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!

Getting cupped


I woke up yesterday morning with a stiff neck that had escalated to a region of sharp pain by lunch. I took some painkillers and got through my evening classes, but the pain woke me in the middle of the night and I could barely move. As soon as I got up this morning, and carefully put on some clothes, I walked down to the local Chinese medicine clinic.

I might never have noticed the clinic just around the corner from my house if someone hadn’t taken me there once already when my knee was sore. It’s got a wooden sign and a glass front obscured by a lush garden of potted plants. Today, the whole front of it was hidden behind a formidable black SUV, parked nose-to-nose with a white SUV.

There’s a high wooden counter in the entrance, facing the big window looking out at the SUV. The wall behind the counter is stacked with packs of Korean ginseng and other boxes and jars that look like they might be the ingredients for a witches’ potions.

The doctor wasn’t right there, so I took a seat on the bench in front of a sign suggesting that I call ahead to make an appointment. I could hear him talking to a patient in the examination room. I could hear her protests and shrill gasps of pain. I felt like I was eavesdropping, even though there wasn’t a door. I considered taking a card and going home or just outside to call for an appointment. But it seemed silly, since I was already there, and the shock of pain I felt every time I moved my head or left shoulder convinced me to just wait and see.

From the bench, I was looking into what could have been any traditional Taiwanese living room. The furniture was all made of heavy wood. There was a full tea set on the low table. The big flat screen TV was on: I watched the news about the impending typhoon with shots of all the damage done in the last big storm, and interviews with people who are getting ready for this one. There was a shrine against the far wall and a big, green, glassy Buddha.

A middle-aged woman walked in carrying what must have been gift sets of mooncakes this time of year, and a small bag of green beans. She noticed me, but didn’t say anything to me and didn’t slow her quick march to the seat facing the TV. She shouted a greeting at the doctor; he shouted back. He came out and saw me.

“My neck really hurts. I can’t move,” I told him in Chinese.

“Where? Here?” he asked in English. He probed at my neck with firm fingers. “Ah, here.”

“Ow! Yes! I want to cry!” I felt my eyes tearing up.

Say what you want about Chinese medicine, but it always impresses me how immediately Chinese traditional medicine doctors can locate the exact source of your pain.

He walked back into the waiting room. I thought I could quickly take a picture of the very intimate scene of his living room. He came back out just as I was focusing my cellphone camera. I dropped it guiltily. He smiled at me.

“Come here,” he said. I followed him into the exam room. A woman was straddling the low bed, bent over with her forehead on the surface of it. Three suction cups were pulling up big bubbles of the skin of her neck. The doctor sat me in a chair and immediately started rubbing my neck and shoulder.

“Right here,” he said, pushing a finger into my neck, “and right here.” He pushed a finger into a spot between my shoulder blade and spine and I saw the world flooded by the blindingly clear light of terrible pain.

“Mmmm,” I whimpered. He wiped some Vaseline on me and stuck a suction cup on, pressing whatever it is that forms the vacuum seal and pulls your skin up in an ugly bulge.

“Oooh, very bad,” he said. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Very black.” He dragged the suction cup around my neck and shoulder and it pulled at my skin. I know what it would look like: a big, ugly hickey. All I could do was bite my index finger and concentrate on not embarrassing myself and all other foreigners by shouting or crying.

Imagine the good air goes in, and the pain goes out…

I thought about that from yoga class and the visualized all the little blood vessels in my neck and back bursting open so that the pain would not be trapped inside but could be released and flushed away.

The other patient sat up and continued chatting with the doctor. I didn’t try to understand what they were saying. She was very pretty. Probably older than me, but with short hair, a shock of purple in the front. That’s so trendy right now. I want a purple streak in my hair. I bet she drove the big, black SUV out front. A rich lady coming for relief of the sore neck that comes with having lots of things to worry about. I was in my pajamas, wearing crocs. I felt self-conscious.

“Don’t play with your phone too much,” said the rich lady.

“Oh, no,” I said in agreement. I wasn’t sure if that had anything to do with it. Had she and the doctor agreed that was her problem? Had the doctor told her that was my problem when I wasn’t listening? But I would agree to anything now to stop this pain.

The doctor put four suction cups on my neck.

“Do you want ___?” he asked the woman. I didn’t know what he said.

“Do I need to?” she asked.

