Taiwan lunchboxes

amateur vagrant zhongli taiwan taoyuan lunchbox bento box chinese takeout what to eat

Taiwanese lunchboxes are the offspring of Japanese bento boxes, which provide a full meal on one tray or in one box: rice, a protein, some sides, and usually some soup. Most also have a little bit of some kind of pickle lurking in the corner.

The shallow rectangular white box of the lunchboxes is ubiquitous here, as iconic as the oyster-pail used for Chinese food back home. Ironically, an American new to Taiwan might find that the contents of a lunchbox feel almost familiar.  A “standard” lunchbox (the kind that your boss might order for you without having the tedious conversation about what you want before you understand what’s available), is often a piece of fried chicken or a fried pork chop laid on a slab of rice, with three vegetables on the side. Just like mamma used to make for Sunday dinner!

Here are some of my favorite, or at least my regular, lunchbox meals in Zhongli.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes bade grilled chicken

This is by far my favorite lunchbox, a grilled chicken meal from a place in Bade called Qiao Wei Lunchbox (巧味便當). I used to have it every Friday when I was teaching out there. Unfortunately, Bade is not in my neighborhood and I am lazy, so I don’t get to eat this much anymore. This chicken was grilled to perfection, every time, and this place was always crowded at lunch time.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes zhenzhong ribs meal grilled chicken leg rice lunchbox

This is a grilled chicken lunch box from  a “famous” local place in Zhongli called Zhengzhong Ribs Meal (正忠排骨飯). It’s very good, and also, you can choose your three sides. Here I got some greens, some eggplant, and some curry-potatoes. But I still love the chicken from Qiao Wei the best.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes railway lunchbox

This is a railway lunchbox from place in Pingzhen. This particular lunchbox place is not special, it was just next to the school I taught at last semester. It smelled of stale oil and they used the microwave a lot…

But, this railway meal is pretty cool. According to Cathy Erway in her awesome book, The Food of Taiwan, the first lunchboxes in Taiwan were the lunchboxes served on the trains and at the train stations. And in the beginning, that was the only place they were served. Now lunchboxes are so popular and such a part of the Taiwanese diet that school children typically eat lunchboxes for lunch every day, if not also for dinner in between cram-school classes. But now a lot of lunchbox places have gotten nostalgic, offering these “railway meals” in the old-school, round, bamboo boxes. There’s no little compartments, and there’s usually a bit of Taiwanese sausage as well as a pork chop included.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes fried chicken lunchboxThis is a fried chicken lunchbox from that same place in Pingzhen. I ate this so often last year that I got sick of it. It’s a pretty dense meal.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes macau five-meat lunchbox

This is a pretty unique lunchbox. I found it at a place that makes Macau- (澳门) and Hong-Kong style food called Macau Xin Hao Ji Char Siu Shop (澳門新濠記燒臘店) Because it was my first time here, I went for broke and got the “five-meat” rice box. It was tasty, but too much meat for me. I had the duck meat over rice the next time, and that was good. Duck meat lunchboxes are usually more expensive, around NT$100 each.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan sushi for lunch

Not technically what people mean when they say “lunchbox,” but this is often my dinner. Each piece of “sushi” is NT$10. Obviously, this is really Taiwanese with the mayo-corn mixture and the pork floss in the sushi rolls. But it’s good, it’s cheap, and it tastes fresh. You can also get salmon, tuna, etc. I love the steamed egg, too. I got this set from a little street vendor called Black 5 Sushi (黑武藏10元壽司). These vendors are everywhere.

My only complaint is that if they give you condiments, it’s not enough, so I usually roll with my own bottle of soy sauce and my own tube of wasabi when I’m planning on having street sushi for dinner. Also, they don’t give you chopsticks. Sushi is actually finger food, but if eating with your fingers puts you off, you better pack your own pair of chopsticks.

amateur vagrant zhongli taiwan taoyuan 7-11 lunch kimchi cold noodles

Also not a lunchbox, but this is a fairly low-calorie option from 7-11. I avoid carbs as far as possible, but every once in a while, I’m stuck between classes, the nearest 7 is out of apples, the melon chunks have seen better days, and I don’t want to eat another tea egg, so I’ll throw in the towel and have some kimchi noodles.

