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All photos by the author.

A Brief Guide to Fan Tuan, the Delicious Rice Rolls of Taiwan

Clarissa Wei

Clarissa Wei

The best Taiwanese breakfast is oblong, stuffed with any number of tasty things, and wrapped with hot sticky rice.

All photos by the author.

In Taiwan, rice balls are a regular fixture in the early morning, doled out from darling carts with large bamboo rice buckets. If you squint hard enough and use a bit of imagination, you might find yourself in bygone days—in an era when food was exclusively peddled on the streets or on wooden shoulder poles, when people lingered for neighborhood gossip before sauntering off to their next engagement. While those days are far behind us, there's a certain level of quaintness still evident at these breakfast stands. Even more endearing, most owners know their most loyal customers' orders by heart.

The Mandarin term for rice balls is fan tuan (飯糰) and in Taiwan, they're oblong, stuffed with things, and made with hot sticky rice.

A fan tuan vendor in Taipei. All photos by the author.

"In the old days, fan tuan was just warm sticky rice wrapped around pickled mustard greens and salted radish," Shiyu Liu says. "We also used lotus leaves instead of plastic to wrap it together."

Liu is the owner of Liu Mama Fan Tuan (劉媽媽飯團), a wildly popular breakfast stand in the Da'an District of Taipei. You can spot the stand from a mile away—just look for the long line of people fiddling on their phones as they wait for their orders. The stand is so busy that they have three separate fan tuan stations to satisfy demand.

"Old days?" I ask, raising an eyebrow. Liu doesn't look a day over 35.

He motions to his mother, who is in the back of the store minding the rice.

"Mom told me," he says.

Unfortunately, modern fan tuans aren't so simple anymore, because simplicity isn't sexy to customers. In order to sell well, there must be endless permutations. Liu Mama, for example, has well over three dozen options, and if you don't like what you see on the menu, you can request your own.

You might find a fan tuan stuffed with cheese, and another designed for vegetarians. Even the rice that it's packed with is getting quirkier: There's purple rice, cereal rice, rice with corn, rice with sesame, rice wrapped with seaweed.

Here's 11 types you might find in Taipei:

The Original

White sticky rice, pickled radish, pickled mustard greens, braised egg, pork floss, cruller.

White sticky rice is packed down flat on the table and layered with the standard ingredients of pickled radish and mustard greens, chunks of braised egg, a bit of pork floss, and a crisp cruller. A cruller is deep-fried dough, like an elongated donut minus the sugar. They're often eaten by themselves with a side of soy milk. For the purposes of the fan tuan, it's fried twice and cut into bite-size pieces. Pork floss is dried meat, mashed so finely and dehydrated so that it has a texture of cotton. Egg is braised in soy sauce, which adds salty depth, and pickled radishes and mustard greens create a dimension of tartness.

It's all packed in firmly with rice and then squeezed into a perfect oblong.

For newcomers to Taiwan, Yong He Dou Jiang is the ideal place to get a fan tuan primer and gorge on other Taiwanese morning classics like freshly churned soy milk, soft pork buns, and large pieces of fried crullers. While Yong He is a chain restaurant with outposts in nearly every neighborhood in town, each store retains a small-business feel. Mostly, it's because the items are made to order. Fan tuan is freshly packed up and rolled by a guy in the back.

Yong He Dou Jiang (永和豆漿大王), No. 102, Section 2, Fùxīng South Road

Sweet Something

White sticky rice, pulverized cruller, brown sugar

Sweet fan tuan can be a bit overwhelming, but it's a great option for those with a perpetual sweet tooth who want to indulge in sugar in the morning hours. Inside is brown sugar crushed with bits of pulverized cruller, which gives it an extra crunch.

This is basically just a ball of sugar wrapped in rice.

Yong He Dou Jiang (永和豆漿大王), No. 102, Section 2, Fùxīng South Road

Egg Roll

White sticky rice, pickled radish, mustard greens, braised egg, fish floss, cruller, egg wrap, scallions

"You just put it in a plastic bag and you can take it to work," Dingguo Liu (no relation to Liu at Liu Mama) says proudly. Liu is the owner of Mei Jia Mei and has been a breakfast vendor for two decades.

"It's a convenient snack, a Taiwanese tradition. It keeps for one to two days," he says.

All fan tuans are packaged up in cling wrap and then put in a thin plastic bag, designed to be eaten on the go. This is a common practice, done everyday for seven days a week all year long. There's a lot of plastic that goes into a typical Taiwanese breakfast.

He has a variation of fan tuan that I've dubbed "egg roll." It has all the fixings of a regular fantuan (cruller, floss, braised egg, pickled mustard greens, radish) but the main difference is that there's an egg wrapped around it. The egg is flecked with scallions, which adds an extra layer of spice. Also, instead of pork floss, Liu uses fish. "Fish floss is less absorbent than pork floss. Pork floss makes it soggy," he says.

Mei Jia Mei (美加美) No. 12-1, Lane 1 Heping Road

Bacon

White sticky rice, pickled radish, mustard greens, braised egg, fish floss, cruller, bacon

Bacon's appeal is universal and Mei Jia Mei has discovered that it works well in a fan tuan. The pork pieces are heated up on a grill, cut up, and stuffed in as the final ingredient.

Mei Jia Mei (美加美) No. 12-1, Lane 1 Heping Road

Pork with Burdock Root

White sticky rice, cruller, pork floss, minced pork, braised egg, pickled radish, pickled mustard greens, pickled burdock root, seaweed wrap

The owners of Liu Mama's are of Hakka descent, which means that they put a lot of love into their pickled greens.

