Taiwan’s markets offers tasty treats for adventurous foodies.
Food stalls line the perimeter, serving up skewers of chicken hearts, duck tongue, and infamous stinky tofu. Constant chatter in a foreign language blankets the background with white noise. Exotic flavors penetrate the air, sometimes filling my nostrils with sweet and savory aromas; other times a pungent, almost sewer-like smell. And to top it off, people crowd the streets—shoulder-to-shoulder, front-to-back, leaving little room for a “personal bubble.”
This is an average Friday night in Taipei.
For the inexperienced, navigating Taiwan’s famous night markets can be a bit intimidating. But don’t let sensory overload stop you from enjoying this iconic element of Taiwanese culture. Perhaps the easiest path to conquering a night market is knowing exactly what the locals are serving up for hungry shoppers.
Whether you are a thrill-seeking taste-tester or an intestine-avoiding snack-sampler, there is surely something at Taiwan’s night markets to delight your taste buds.
All the snacks mentioned below are commonplace at the food stalls crowding every inch of Taiwan’s night markets. Simply keep your eyes open and find dishes that look interesting. If your Chinese is not up to par, pointing and miming is completely acceptable.
If you’re not sure which of the numerous night markets to choose from, we recommend Taipei’s largest, the Shilin Night Market. Expect to pay around $1-$4 for each item listed.
Bring your appetite and, remember, always take at least one bite.
1. Oyster Omelets
Oyster omelets are ubiquitous in Taiwan. The popular dish consists of eggs, oysters, a leafy green, and—perhaps most importantly—sweet potato starch. The starch, a staple of many Taiwanese dishes that you may or may not find yourself loving, is added to ensure a bit of chewiness. After being fried and flipped to perfection, the oyster omelet is dowsed in a sweet, red mystery sauce. Ask for the sauce on the side so it doesn’t mask the unique flavors of the omelet.
2. Bubble Tea
Also commonly called Pearl Milk Tea, this dessert-beverage has taken the world by storm. It was invented and made famous first in Taiwan. Although variations are found, the most common versions contain black tea, milk powder, and small, chewy tapioca balls. Bubble tea is yet another example of the Taiwanese’s love affair with all things chewy. But it can take a bit to get accustomed to the numerous gummy spheres that shoot into your mouth with each sip. Be forewarned: these drinks are highly addictive and can pack on the calories.
3. Pan- Fried Buns
Adopted from Shanghainese cuisine, Taiwanese style pan-fried buns are a light, fluffy bread with crispy bottom and meat or vegetable filling. The buns are loaded with the contents of choice, lined on an oil-covered pan to fry the base and topped with water to steam the exterior. The finest fried buns are made in front of you, so try to wait for a fresh batch.
4. Stinky Tofu
Perhaps Taiwan’s most famous dish, you need only follow your nose to find it. Tofu is fermented, fried, and served street-side with chili sauce and pickled vegetables. The tofu is crispy on the outside, mushy on the inside, and smelly all over. Taiwanese will tell you the more odiferous the better.
5. Shaved Ice
Light and fluffy shaved ice is piled high with any variety of toppings, ranging from sweet red beans to gelatinous pudding to fresh pineapple and mango. A drizzle of sweetened condensed milk provides the finishing touch. Be as daring with your toppings as you like, and enjoy the indulgence before it dissolves on your tongue.
6. Fresh Squid
A small island in the Pacific Ocean, Taiwan boasts some extremely fresh and delicious seafood. Skewered squid is a night market classic, lightly marinated and cooked over a charcoal grill. It’s another one of those chewy foods, but if you can handle the texture you’ll find superb flavor.
7. Duck tongues
Once you wrap your brain around eating a duck tongue, you might find these fatty delicacies quite enjoyable. As with most meat at a Taiwanese night market, the tongues are deep-fried and served on a stick. When chowing down, watch for bones inside.
8. Chicken Hearts
No part of an animal in Taiwan goes to waste, including livers, intestines, stomachs, and hearts. Chicken hearts are particularly popular bite-sized munchies, and, like duck tongues, come skewered and fried or barbecued. They are quite rich in nutrients, which makes a good excuse to give these blood-pumpers a try.
9. Beef Noodles
If there’s one thing you can’t leave Taiwan without trying, it’s beef noodles. Taiwan’s national dish, there is even an annual beef noodle competition where chefs compete to create the most scrumptious variation. This is one food you will want to savor sitting down. Scan the perimeter of the night market for makeshift restaurants offering the soup, and then choose the shop with the longest line. A pile of noodles, chunks of fatty beef, and a simple beef broth combine in this sensational dish. Each restaurant has its own unique flavor; experiment until you find your favorite. – Story by Casey Siemasko, photos by Dan Siemasko, RFT Contributors