“You should,” he said. The doctor sat in a chair at the end of the bed. He laid a pink hand towel on the bed behind her, and told her to lay down. The towel was under her neck, and grabbing either end, he pulled her toward his lap, until her head was hanging off the table. He took off his shoes in one smooth lift and put his feet, in clean white socks, against her shoulders and pushed with his feet and pulled her head with the towel.

I watched, trying not to stare, trying not to move too much. Then he used the towel to pull her back up to a sitting position, slipped on his shoes, and bounced back over to me to remove the cups.

“Do you know why you have this pain?” he asked me.

“I don’t know. I just woke up yesterday…”

“You don’t sleep well,” he said. Before I could agree, he added, “You eat too much cold things.”

More likely from playing with my phone too much, hunched over in bed or in the sofa in weird positions, I thought. Or maybe it’s the result of my recent exercise binge, or the new dumbbell dancing I came up with, where I dance around with dumbbells to Uptown Funk before I go to work.

But I did have ice cream the past two nights. I’d skip it if it meant never feeling like this again.

The doctor told me to relax and cracked my neck on the left, on the right, and my back between my shoulder blades.

“Can you move your head?”

I could. It was still sore, but a shrug wouldn’t make me shriek.

The doctor slapped on two medicinal patches, the ones that feel cold against your skin and smell the way Chinese lozenges taste. He told me I was done and I walked out with him behind me. He walked behind the counter and I went in front of it.

“Two-hundred dollars,” he said.

I gave him the money and we smiled at each other and gave little nods of our heads, like bows.

I forgot to ask how long I have to keep these patches on. It still hurts, but it’s closer to being terribly uncomfortable than intolerably painful. Despite all the strange herbs and roots in jars, Chinese medicine isn’t magic. I can’t expect to feel great immediately, bippity-boppity-boop. I do have this bottle of ibuprofen, and as long as I don’t take it with cold water, I think I’ll be fine to teach tonight.

Hair care products in Taiwan

I have really thick, dry, kinda curly-wavy hair. I don’t do much with it: it’s usually just pulled back with a scrunchy. When I got (back) to Taiwan in 2013, I started experimenting with different shampoos and conditioners. Within a year, I had to cut six inches off my hair because it was so damaged. That was a big bummer for me, so I’ve grown a lot more conscientious about choosing hair care products.

I had a lot of trouble finding English reviews of products I was considering buying, usually from Watsons, so I wanted to put this info out there for anyone else who might be trapped in the shampoo aisle, eyes glazing over from trying to decipher Chinese labels and the gibberish lists of ingredients.

I learned a lot. Many products that claimed to be “natural” still contained sulfates, silicones, parabens, or other ingredients that I want to avoid. Not everyone is or has to be so picky, so don’t stress out about hair care products more than you have to. This is just a post to remind you that labels can be deceiving, especially if labels are all you have to go on.


Sea Venus Ka’fen Green Tea Benefits Treatment

I grabbed this one off the shelf at random, just because the label kind of gives the impression that this would be a product with natural and healthy ingredients: Green Tea! Benefits! Green Leaves! But then I got to googling and discovered this conditioner has a couple of questionable chemicals in it. Behentrimonium chloride can cause damage to the mucous membranes of your eyes in anything but the smallest quantities. Dimenthicone is a silicone that will coat your hair, making it silky soft and smooth the first few times, but with regular use, no water can get to your hair and it ends up drier and more damaged than ever. Propylparaben is a paraben and by now we have all been told to not use products with parabens because they cause cancer.

This is why I did all this homework!

be careful
be careful

Diane Botanical Moist Treatment

This conditioner didn’t look half bad, ingredient-wise, but it contains dimethicone. It already destroyed my hair once and I won’t let it happen again!


Watsons Naturals Argan Oil Conditioner

This argan oil conditioner looks okay, except that argan oil is the ninth ingredient. Generally, the first five ingredients are the active ingredients, so it’s misleading to call this “argan oil” conditioner. Oh and it contains methylisothiazolinone. I don’t want to cry wolf, but some tests done on rats (sorry, rats) have indicated the exposure to this compound for too long or in too high quantities can cause nerve damage. Companies insist that it’s very diluted and you rinse it all off down the drain. So maybe it’s fine…or maybe you can just pick a different conditioner. Seems to be a lot of products that don’t contain this preservative, least of all with a label that says “Naturals”.


