Origin Stories: Short Histories Behind a Few of Taiwan’s More Famous Foods

Photo Credit: Common Wealth Journal

The impetus for this edition of the blog began with watching our roommate slice into an avocado. Now we know what you’re thinking, “holy guacamole! No wait, it’s just an avocado [insert bored/unimpressed face here].” But you underestimate this “cow oil fruit” (the literal translation of 牛油果, or “niú yoú guǒ,” Mandarin for avocado), dear reader. This thing was the size of an obese guinea pig or a small house cat. It was like the nacho libra sumo wrester of avocados. Our first thought was, “well we know what we’re bringing to the Super Bowl party.” Our second thought, was along the lines of “how do they even grow them that big?” Like does Taiwan have excess Hulk serum leeching into the ground somewhere? Is this some dystopian version of Kong Island crossed with Wakanda and the only thing they let the general public in on is their oversized produce? That led us down a rabbit hole of envisioning a giant guardian creature roaring out of the central mountain range when PRC troops invade (in all seriousness though, heads up Mainland — launched from catapults the unripe version of these things could take out airplanes). Our third thought had something to do with “Taiwanese stones,” but we won’t repeat that one here.

What our roommate’s melon-sized alligator pear truly got us contemplating though was the global exchange and spread of different foods from their countries of origin over the past five hundred years. Avocados are originally indigenous to Mexico and Central America where they served as an important source of proteins and fatty nutrients for people stretching back to before the Olmec civilization. It is a taste that both an Aztec warrior and a Silicon tech bro could identify, and the fruit also happens to now be grown on an island halfway around the world that the Spanish did not know existed during the time of Cortez’s sack of Tenochtitlan. It’s trippy to think about. It reflects not only a pace and scale of change, but also a global-interconnectedness that we now live with, whether we believe in our small-minded nationalist rhetoric or not. When we looked it up, we discovered that avocados were first introduced to Taiwan in 1930 (plenty of time for them to develop a superhuman/plant growth serum). From there, however, we found ourselves in the deep end, in the proverbial soup, and only a blog article would suffice to get us out.

We have an evolving theory that “Food” is “a missing love language” from the five Love Languages you sometimes hear bandied about in the western world. Our evidence is most of our Taiwanese and Chinese friends who, without trying to, are complete foodies. From one foreigner’s perspective, there’s a warmth, appreciation, interest, and devotion around food in Taiwan and other parts of Asia that we just don’t have in the same large scale cultural sense in the US. *Our hats’ off to the golden a$%rches.

We’ve already written about scallion pancakes and their murky inception, but all of this pondering got us wondering, what about some of the other notable Taiwanese foods? Where do they get their beginnings? How did they arrive in Taiwan and in the process transform into a piece and flavor of cultural identity? Grab your chips and dip folks for it is time to dive into the origins of a few staples of Taiwanese cuisine.

Pineapple Cake

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Photo Credit: WSJ

We have heard rumors that Taiwanese in-laws will sometimes judge you based off of the brand of pineapple cake that you show up with (it’s a good thing that we only know how to buy 餅’s). In all seriousness though, pineapples and pineapple cake have become synonymous with Taiwan in a way that Portuguese merchants could never have predicted when they introduced the fruit to the Island in the 1600’s. Although originally indigenous to South America, part of pineapple’s popularity in Taiwan stems from its name in Hokkien, “ong lai” which sounds like ‘luck or prosperity arrives’, making the fruit a symbol of luck, success, and fortune. Giving pineapple or pineapple based products becomes a physical and tangible way of proverbially wishing someone well. This idea is sometimes a little tricky for westerners to wrap our heads around as we readily only have an olive branch, an apple, or a rose to speak symbolically with plant matter. Nonetheless, take our word for it when we say, there is an abundance of gifts out there in Chinese that function this way with meaning and sound. Jasmine tea, for example, is a great present to give a good friend or a lover as 茉 莉 (mò lì) or jasmine sounds a lot like 莫 离 (mò lí) which means “not to be separate” (we can hear you adding this last one to your notes section on your phone and you are welcome).