If you’re eating a lot of convenience-store lunchboxes, I don’t judge, but you’d do yourself a favor to check out the calories on some of those boxes. It might come as a shock that even the innocuous-looking fried rice has 600-800 calories. I am not opposed to 700-calorie meals, but if I am gonna go out like that, I’d rather have something that wasn’t microwaved at a convenience store.

I’ll leave you with my lunchbox pro-tips:

  1. Order the “famous” lunchbox at any lunchbox place, particularly if it’s your first time. This is what the owners are putting all their effort into. It will be fresher and your meal will come faster.
  2. Along the same lines, avoid “interesting” offerings like Thai-style chicken or Three Cup Chicken lunchboxes. It’s usually something they’re gonna have to remember how to prepare and then microwave, and it’s never as good as what you’d get in a sit-down restaurant. In my experience. There are exceptions to every rule.
  3. I avoid simple carbs and grains (when I’m on the wagon), so I’ll often get a roasted sweet potato with to have with my lunchbox, and then skip the rice. Most convenience stores offer roasted sweet potatoes. A piece of fruit would also do the trick. I find that eating the rice guarantees I’ll want to succumb to a food coma. Ever notice how Taiwanese offices shut down for a little shuteye after lunch? Mmmhmmm…
  4. Cheaper is not better. If you’re counting dollars, you’ll appreciate the savings, but there’s a reason some lunchboxes are NT$50 and some lunchboxes are NT$80.
  5. If you can’t speak Chinese and there’s no English menu, have a friend help you find a self-serve buffet where you fill up your box and pay by the weight or the item. (Beware of Mama’s Lunchbox, though. One of my favorites, but you might get a surprise at the cash register!)

What’s in your favorite lunchbox? I’d also love to get suggestions for excellent local places!

Dongao Harbor

We get there just before 4:00 to meet the boat as it’s coming in. There is already a small crowd of Chinese people waiting. Everyone looks clean and fresh and the parking lot is full of new sedans, so I guess none of them are Dong’ao locals. We aren’t, either, but we’re barely dressed in swimsuits and cover-ups. We’re going snorkeling after this, and then we’ll take the fish up to the cabin. We want a tuna big enough to make sushi and grill the leftovers.

I watch an old man toss an empty liquor bottle–the local stuff I’ve often seen but never drank–into the ocean, followed by a plastic cup. He looks at it for a moment, bobbing on the surface, then he walks away.

I watch the crew of the ship. Only one man looks Chinese. He is bigger and paler then anyone else on the boat. He’s handsome in a rugged kind of way. I imagine he knows all about boats and the ocean and fish and weather, all very practical and good to know. Hemingway would probably like him. He is obviously in charge. The others are much darker, younger, thinner–almost gaunt. They scuttle over the boat and the dock in heavy rubber boots, but their pants are thin and loose on their thin legs. I’ve read articles about slavery in the Asian fishing industry. Are these guys employed legally, healthily, gainfully, happily? They are talking and laughing with their boss. They are smiling. Do slaves smile?

The crew notices me and they elbow each other and point at me with their chins and their eyebrows. I smile at them, even though I know they’ve taken off my tunic with their eyes. One of them chirps “Hello” in English, in a high, tight voice that belies his bravado. I’m feeling generous and I know I’m safe, so I say, “Hiiiii” back to him. I allow myself the lilt, like I’m flirting or talking to a kid. The men laugh and put their heads together in a huddle. I assume men all over say the same disgusting things about women, especially women who don’t look anything like their mothers or sisters, but I’m on the shore, in the daylight, surrounded by respectable people, within sight of my husband who looks big and strong. I’m not wearing pants, but I feel like I can afford to be friendly.