"We press it fresh with real stones every day," Liu says, pointing to a pile of large boulders on the ground. While pickled radish and pickled mustard greens are standard, pickled burdock root isn't. It has a slightly gingery taste and it's cut into long slivers. Burdock works surprisingly well with the minced pork.

Liu Mama (劉媽媽飯團) No. 88, Section 2, Hangzhou South Road

Purple Rice Original

Sticky purple rice + pickled radish + pickled mustard greens + braised egg + pork floss, cruller.

"Purple rice, according to traditional Chinese medicine philosophy, is really good for health," Liu says. He looks at me and pauses.

"And especially good for women."

I don't pry any further. Taiwanese people, I've found, have a tendency to invoke the Chinese medicinal benefits of nearly everything edible. While it's true that purple rice is rich in antioxidants, it most definitely isn't a miracle grain.

It makes for an interesting fan tuan, however, and that is entirely the point. Texture-wise, purple has more bite than its white counterpart and it's not as sticky.

Liu Mama (劉媽媽飯團) No. 88, Section 2, Hangzhou South Road

Purple Kimchi and Pork

Sticky purple rice, kimchi, minced pork, pickled radish, pickled mustard greens, braised egg, pork floss, cruller

Kimchi and pork fan tuan is the top seller at Liu Mama's. It's salty and sour and they're generous with the pork and kimchi ratio. The other ingredients are more of an afterthought.

Liu Mama (劉媽媽飯團) No. 88, Section 2, Hangzhou South Road

Land and Sea

White sticky rice, cruller, corn, tuna, egg, pork floss, minced pork, pickled radish, pickled mustard greens, egg, seaweed wrap

This is the most expensive fan tuan on the menu and also the most intense. It's a smorgasbord of practically everything that's available. It's ideal for the ravished but a bit overwhelming on the taste buds.

"It's important that the cruller is at least a day old," Liu says. "You have to fry it two times to get that signature crunch."

Liu Mama (劉媽媽飯團) No. 88, Section 2, Hangzhou South Road

Duo-Colored Spicy Chicken

Sticky purple rice, sticky white rice, spicy chicken filet, chicken bits, braised egg, cruller, pickled mustard greens, pickled radish, pork floss

"What publication are you writing for? Because if it's for a Taiwanese audience, I'm not interested," Ken Zhang says when I ask if I can interview him. Zhang is the owner of Rice Chef, which has ten mobile fan tuan stands all over Taipei.

I assure him the piece will be in English.

"OK," he says. "I just don't want our stands to be overcrowded with local foodies."

This seems like a petty thing to be concerned about, especially as a business owner, but in Taiwan, it's a legitimate concern. This sort of phenomenon happens so often that it's been dubbed "The Egg Tart Effect" after what happened with Portuguese egg tarts in Taiwan in 1997.

What happens: Certain foods are popularized in the news and hoards of people flock over to the advertised stand, completely overwhelming the staff. It's great for short-term business, but copycats soon abound, and the bubble eventually bursts. After a while, that food loses its novelty and no one wants it anymore. Over the years, the "Egg Tart Effect" has become a classic case study for Taiwanese consumerism culture.

"The last thing we need is a mob," Zhang says.

Zhang's business is, I realize, the ideal candidate for "The Egg Tart Effect." His stand is considerably more hip than the other ones on this list. Each cart is manned by a team of two attractive youths. The fan tuans are also made to cater to a younger, more Westernized palate. The chicken fan tuan is sharp and spicy. There's also one that oozes with cheese.

"All of our rice is sourced from the middle of Taiwan," he notes. "Taiwan produces some of the world's best sticky rice."

Rice Chef (米大廚) Dongmen MRT Station Exit 5

Cheese

Sticky white rice, pickled radish, pickled mustard greens, braised egg, pork floss, cruller, cheese

"We get here every day at 3 AM to prep," Tracy Cho says. She is the owner of Eternal Spring Soybean Milk, a stand strategically located right near National Taiwan Normal University. It serves the student crowd, especially those too lazy to whip up their own breakfast.

The cheese in question isn't fancy. It never is. It's simply processed American cheese—the sort that comes in plastic wrap.

"One of our best sellers," Cho says, echoing the sentiments of the Rice Chef stand.

Eternal Spring Soybean Milk (新永泉豆漿) No. 56, Longquan Street

Five-Grain Vegan

Five grain rice, pickled mustard greens, bean curd, pickled radish, carrots, imitation meat made from tofu.

It's my last morning here in Taipei before I leave for a trip to mainland China. As a parting gift, I bring my friends to my favorite fan tuan vendor—a small stall across the street from my apartment.

The fan tuan from North Pastry is something I have eaten every day for the last four months paired with a cup of warm, slightly sweetened soy milk. I can pay my breakfast daily with one coin: a 50NT piece, which is the equivalent to $1.50 USD.

I'm enamored of this stand simply because the ladies know me by my face. I can roll out of bed, walk over there in my pajamas, and get my fan tuan without having to say a word.

My friends watch as the lady who packs my fan tuan stuffs it with all my favorite things: a heap of pickled vegetables, bean curd, tofu. The beauty of North Pastry is that they're generous with their servings. The rice roll is quite large—one of the biggest in town. They also use five-grain rice instead of purple or white. It's nutty and packs looser than sticky white rice.

"We want the same thing," my friends say, convinced. The woman nods and, without a word, makes an extra three.

North Pastry (北方大陸餅) No. 10, Alley 5, Lane 130, Section 3, Minsheng East Road


This article first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2017.