Holiday shopping is often something you leave for the airport, but that’s not the case in Taiwan, where something shouts “Buy me!” at every turn. With markets, malls and museum gift shops, the country’s a giant opportunity to buy something unique. From ancient crafts and culinary delicacies to precious stones and beautiful materials, here are some souvenirs you can only find in Taiwan.
One of the most popular, widely available sweet treats you’ll find in Taiwan is the humble pineapple cake. The capital even launched the annual Taipei Pineapple Cake Cultural Festival in 2005 to showcase the diversity of fillings (not just pineapple, as it happens, but also strawberry, melon and cranberry, to name but a few). Lick your lips in anticipation of the buttery pastry, followed by deliciously sweet jam oozing from its centre as you take a bite. They’re usually sold in airtight packaging, so taking them home on the plane is, well, a piece of cake.
You may have heard of the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, but you probably didn’t realise you can buy these beautiful objects in a diminutive form to take home. They come in a spectrum of colours, each one conveying a message the sender wishes to share with God – yellow for success, say, or blue for hope. These handcrafted pieces adorn mantelpieces to sensational effect. To browse for some of the best in Taipei, visit Ningxia Night Market on Ningxia Road in the Datong district – a truly illuminating experience.
Of course, you can buy jade all around the world, but Taiwan is well known for having some of the finest quality on the planet. Lose yourself among the thousands of stalls at the Jianguo Jade Market (it lies beneath the Jianguo Elevated Highway). Here, you can splash out on pricey pieces that’ll turn your friends green with envy – or snap up a bunch of standard bangles and pendants for Christmas stocking fillers.
Many indigenous tribes in Taiwan produce a wide variety of products in their local villages and sell them in many souvenir shops across the island. These include items such as bags, pictures and many handcrafted pieces of jewellery. These items will all have a distinct style in keeping with each tribe’s traditional colours and clothing.
Alcohol is big business in Taiwan, but you probably won’t be able to squeeze too many of the latest trendy craft beers into your case. However, you can buy small bottles of plum wine or rice wine at liquor stores everywhere. Just make sure you check the alcohol content, as some of them are incredibly strong.
Sweet, floral, smoky, nutty. White, green, black, pu’er. The deliciously refreshing teas of Taiwan’s mountain regions are among the most sought after in the world. If you have a connoisseur in the family, a box of the best leaves makes a great gift. You can opt to visit one of the great tea-producing areas, for instance, Sun Moon Lake. That way, as with champagne, in France, you can taste it before you purchase. Look out for oolong; it’s the most popular, and with good reason.
Regular postcards are OK to send, but they’ll kipper and curl before you know it. Not so with the Taiwanese variety – they’re another story altogether. Made of wood and etched with local landscapes or other appealing pictures, they make great gifts for friends and will last a lifetime stuck on your refrigerator door at home.
Don’t expect the typical nougat you find in your local supermarket or newsagent. The Taiwanese take is routinely hard and chewy and packed with peanuts. Expect to find boxes of it everywhere – especially during festivals. Some varieties also have sesame in the mix; others may contain chunks of brown sugar. Whichever type you go for, you can’t go wrong – you’re buying the most traditional treat in Taiwan, after all.
Originating in the lively central city of Taichung, taiyang bing (sun cakes) are utterly mouthwatering little moments. Encased in the flaky filo pastry of each one is a core of gooey paste that’s every bit as sweet as honey – actually sweeter. These days you can get many varieties, for instance, dried pork and green tea. But in all honesty, the originals are still the best. Bet you can’t eat just one.
This item is not necessarily the gift you take home for the partner who has everything. But there’s no doubting that phallic symbols are everywhere in Taiwan – particularly in local indigenous culture – and they’ve found their way into consumer culture. When visiting a tribal village or marketplace, don’t be surprised to see stalls stacked with wooden penises in all shapes and sizes. They’re supposed to bring luck and fortune to the owner – as you might say, things are looking up.
Like a cross between a pork scratching, beef jerky and a bag of crisps, this crunchy, meaty snack is seriously addictive. The thinly spread mixture of minced pork, soy sauce, cooking wine and five-spice powder is baked until glossy and finger-snap crispy. You’ll find different varieties of it – usually at food markets, depending on the vendor’s unique recipe – but the most common also contains small pieces of apple for sweet, fruity chewiness and crunchy almond pieces for extra bite. It’s delicious paired with a cold beer.