Watsons Naturals Argan Oil Shampoo

C’mon, guys, we know the rules: no parabens, no silicones, no sulfates. And here the second ingredient is sodium laureth sulfate. It’s the stuff that makes your shampoo bubble and foam, but it can dry out your skin and hair, cause skin irritation or allergies in the long-term. You’re better off without it, and plenty of products no longer contain SLS. And just like with the matching conditioner above, argan oil is so far down the list that it can hardly be considered an active ingredient.

just no
just no

Herbal Essences Naked Shampoo

I was so excited when I first saw this American product at Watsons that I bought the extra-large shampoo and the extra-large conditioner. But then I got home, and, bummer: it contains SLS, which can dry out or irritate your hair and skin.

It especially annoys me because the bottle is like “no parabens, no silicones, no colorant” but then it has other problematic ingredients. Truth: I used the shampoo and conditioner as shaving lotion for my legs. I guess I’m not that opposed to sulfates, mostly just opposed to having split ends that necessitate losing inches of hair.

amateur vagrant taiwan hair care products watsons avalon organics clarifying lemon shampoo

Avalon Organics Lemon Clarifying Shampoo

Hey! We may have a winner. The ingredients all check out in terms of being safe and natural. However, my hair is dry, so I would personally avoid anything harsh enough to call itself “clarifying lemon.” Sounds like split ends to me! But at least there are some not-bullshit products available at the drugstore.

amateur vagrant hair care products taiwan watsons amma garden coffee strengthening shampoo

Amma Coffee Strengthening Shampoo

This is another contender for “possibly not going to destroy your hair.” I haven’t tried this particular product, but I’ve use some other Amma Garden shampoos and conditioners, and I felt like they were very drying. Really, my hair like an underloved horse and I have to be intentional about not doing much with it to make it stay healthy and long like I like it.

Ascience Treatment Hair Mask

I don’t even have a picture of this product, that’s how bad the breakup was. It started off so well: after months of dryness and split ends, my hair was gorgeous. And then things started to go downhill. I tried using more product in my hair; I tried using it more often. Then I did some research found out that the dimethicone was the culprit. It coats the hair shaft, makes it silky soft and smooth, but after a while, no moisture can get to the hair and it just breaks and breaks.

Maaaybe you could use this like once in a blue moon when you need your hair to look amazing for a special event. Using it more often than that will destroy your hair.

After experimenting for two years, I actually ended up losing like six inches of my hair. I was bummed! But I learned a lot and now I am happy with my no-poo routine. I have been ordering all-natural conditioners (many different types) from iherb.com (affiliate link) because I couldn’t find anything natural in the stores.

Zhongli Bowling on Wednesday nights

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taiwan taoyuan bowling zhongmei road

Nearly every Wednesday night in Zhongli, you can find a big group of foreigners and locals bowling together at the lanes on Zhongmei Road.

Many of them play in the official Jungli Bowling League. Anyone can join, but you have to commit to being there every Wednesday for the length of the season (there are two per year). If you miss more than two weeks…you turn into a pumpkin or something. I don’t know. No one is begging me to be on their team.

If your team wins, you get a prize.

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taiwan bowling league 2016 flyer

Alternatively, you can just show up on Wednesday nights and linger until someone assigns you a lane.

BYOB if you want to drink anything other than regular Taiwan Beer. But how cool is that? There’s a 7-11 just across the street, full of icy cold ones.

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taoyuan taiwan bowling lanes

As with all these activities organized by Zhongli foreigners, some people take it very seriously. You can usually identify them by the way they thump their chests and feel the need to explain themselves when they don’t bowl a strike.

Many others view the weekly bowling night as a different venue for drinking with the same people.

I take the extreme position that bowling actually interferes with consuming beer, so I’d rather just go to the bar. Except I don’t drink during the week (anymore).

It’s NT$240 per person per game. The shoe “rentals” are free. You literally walk behind the desk and get your shoes yourself. Wild!

Anyway, it’s a lot of fun and an excellent way to meet people.

The Yilan Beer Place

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taiwan taoyuan kinds of draft beer

This was a lucky find for us!

The Yilan Beer Place is a franchise. The first time we enjoyed a lovely spirulina beer, we were in Jiaoxi City, Yilan County, famous for its hot springs. We got our cold beers and then stuck our feet in a pool of warm water where hundreds of tiny carp nibbled at our toes.