The men hitch the orange tubs of fish and ice to a pulley and this way move their catch from the boat up onto the dock. Other men tip the heavy tubs into crates and the cold water, pink with blood runs down the concrete of the dock back toward the ocean. A man tosses a puffer fish onto the concrete. It’s garbage, but I watch it gasp for air and the crowd gasps. I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself and I don’t want to get in the way, but I want to grab that fish up and toss him back in the ocean before he drowns on the shore. I imagine trying to get a hold of his slippery tail while avoiding his prickly body and trying to carry him back to the water. A mother runs over there, with her son, and picks up the fish. I’m so glad that sh’s going to save him and she tosses him off the dock, but she doesn’t aim and the fish lands in another orange tub full of fish and pink, icy water, back on the boat. She shrugs at her son. Later, more puffer fish will be tossed onto the concrete and the fishermen will kick them or step on them indifferently. In between assaults, their flanks will heave as they die in a long panic. The little boy who watched his mother fail to save the first fish will watch the men in their big boots kick the others and he will cautiously toe at them with his sandals until the adults warn him off. I want to save the fish and show the boy, but I imagine this happens every day at 4:00 so what difference will it make? I hate myself for being cynical, but I don’t move.

A woman walks along the front of the crowd to where I am standing and watching and she stops right in front of me so that I can only see the hair on the back of her head and nothing else. Her husband comes to stand behind her. “If you want that fish, talk to that man. If you want that fish, talk to that man,” he says. She wanders across the path of the orange tubs as they swing from the boat to the crates. Her daughter tries to follow her, but the father catches her by the arm just before she collides with a floating tub. Now comes the son, with a poodle tucked under his arm like a handbag, and the grandfather behind him. The heavy tubs swing around them and the pink water flows past their feet but they are unperturbed. Nothing bad can ever happen to them.

J waves me over. I haven’t been paying attention to him, or N—, or F—-, but they’ve already chosen and paid for a tuna. A big one, and it only cost NT$400. Later, N— will take the fish and a knife down to the driveway, and when he comes back he’ll have big strips of red meat ready to cut into sushi, and a bag of bones and skin for miso soup. The sushi is delicious, fresh and firm, but it makes me nauseous. I can’t stop thinking about the pink water and the puffer fish, but I don’t stop eating.

J took this photo. If you look, you can see me by the far pillar watching what's going on. The woman and her son are looking down at the boat after she tossed the puffer fish back into the tub. Can you spot the boy with the poodle under his arm?
J took this photo. If you look, you can see me by the far pillar watching what’s going on. The woman and her son are looking down at the boat after she tossed the puffer fish back into the tub. Can you spot the boy with the poodle under his arm?

 

amateur sashimi
amateur sashimi

味家香 Wei Jia Xiang Crispy Skin Roast Duck Zhongli, Taiwan

This is one of the oldest duck restaurants in Zhongli, or so I’ve heard. It’s the only restaurant we go to when we are craving sweet and tangy roast duck.

For you Zhongli locals, it’s right by the park, diagonally across from the “Department of Motor Vehicles”, just around the corner from the River, and right next to the “Park Seafood” restaurant.

I think the name is Wei Jia Xiang Crispy Skin Roast Duck. I definitely just call it “the duck place” because for us, there is nowhere else.

Why? Just because it’s delicious. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

It’s like NT$550 for one whole roasted duck, to-go. That will get you a plate of the breast meat with the crispy skin and a big stir fry of all the other bits (with basil, garlic, and optional chilis). They’ll also give you some pancakes, sauce, and spring onions, but if you’re like us, you’ll want to pay a little extra for some extra pancake fixings.

I went one day and had the very good luck of being the only person there just before lunch time. I am usually too shy to take pictures when there’s an audience, but that day I had the perfect situation. I asked the guys if I could take a few photos and they said yes. I was also glad to finally get this video of one of the guys carving up a duck. Their knives are so sharp and they move so fast!

amateur vagrant wei jia xiang duck restaurant zhongli taiwan in the kitchen

amateaur vagrant wei jia xiang roast duck zhongli taiwan preparing the order

amateur vagrant wei jia xiang zhongli taiwan duck restaurant kitchen

amateur vagrant wei jia xiang roast duck zhongli taiwan making pancakes

amateur vagrant wei jia xiang roast duck zhongli taiwan giant wok of sauce

Bonus: if you go on a hot day when it’s busy, there are always a bunch of cute tattooed guys in tank tops cooking and carving ducks.