People love their jellies in Taiwan, and the good news for vegans is that they’re usually made without animal products. The most popular is aiyu, made with the aiyu plant, which grows only in Taiwan; you’ll find it at markets, served in giant bowls filled with lemons. Even better, aiyu jelly is said to have a number of health benefits, for example, helping to slow ageing, reducing cholesterol levels and promoting good gut health. You’ll also come across konjac jelly, which is firmer, comes in all sorts of fruity flavours and is usually sold wrapped like candy.
There was a national outcry in Singapore a few years ago when the country’s food and drink regulator had to ban the import of this milk-tea brand temporarily due to unsanctioned additives. When it finally landed back on shelves, it sold out within seconds, with limits placed on the number of chicly designed bottles people could buy. In Taiwan, the cult drink is ubiquitous. Sweet, creamy and flavoured with the aroma of black tea leaves, it understandably has a die-hard following. There are other flavours, such as green-tea latte and mocha, but milk tea is the original.
Guaranteed to liven up any party and add intrigue to your drinks cabinet, this clear spirit, made with fermented sorghum, packs quite a punch – especially the variety with 58 percent alcohol. Sip it neat, and it’s got a smooth, slightly sweet taste, with a delayed scorching of the back of the throat. Although that’s the (traditional) way they encourage you to drink it, it’s more palatable diluted in a cocktail. You’ll find it mixed into all sorts of concoctions, but the most typically Taiwanese drink it’s laced through is boba, also known as bubble tea.
Taiwan’s glass-making industry didn’t take off until the late 1800s, but today, you’ll find some of the most extraordinary craftsmanship imaginable. Visit the Taiwan Glass Gallery and Glass Mazu Temple in Lukang, Changhua or the Glass Museum of Hsinchu City, and you’ll be blown away by the creativity and skill. In the gallery, you’ll find a glass tunnel made of more than 6,300 mirrors, while the temple is created entirely from glass, with a beautifully etched glass artwork of Taiwan’s tallest mountain behind the altar.
If you thought these traditional wax-paper umbrellas, for sale in markets around Taiwan, were just for protection from the rain and sun, you’d be wrong. Resembling giant versions of the umbrellas bartenders stick into mai tai cocktails, they have important cultural symbolism in Taiwan. The words “oil paper” and “have sons” are homonyms in Chinese, while the word “umbrella” features the same character for “person” five times. This explains the tradition of offering them as wedding gifts, blessing the couple with many children.
For a gift or souvenir with authenticity and meaning, visit this former factory and museum in Taipei, dedicated to the art of traditional block printing. It’s supposedly one of the only places in the world (if not the only) to retain a full collection of traditional Chinese moveable character moulds, the likes of which date back to the 11th century. It also sells character-printing blocks that can be used at home, as ornaments or to stamp messages. Phrases such as “love”, “peace”, “hope” and “luck” are the most popular.
If the mention of glove puppets has you imagining Punch and Judy, think again. In Taiwan, glove-puppet operas are a cultural institution, and the art and skill that goes into bringing them to life – both the decoration and the movement – are extraordinary. From princesses and warriors to bearded old kings and mythical creatures, the variety is endless. If you want to surprise the folks back home with this ancient art form, you can pick up a puppet or two from several shops in Taipei, including Chang Yi Fang Puppet Creations.
They might look like juicy slabs of meat, but don’t try throwing one into your griddle pan. This variety of banded jasper, formed by layers of eerily flesh-pink and translucent-white crystals, looks uncannily like a hunk of pork belly or richly marbled steak. You can find blocks of it for sale at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. However, don’t get too carried away, or you might end up having to fork out extra for overweight luggage on the way home.
If you like your souvenirs on the colourful, kitsch side, stick a few examples of Franz Collection porcelain in your hand luggage. The company’s signature vases, teapots, cups and cutlery are one of a kind, combining super-decorative, art nouveau-inspired detailing with themes of nature, animals and flowers. Think teapots covered in turtles and brightly coloured corals, cups that look to be entwined with vines and flowers, and spoons with dragonflies resting on the handles.
Alex Allen contributed additional reporting to this article.