By Rick Charette
The city of Chiayi, on Taiwan’s southwest plain, is one of Taiwan’s oldest. Its fortunes flourished in the early 1900s with two key economic boosts. The Japanese built the west-coast railway system and Alishan Forest Railway, connecting them here. They also built the Jianan Plain irrigation system, engendering an explosion in regional agricultural production. (Read also: Alishan – A World of High-Mountain Tea Up in the Clouds)
Today, Chiayi’s delicious snack-food culture is also celebrated, with many eateries and night-market vendors of nationwide repute. Netflix series Street Food was released in 2019 and dedicated an entire episode to Chiayi’s street eats. Here’s a taste-test tour of some of the most iconic places and foods that’ll explain why Netflix fell in love with this Taiwanese city. (Read more: Taiwan Culture and Cuisine Shine on New Netflix Series “Street Food”)
Chiayi Turkey Rice
Turkey rice is Chiayi’s best-known snack treat, and purveyors are well-nigh ubiquitous. Netflix might catch your eyes with Magistrate Liu’s Turkey Rice, but for many locals, another turkey rice restaurant makes a claim to No. 1 position in the turkey rice pantheon is Dai Shi Turkey Rice. After WWII, US servicemen stationed locally introduced turkey meat and breeding. Chiayi sellers insist on exclusively using turkeys bred locally, known for their succulent flesh.
▲ Magistrate Liu’s Turkey Rice
Dai Shi is a heritage eatery that has been satisfying customers for over 50 years. The hand-pulled meat strips, soft and tender, have a light sweetness. They’re laid on a bed of steaming white rice, with a savory house sauce drizzled atop. Each house has its own “secret” sauce, almost invariably built on a foundation of turkey/chicken stock, soy sauce, and sugar.
▲ Dai Shi Turkey Rice
Fish Head Stew
Smart Fish is the place of origin of this hearty Chiayi signature treat. The stew is prepared using chub fish sourced from a nearby reservoir, which is deep-fried. Beyond the meat chunks, it contains goodies such as Chinese cabbage, golden needle mushroom, black fungus, and beancurd. Despite all this, it is the zestfully flavorful broth that makes the dish. The Smart Fish broth is braised for eight hours, the concoction made with large pork bone, three-layered pork, dried shrimp, chilies, and scallion. On serving your bowl is seasoned with the secret house barbecue sauce.
Soy Milk Tofu Pudding
Douhua (豆花), or tofu pudding, is a popular sweet snack sold all around Taiwan. It is built around small slabs of tofu softer than silk, served in water sweetened with black-sugar syrup. Various other tasties are also added, standard items including chewy and springy adzuki beans, mung beans, pearl barley, tapioca-starch pearls, peanuts cooked in syrup, and sweet potato-flour chunks.
What sets Chiayi’s version apart is the use of soy milk instead of sweetened water, creating an ultra-creamy texture. The first seller to do this was Ah E (“Grandma E”) Soy Milk Tofu Pudding, in business almost 60 years, which today remains Chiayi’s most favorite such establishment. Grandma E painstakingly makes her own tofu, with no additives. As most everywhere else, her douhua is served hot or cold. Taiwanese love it as a warming or cooling treat, depending on the season.
Requiring several days of preparation, the use of a walk-in oven, and an industry-grade gas mask, Uncle Goats’ medicinal goat hotpot is a meticulously-prepared dish known for leaving customers feeling both happy and healthy. The recipe was passed down to Mr Chou (known as Uncle Goat) by his grandmother and features generous amounts of meat complimented by the addition of medicinal herbs and lashing of rice wine. (Read also: Goats and Gas Masks at Taiwan’s Hell Kitchen)
Cold Noodles with Mayonnaise
People around Taiwan also love cold noodles in summer, generally drizzled with a tangy sauce made with sesame paste, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. Added to this salad-style dish are thin pulled-chicken strips and slivered veggies, notably cooling cucumber and carrot, which gives the dish a dash of crunchy bite.
Chiayi folk have a different take on things, and Gongyuan Old Shop Cold Noodles is the place to go. Chiayi-style cold noodles are first covered in a layer of sesame sauce, and then a layer of mayonnaise. The use of mayonnaise is another practice learned from US military personnel, and made uniquely Taiwanese. Sweetened mayonnaise is used around the island. Chiayi cold noodles also feature broader, chewier noodles.
Beef Offal Soup
In the past, Taiwanese ate little beef. The few cattle on farms were working animals. In the Chiayi area, a farming area, a taste for beef was acquired first from stationed Japanese soldiers, then stationed soldiers from China after the Nationalist exodus to Taiwan. The reigning queen of beef offal soup is Mama Wang’s Beef Offal Soup, long known as Wang Family Beef Offal Soup. This fare is simple, with the offal in clear broth covered with ginger slivers, accompanied with a soy-sauce dip. The key is freshness; the offal is same-day sourced direct from a slaughterhouse, and boiled for hours with large beef bone.
Wenhua Road Night Market
If you’re the type of gourmand with a nigh bottomless stomach, there’s a place where you can try all the Chiayi-icon treasures mentioned above and many more at one super-ambitious go. This is the Wenhua Road Night Market, No. 1 in Chiayi by a long stretch. The market is itself a long stretch, running a half-kilometer along Wenhua Road’s south section. This section is pedestrian-only at night. North and south are divided by a central fountain within a roundabout, with colorful nighttime water-dance shows. Ah E Tofu Pudding is in this market. (You might also like: Seven Taiwan Night Markets Everyone Needs to Visit)
There’s no better way to learn about Chiayi’s street scene than by diving into its street eats. For your own Netflix street food adventure in Chiayi, please click here.