Last Updated: February 11, 2018
I had the privilege to travel to Taiwan for the first time recently, and I’ve had tons of recommendations from friends about the best places to eat while I’m there. From oyster mee sua to Taiwanese boar sausages and huge fried chicken cutlets — there is no ending to the gastronomical adventures that this country has to offer.
We were lucky enough to be generously hosted by the iSee Taiwan Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting exquisite Taiwanese culture and tourism, who introduced us to Taiwan’s beloved century-old street snack, the Gua Bao (刈包), aka the Taiwanese burger.
While it looks similar to our local version of Kong Bak Bao (扣肉包), the Gua Bao (刈包) is a timeless steamed bun snack that has its origins in Taiwanese folk character and culture.
Another name for the Guabao is ‘Tiger Bites Pig'(虎咬猪), with the bun being similar to a wallet or a ‘tiger’s mouth’. It contains pork belly and various condiments, similar to a tiger biting a pig, hence its nickname.
According to tradition, on the 16th of the last month of the lunar calendar, Taiwanese will gather together with their families to eat Gua Bao, which symbolises ‘biting blessing and good fortune’ (福咬住 [fú yào zhù], a play on its name 虎咬猪 [hú yào zhū]).
We took a trip to Taiwan’s Yunlin (云林) county to explore where Gua Bao’s ingredients came from:
Nextland (良作工厂农业文创馆), a cultural and creative enterprise, prides itself on promoting non-traditional cuts of pork and rearing its hogs humanely and in animal-friendly conditions. The farm’s unique green architecture is also well known in Taiwan.
While exploring the factory’s museum, we learnt that the hogs are fed with a feed made of corn, soybeans and wheat, and other additional nutritional foods like yogurt, papaya and spinach being added on to their diet as well. The hogs are all humanely reared, and are provided with toys and ample space to move about their pen.
We also had the chance to sample some of Nextland’s finest meat products at their cafe. We had an array of dishes, each using a different cut of pork. My favourite was the pork loin tonkatsu, which was fried to a golden brown and paired really well with the honey mustard sauce.
Next, we headed over to Wuan Chuang Soy Sauce Tourism Factory (丸壮酱油观光工厂), a century-old family business specialising in black soya bean sauce production. We toured the factory’s fermenting yard where rows of ceramic urns packed with black soybeans and salt bask in the sun for 180 days, in order to create Wuan Chuang’s signature soy sauce.
We also tried Wuan Chuang’s unprocessed soy sauce straight out of the ceramic urn; a once in a lifetime experience. A metal sieve is driven into the centre of the urn, straight through the layer of course salt that tops the fermented soybeans, revealing the rich, fragrant sauce.
It tasted unlike any soy sauce that I’ve ever tried, and in its rawest form, it had a rich, savoury taste similar to Chinese fermented black bean paste called ‘Dou Chi’ (豆豉). It was not as salty as I thought it would be and had a slightly sweet aftertaste.
We were greeted by a mosaic-like set of wooden boxes filled with different coloured grains and beans when we stopped by Taiwan Yung Fung Rice Shop (台湾永丰米粮行) to find out more about the various ingredients that go into the Gua Bao.
The traditional Gua Bao contains peanuts, cilantro as well as salted preserved vegetables, and Yung Fung Rice shop specialises in carrying these products, as well as other fresh produce that is grown and supplied by local farmers.
Back at the hotel, we were treated to a delicious banquet dinner by our hosts, and we were delighted to be able to taste a traditional Gua Bao, that came served in a cute paper wrapper. It was filled with braised pork belly meat, peanuts, salted veggies and cilantro.
I loved how the earthiness of the peanuts and the fresh aroma of the cilantro balanced out the richness of the fatty meat, along with the soft fluffy bun.
We also got to experience making our very own Gua Bao with a range of different ingredients and fillings, such as braised beef, chicken and duck, as well as lettuce, spring onions and sliced cucumbers, in addition to the usual condiments.
I went for a filling of braised beef, spring onions, cucumber and peanuts, stuffed into a bun in the shape of a cute bear paw. Though not comparable to the original pork belly version, it was a delicious match made in heaven, with cartilage in the braised beef cooked to a perfect tenderness, and the crunchy peanuts and vegetables adding a great texture to my DIY Gua Bao.
It was a great ending to my gastronomic adventure in Taiwan and I learnt so much about how the folk culture, agriculture and tradition played its part in preserving this beloved Taiwanese snack. I’ll definitely be back next time, with Gua Bao being part of my list of must-eat foods in Taiwan!
I’m also thankful to our generous host, the iSee Taiwan Foundation, for making my first trip to Taiwan so memorable with their warm hospitality, and passionate dedication to sharing Taiwanese culture and food with our team.
*This post is brought to you with the support of the iSee Taiwan Foundation