Another reason for pineapple prevalence in Taiwan stems to Japanese colonial history. When the Japanese colonized the Island in the late 1800 and early 1900’s, they sought to create “a perfect colony” that mass produced goods and crops on large exportable scales (they were looking to the plantations of the Caribbean, Hawaii, and other colonized countries as their models). Pineapple became the export of choice and Taiwan would become the third largest producer of pineapples in the world. WWII brought a shift as factories were shuttered and converted to help the war effort, but production resumed in earnest in the 1950’s. In the ensuing decades, pineapples have become a central export for Taiwan alongside the rise of a multitude of types of pineapples and pineapple products. While writing this post we inadvertently discovered that there are at least 90 different varieties of pineapples grown on the Island. In the past two decades, the fruit has also taken on a geopolitical significance in Taiwan. As of the spring of 2021 China banned pineapple imports in a move which many critics view as another underhanded means of applying pressure on the Island. What we wonder these days, however, is whether in this action the CCP authorities might have inadvertently cemented another piece of Taiwanese identity… Cake has certainly been seen as a rallying cry before. In the meantime, we just hope that this doesn’t get SpongeBob banned from Weibo.

Bento Boxes

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Photo Credit: Eater

Another Japanese holdover, Bento boxes, or lunchboxes are a ridiculously easy and cheap way to eat well in Taiwan. Called bian dang (便當), meaning “convenient” and sounding like the Japanese word “bento,” bento boxes are traditionally found at train stations and on trains themselves. For many older or middle age Taiwanese a bento box is something that will evoke feelings of nostalgia for train trips or time spent with family and friends (think popcorn at the movies, fried dough at a fair, [insert your nostalgia dish and location here]). While traditionally a train food, these boxes have become ubiquitous across Taiwan sold everywhere from food stands to grocery stores. They serve as snack, lunch, dinner, etc., and will often come in the form of chicken, pork cutlet, sausage, or veggie with tofu, veggies, and cooked rice underneath or on the side. Some places have even become bento box destinations. Without trying to wade into an argument with bento box connoisseurs, the best box we have had in Taiwan was at the final train stop along the Alishan Railway in Shitzulu.

Bubble Tea

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Photo by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash

It doesn’t get much more Taiwanese than bubble tea. Created in the 1980’s the exact origin point in Taiwan may never be known, but we suspect that few foods or beverages prior ever spread around the globe as quickly. What we do know is that we are grateful, on a near daily basis, to the inventors and the pioneers who thought to mix tea, milk, and tapioca pearls with a bit of sugar. It has been said that swear words are some of the first things you pick up and the last things you forget when learning a new language, however, we submit that the advocates of this theory have not reckoned with the phrases needed to order bubble tea. #住(zhu)the珍珠(zhenzhu)life! #pearlsofwisdom.

Oyster Omelettes

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Photo Credit: FTW

One of the things that we enjoy most about Taiwanese food is the way it is a subtle fusion of flavors and dishes from multiple cultures including Indigenous groups, Hokkien, Hakka, people from Northern China, Japanese, and, in recent decades, no small influence of western palates. Taiwan does not get the same amount of press as say Singapore or other regions of Asia, but there are some very interesting things happening in the culinary scenes on the Island. One of the prime examples of this is the Oyster Omelette. Originally from the Hokkien coast of Fujian, oyster omelettes have been transplanted to Taiwan as well as other parts of Southeast Asia as a street market and family kitchen staple. It is a mainstay of Taiwanese night markets and increasingly can also be found on the plates of Michelin star restaurants.

Gua Baos

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Photo Credit: CNN

“Gua baos,” “bao baos,” “baos,” are also sometimes referred to as “scrumptious delights,” “Taiwanese Hamburgers,” “a foreigner’s obsession,” and “pork belly buns.” We suspect this last moniker, in combination with the soft slow-marinated taste of these delicacies, is what results in our brain generating the famous Austin Powers’ line, “get in my belly!” each and every time we come across a gua bao stand in Taipei. We apologize in advance if you now find yourself afflicted with a similar condition. For some reason it doesn’t help when you also learn that colloquially in Taiwan they are referred to as hǔ-kā-ti (虎咬豬) or “tiger bites pig” (oink).

Although they have certainly cornered the hamburger market in Taiwan, gua baos are another example of a Fujian cuisine that has made its way across the Strait. CNN, however, credits the Island (and rightly so) with introducing this delicious bite-sized snack to the globe.


Food, identity, globalization, and interconnectedness is where we find ourselves in this coming 2024 year, and it can be fascinating to trace the history and evolution of foods in both Taiwan and across the world. What we have discovered in the course of our own small inquiries is that these exploration add to a larger language that we all already know how to speak. Learning the history and the journey that a dragon fruit, a potato, or a jasmine flower took ultimately leads to a sense of interdependence, understanding, and appreciation rather than difference. It’s a stone that goes on to create the soup.

Until next time, and we call making the guacamole for the Super Bowl party.

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Photo Credit: PinkMeme


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