problem at The Door Inn, an elegantly minimalist and light-filled three-star guesthouse nestled around the corner from the historic shophouses of Dihua Street and a 15-minute walk from Ningxia Night Market.25 Anxi St, Datong District, 103 +886 911 248 080 the-door-inn.taipeihotelinfo.com
For a more luxurious outpost, try the five-bedroom Villa 32 in Beitou District, just a short walk from Yangmingshan National Park. Best known for its hot springs, Beitou is less hectic than central Taipei. Villa 32 is a tranquil and stunning spot, with in-room onsen baths and access to its own hot spring.32 Zhongshan Rd, Beitou District, 112 +886 266 118 888 villa32.com
What to eat
Youtiao with almond milk tofu at Yong Chang, and the shop queue
Yong Chang Traditional Soft Tofu and Almond Milk Shop
Start the day at this tiny old-school café, which serves porcelain-smooth tofu floating in homemade almond milk. The almond milk here is creamier than its western counterpart. You can also buy youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks) to dip in mugs of hot almond milk. A true champions' breakfast.9 Yongchang St, Datong District, 103 +886 225 555 791
This unfussy restaurant looks and feels like a homespun farmhouse but cooks phenomenally good, Michelin Bib Gourmand-recognised Taiwanese comfort food. This is the place to try local specialities such as three-cup frog and braised pork belly. While you're in Shilin, drop in on the contemporary art exhibitions at Ting Ting Art Space and/or the gorgeous Amy Liang Bonsai Museum.97 Tianmu E Rd, Shilin District, 111 +886 228 741 981 redlantern.eatingout.com.tw
Stinky tofu on sale at Raohe Night Market
Raohe Night Market
Shilin Night Market is the big draw for tourists, but Raohe combines ease of access with some of the best street-food stalls in the city. Start at the east entrance with a piping-hot bun from Fuzhou Shizu Black Pepper Bun and then work your way down the stalls from there. You'll smell the stinky tofu stalls before you get to them - you can get deep-fried tofu with a side of pickled vegetables at all the stalls, but the more adventurous can head to Shi Boss Stinky Tofu (or Shi Boss Spicy Tofu on Google Maps) to try it stewed in broth with duck blood.Raohe St, Songshan District, 105 +886 227 668 876 travel.taipei
What to drink
This is the chilled-out sister establishment of Bar Mood, a recent addition to Asia's 50 Best Bars list. Reservations are easier to score here, the ambience is more laid-back, and the food menu - particularly the chicken wings à la mood - is excellent. Drinks, including its line-up of tea-infused house cocktails, are ridiculously drinkable. Don't be surprised if you end up wanting to try all 10.54, Section 1, Lane 190, Dunhua S Rd, Da'an District, 106 +886 965 259 952 inline.app
If boba isn’t your cup of tea, traditionalists can sit down for a tea ceremony at one of Taipei’s many teahouses
Qingtian Tea House
If boba isn't your cup of tea, traditionalists can sit down for a tea ceremony at one of Taipei's many teahouses. Yellowface author Rebecca F. Kuang is a fan of this serene Japanese-influenced spot opposite Da'an Forest Park. Make sure to arrive in good time so you can participate in proceedings at a leisurely pace.12, Lane 8, Qingtian St, Da'an District, 106 +886 223 963 100 facebook.com/aota812teahouse
What to do
Jain Jain, left, and Ni Hao Wo Hao
Shop Dihua Street for local goods
This quaint, well-preserved row of shophouses is now home to a plethora of local artisans and makers, including the Orla Kiely-esque textile designers JainJain, and the Ni Hao Wo Hao store, which sells kitsch-but-cool lifestyle essentials.Dihua St, Datong District, 103
Watch the sunset at Dadaocheng Wharf Container Market
Summer in Taipei brings temperatures of 30°C and up, which makes cooling off, preferably next to a body of water, imperative. Grab a chilly fruit ale by the award-winning Taiwan Head Brewers at this eclectic market, then sit by the water to watch the sun go down - bliss.Minsheng W Rd, Datong District, 103 +886 266 057 338 facebook.com/M.DaDaoCheng
Dance into the early hours at a club
Taipei is home to some top-class festivals and clubs, including dance music all-dayer eel Festival and Pawnshop, an underground techno bunker with a state-of-the-art Funktion-One sound system. For those who like raving with a view, Studio 9, perched atop a building in hip Ximending, has a rooftop dance floor overlooking the city and two main rooms spinning house and techno.