The original Yilan Beer Place in Jiaoxi in Yilan County
The original Yilan Beer Place in Jiaoxi in Yilan County

The fish-nibbling part was enjoyable, but yeah, definitely weird. These little fish just eat the dead skin off your feet. It tickles at first, then it feels nice. Or maybe that was just the beer…

Knowing that those fish would have been happier in colder water kind of put a damper on it for me, too. But, as always, I digress…

The Yilan Beer Place in Zhongli is a little bit off the beaten path, as in it’s not near The River, where everybody’s social lives intersect. It’s actually very close to the Xinming Night Market, which is still within walking distance of River, if you’re not lazy or injured. (A taxi will probably cost NT$100.)

The Yilan Beer Place is actually called 麥田現釀啤酒, which means like “Wheat Field Fresh Brewed Beer”, which is why we call it the Yilan Beer place.

The Yilan Beer Place in Zhongli does not have tanks of fish that will nibble your feet, but it does have the same selection of beers: barley (regular), wheat, rye, and spirulina. The barley and wheat beers are tasty in their own right, but we usually opt for the rye or spirulina. Although it’s black, the rye beer is surprisingly light on the palate. I think a lot of us might expect to encounter something dense and formidable like a Guiness when we see beer that dark, but it’s fun and has a hint of chocolate. I personally like the spirulina beer: It’s green, and who hasn’t had a good time drinking green beer? And it’s actually really fruity and nice.

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taiwan taoyuan yilan beer place spirulina green beer and rye beer black

You can order beers in pints, pitchers, and 1500 c.c. towers, or what we would call a “yard of beer” in the States (a yard being about a meter in length/height). There is also a really extensive menu of pan-Asian bar food, including Korean chicken wings, Thai shrimp cakes, Malaysian satay skewers, and the local marinated soy beans.

I loved the Korean chicken wings here, but lately it seems that the recipe has changed. The last two times, they weren’t as sweet and sticky, and frankly, just not as good as they were all the times before. I want my Korean chicken wings sweet, spicy, and finger-lickin’ good! However, they now come with fries. Obviously some kind of compromise was made.

Korean chicken wings
Korean chicken wings

There are lots of other good things to eat here, and plenty to drink.

J's favorite boneless chicken bites
J’s favorite boneless chicken bites

Sometimes, this place is dead quiet, and I’m afraid it might disappear overnight like so many restaurants do here. But then sometimes, every table is taken, which is as it should be. I like having such a good spot so close to our house.

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taiwan taoyuan yilan beer place drinking some beers

The Big Pig Festival

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taiwan summer fall autumn pig big festival hide

I went to the Pigs of God Festival (Big Pig Festival) for the fourth time this year. This festival, held in honor of the Chinese god Zushi, only happens once a year, in on the sixth day of the first month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, but many people argue that is still too often. For the celebration, pigs are force-fed until they are obscenely, incredibly obese, and then slaughtered. The meat is distributed to family and friends, and possibly sold. I have heard that politicians sometimes sponsor the pigs because they are supposed to bring good luck. Continue reading “The Big Pig Festival”

Daxi Old Street

amateur vagrant taiwan things to do in zhongli take a scooter trip to daxi old street
A quiet weekday afternoon in Daxi

Daxi Old Street is just a 30-45 minute scooter ride outside of Zhongli, but arriving there will transport you many decades back in time. That’s what every laojie, or “old street” is supposed to do: take you back to a simpler Taiwan where the narrow streets weren’t crowded with SUVs and good food was one of life’s highest pleasures.

There are lots of old-fashioned buildings along a brick road, many tofu restaurants, street-food vendors, tea and coffee shops, souvenir shops, a big temple, a small temple, and a view of the river. At night, you can watch the sunset there, and when it’s dark, one of the bridges lights up and the lights change colors.

Continue reading “Daxi Old Street”

Mentholated cooling powder beats the heat

I picked this up at RT-Mart on a whim because I liked the funky vintage can.

amateur vagrant taiwan cooling powder to beat the heat and humidity

I got quite a shock when I used it, though, because the powder is mentholated and it gives you a pretty sharp chill when it touches your skin. I kind of liked it on my chest on the stickiest days, though. Continue reading “Mentholated cooling powder beats the heat”

Are you going to come to an unpaid meeting on Saturday morning?

this is how i feel when you talk about my working without your paying me
this is how i feel when you talk about my working without your paying me

Are you going to come to an unpaid staff meeting on Saturday morning? 


We’ll take everyone to lunch afterwards.


I am a part-time teacher at your school. I am only there for four hours on Fridays. I only teach two classes. Combined, I see only 12 students every week. I always come early. I often stay late. Continue reading “Are you going to come to an unpaid meeting on Saturday morning?”