Ordering Food in Taiwan
Taiwan is famous for its food, it is an undeniable fact. But by "food", what exactly are we talking about? We certainly enjoy eating it, but food is much more than just feed. Food is at the center of a fascinating universe of peculiar habits, practices, traditions and social organizations, all dedicated to fulfill your satiety. And when it comes to Chinese cultures, where people greet each another literally saying "did you eat?" instead of "how are you doing?", it would be an understatement to say that food is important.
As tourists, eating outside can be a confusing experience as we lack our usual reference points, like meal courses or clear separation between cook, waiter and cashier. In the middle of the bustle of a busy eatery, as if the language barrier were not enough, you can easily find yourself a bit lost, unsure about how to order or who to give your money to. The Taiwanese food universe can be so wild at times. Paradoxically, everything seems to flow perfectly within the apparent disorder.
The most touristic restaurants will try to make it easier by providing you with English menus and pictures. While it is very nice and convenient, we all know that it’s not like the real thing when it is too much tailored for tourists. If, like me, you treasure authenticity and you want to explore the Taiwanese food jungle (and cannot speak Chinese), please read on. In this article I will try to give you the necessary know-how, and, most importantly, a taste for adventure.
Taiwanese eateries are so diverse and ubiquitous that would be impossible to give a complete overview. This is precisely one of their interesting aspects: each place has its own atmosphere and personality, its quirks and peculiarities, its organization and way to do things, and of course a distinctive flavor. Really, if you are starting to think that "it’s all the same" or "you’ve seen it all", you must be missing something.
I am going to focus on the "small local restaurant", that is to say the kind of place that consists of a single room with a few tables, often overflowing on the sidewalk, with apparently somewhat loosely defined boundaries between kitchen, dish-washing area, dining area and cashier. Most of them only run during lunch and dinner time (generally from 11am to 2pm and 5pm to 8pm). A sign displays the list of served dishes with the prices. Don’t let these cryptic Chinese characters discourage you and greet the staff with your best smile. Now have a look at whatever looks like a counter. In most places, there will be a bunch of pens and papers (sometimes plastic-coated) that are used to order.
The papers are also sometimes on the tables. If you don’t see any pen and paper, it means you need to order directly to the staff. Most of the time they will help you, for example by pointing at some noodles or dishes that are right there. But if they provide the pen and paper, just take it and have a seat. I like to seat at a table from where I can observe the kitchen area or otherwise have a good view of the restaurant.
Now you can take your time to analyze the order paper. Think of it as a key to unlock access to the many delicacies of Taiwan. Are you ready to break the secret code? Okay, let’s start with the easy part. No matter the restaurant, there will always be two fields around the top: take away (外帶) and table number (桌號).
Either fill the table number if you want to eat in, or tick the takeaway checkbox. The table number should be right on your table. If you choose to take away, avoid ticking with a cross because it is a confusing sign. The cross sign means "no" (as opposed to the circle which means "yes") or it could be seen as an erased "1" (see below about the Chinese tally marks).
Now, let’s focus on the order part. The paper typically consists of several tables containing dish names, their prices and empty cells. The goal is to write down the number of dishes you want to order in the corresponding empty cells. So how are we going to make sense out of the dishes list?
First, notice the prices and the categories. The dishes are grouped in separate tables, each corresponding to a certain kind of food, like noodle-based or rice-based. The first table on the left usually contains the main dishes that most people order, while the last, bottom-right table is usually for side dishes or less famous things. The higher the price, the bigger the quantity.
Then, try to identify some of these very, very common characters:
小 (small) and 大 (big) (and sometimes 中 (middle)) will tell you the size of the dish
麵 (noodles) and 飯 (rice) : noodles are probably the most common dish in Taiwan, but rice is also quite common
湯 (soup) : good to know if, like me, you want to avoid having a hot soup during summer. Note that if you see the noodles character (麵) alone, it actually means "noodles within a soup".
乾 (dry) : actually means "without soup". Often used in pair the above soup character to provide a soup-less noodles variant.
豬 (pork), 牛 (beef), 雞 (chicken), 魚 (fish) : the vast majority of Taiwanese dishes include meat, and these are the most common. 肉 (meat) is a generic character for any kind of meat.
蛋 (egg) and 菜 (vegetable) are common among side dishes.
While these characters will never tell you everything about all the dishes, they are valuable hints about the contents of many of them, because the dish names are very straightforward. If you are still unsure, just go for one of the first top-left choices; they are the most common ones, thus a rather "safe" choice.
If you feel a bit more adventurous, you could also choose one dish that you are confident with, along with another smaller (cheaper) dish chosen at random. In that case, it’s a good idea to take two order papers so that you can keep one for later check when the food comes, or as a souvenir. Feel free to order something mysterious and try to learn some new characters! This is how I discovered what became my favorite dish: the sesame noodles (麻醬麵).
Once you made your choice, write a dash next to the dish name. Why the dash? They have this special way to write numbers using the strokes of the character 正 as tally marks. This character has five strokes that are written in a specific order, starting from the top. That dash sign is the first stroke and it means "1". Add a vertical stroke to make it "2", like a T sign. Make it a "3" by adding a third stroke, like a F, and so on. The stroke order is important! This numbering system makes sense when several people are ordering together on the same paper, and you don’t know in advance how many people will order the same dish. Actually, you can as well write Arabic numerals instead; it’s just more fun to do it the Chinese way.
Then, prepare your money and give your order paper to the staff. While in many places you can pay after eating, a number of restaurants will ask you to pay before, so it’s good to have your money prepared, just in case. If you chose to take away, there might be a separate queue or area for you to go, indicated by a 外帶 (takeaway) sign.
You can now wait for your food while observing the master chefs at work. If you can, pay attention to what happens to your order paper. They will often hang it somewhere and use it to materialize the task associated to your order. Once your order is ready, the paper is moved to a different place. Once it is paid, the paper is moved again somewhere else.
Once you get familiar with some key Chinese characters, you will even become able to guess what kind of food a restaurant provides by looking at the shop sign. Speaking of which, here is another very useful pair of characters for vegetarians: 素食.
If you see that from the outside of a shop, it means everything in there is vegetarian. The first character 素 alone is also used in the menus or dish names to mean that a specific dish is meat-free. (Similarly, the keyword for vegan is 全素, but is it hardly seen anywhere in Taiwan.)
Most vegetarian restaurants are buffet-style, which is very convenient for foreigners as you can serve yourself. The typical way to go is to pick up a container, fill it with the food you want and put it on the scale at the counter. They will charge you by weight. Most buffets also include a self-service soup stored in a huge pot, so be sure to check if you see anything like that around.
Consider this article as a general guide; there are infinite variations in how things work in Taiwanese restaurants. Take each eating experience as it comes and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just try and let yourself be surprised by what ends up on your table!