This guy is very good with his hands!

All the parts besides the breast, they chop up and stir fry with sauce and basil leaves. It’s so delicious.

And when we get home, this is what we get to eat:

amateur vagrant duck breast from wei jia xiang crispy skin roast duck in zhongli taiwan

amateur vagrant stir-fried duck meat from wei jia xiang crispy skin roast duck restaurant in zhongli taiwan

 

I should have taken a picture of the pancakes, too, but we started eating and everything else was forgotten. This is good stuff!

Joe’s burger-mobile

I must have passed Joe a dozen times on my morning walk before he finally waved me over one morning. I noticed his burgers looked pretty tasty, but I was always coming home from my morning walk and it seemed kinda pointless to get up early to exercise and then have a good-looking burger for breakfast.

But Joe cooks his burgers on a griddle in a box on the back of his scooter, and there’s no denying that it was a pretty cool setup.

And there were always people waiting around.

There are actually a lot of options: tomato, pickle, onion, cheese, double burger, and a supreme. He also has pickled japalepenos and he isn’t afraid to share them.

He even has cold-brewed coffee that he’s proud of. It really wasn’t bad!

Joe also speaks incredible English, so if you’re new to town and you see him making amazing burgers on the back of his scooter, don’t be scared to ask for one.

When we lived by Sogo, Joe was our go-to guy for any pre-travelling breakfasts: He parks his scooter on Cihui Third Street til about 11 every morning.

(Now that we live near the night market, we just get tangbao from the stall by the bus terminal.)

Taiwan mango ice

Mango ice is just ice, or milk ice, topped with mango and anything else you want–all kinds of fruit, tapioca balls, soupy peanuts, sweet red beans, and then some sugary condensed milk. It’s like an ice cream sundae from an island country where people don’t do so much dairy. I got this one with strawberries and kiwis as well. I think it’s a better snack on a hot day than ice cream because it feels much lighter. I feel gross if I have a lot of milk or dairy on a hot Taiwan summer day.

But beware: A mango ice is typically huge! Plan on sharing a bowl with you and a friend or two.

My favorite Taiwan night market food

大腸包小腸 Little sausage in a big sausage

I feel like this is so over-the-top you’d think it was American. You take a grilled rice sausage, split it down the middle, and wedge a sweet Taiwanese pork sausage in the gap. Top it with some pickled vegetables, maybe some hot sauce or curry powder for an incredible flavor punch. You can’t make a habit of eating these very often if you don’t want to spend a lot of money buying bigger jeans.

潤餅 Spring rolls

These are “Chinese burritos” filled with cabbage, sprouts, a little char siu pork, and pickled vegetables. The wrap is a thin, spongy pancake that really feels like a crepe. As far as Taiwanese street food goes, I consider this a healthier option because there are way more vegetables than meat and the meat is pretty lean.

花生卷冰淇淋 Spring roll ice cream

This is kind of magnificent. Very special. You take a soft crepe, put a couple scoops of ice cream (taro ice cream, anyone?) on top, grate some Chinese peanut brittle over it, and then sprinkle some cilantro over the whole mess. Wrap it up and eat it like a burrito. It’s incredibly refreshing on a hot day, not at all messy, and the flavor combination is wild!

臭豆腐 Deep-fried stinky tofu

Stinky tofu literally smells like rotten baby diapers. Because of the stench, it was years before I tried it. But once I did, I loved the taste–the same way I love a stinky blue cheese or red wines that smell like cat piss. It’s not for everybody, but I think stinky tofu with some Taiwanese pickled cabbage is phenomenal. It’s a umami tsunami cut with sweet and sour. It’s crispy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside with a funky crunch from the relish.  I promise it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.

 

蚵仔煎 Oyster omelets

These are doughy and sticky, filled with fat oysters and covered in a sweet pink sauce. Somebody told me once that oyster omelets were originally “poor-people food”: something starchy holding together what little protein and vegetables you had around the house. It looks like a mess, but I think it tastes amazing. If you’re lucky, you can get a super fresh oyster omelet at a restaurant or stall near a harbor.