Stinky Tofu, Bubble Tea, and the Legendary Night Markets of Taiwan

Food 5 - Spoonful of Congelaed Duck's Blood

The act of traveling is a unique experiences that transcends all cultures and classes, an activity that can be enjoyed regardless of one’s race or religion, and is a common daydream shared by folks from of all walks of life.  As such, the variety of travelers you’ll meet upon setting off on your own journey is equally staggering and diverse, as each new person you’ll encounter has their own unique story, background, and tale to tell.

Almost as varied as the folks you’ll meet on the travel trail, however, is the reasons that drive people to travel in the first place.  Historians spend their time pouring over ancient manuscripts and exhibits in the many museums; adrenaline-junkies and adventurers are always constantly seeking the next unexplored territory or trying to reach that next peak; artists and creative types spend their time discussing in critiquing architectural landmarks or new design spaces in hushed tones over huge lattes in quiet coffee shops; those with a more spiritual side choose to spend their time in search of enlightenment in the world’s many temples, shrines, churches, and other holy places of worship; and beach-bums and lay-abouts require nothing other than a sandy beach, a cool cocktail, and a few weeks of sunshine to wile away their days in leisure.

But why do I travel?  That’s easy: I travel to eat.  It is the act of discovering new tastes, local flavors, or unique dishes that keeps me on the road month after month, constantly in search of a dish — any dish — that I haven’t yet tried.  Luckily for me, the world is a vast and ever-changing place, meaning I’ll be able to continue my search for many years to come.  But that is something to think about in the future — right now, I’m in Taipei, and that means I need to get to work.

Being that culinary pleasures as the primary purpose of my international adventures, it would foolish of my to spend any amount of time here without exploring the sprawling — and legendary — night markets of Taiwan.  Most cities across this island nation host their own Night Markets — a mix of merchandise, clothing, produce, knickknacks, and (most importantly) food vendors — but given that my stay was largely confined to the capital city of Taipei, my options included the largest and most crowded gathering in that of Shilin Night Market, the energetic buzz of the largely university-student crowd in Shida Night Market, the more local-friendly and down-to-earth Raohe Night Market (my personal favorite), and about a half-dozen other smaller, more neighborhood affairs.  Of course, I didn’t limit myself to just one, but chose to visit a new market each night to ensure I had fully steeped myself in the atmosphere of this Taiwanese tradition.

A scene from the energetic Raohe Night Market (my personal favorite)

Diners enjoying their meals at the Raohe Night Market

Stalls along the outer edge of Shilin Night Market

The crowds milling about the stalls along the outer edge of Shilin Night Market

A seafood vendor showing off his edible wares

A seafood vendor showing off his edible wares

The new food court located at the basement level of the Shilin Night Market

The new food court located at the basement level of the Shilin Night Market

Given the political ties and proximity to China, it isn’t surprising to learn that the largest influence on Taiwan’s culinary heritage is from the mainland, but you’ll still find lingering traces of Japanese (a hold-out from when Taiwan was occupied by Japan), Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Malay, Indonesian, and even a few nods to Western cuisine thrown in for good measure.  Regardless of the influences, however, Taiwan has developed its own unique set of dishes — sometime taking existing dishes and giving them a twist and sometimes devising entirely new creations — but always utilizing the fresh fruit and produce the grows in the tropical environment and the amazing bounty of seafood available to the island nation.  Oh yeah, and Stinky Tofu is a particular specialty here:

My first meal after arriving in Taiwan -- stinky tofu with congealed duck's blood and pig's intestines

My first meal after arriving in Taiwan — stinky tofu with congealed duck’s blood and pig’s intestines, all served in a light broth with a dash of hot sauce

Stinky Tofu, the fried version

The fried (and milder) version of Stinky Tofu

Beef Noodle - one of the most ubiquitous dishes that Taiwan has to offer (a noodle soup made with beef broth)

Beef Noodle – one of the most common dishes you’ll find in Taiwan (a noodle soup made with beef broth)

Coffin Bread - a thick slice of bread that hasbeen hollowed out and subsequently stuffed with the ingredients of your choice (this happens to be congee and chicken)

Coffin Bread – a thick slice of hollowed-out bread that has been subsequently stuffed with the ingredients of your choice (this happens to be congee rice porridge and chicken)

My daily breakfast of lotus cake topped with a fried egg and chili sauce

My daily breakfast of lotus cake topped with a fried egg and chili sauce

Cold noodles with sesame paste and chili oil

Cold noodles with sesame paste and chili oil

Pork Ribs stewed in Medicinal Broth - another example of Taiwan taking inspiration from an international dish (Chinese Bak Kut The, in this case) and making it their own

Pork Ribs stewed in Medicinal Broth – another example of Taiwan taking inspiration from an international dish (Chinese Bak Kut The, in this case) and making it their own

Ba Won - a softball-sized dumpling made with rice flour and cornstarch that is subsequently stuffed with meats and veggies then cooked until semi-translucent

Ba Won – a softball-sized dumpling made with rice flour and cornstarch that is subsequently stuffed with meats and veggies then cooked until semi-translucent

Spicy Wontons - not necessarily Taiwanese, but still excellent

Spicy Wontons – not necessarily Taiwanese, but still excellent

It wasn't at one of the Night Markets, but here's a peek into the kitchen of the famous Taiwanese chain of dumpling restaurants known as Din Tai Fung, which has spread to many of the neighboring countries

It wasn’t at one of the Night Markets, but here’s a peek into the kitchen of the famous (and critically acclaimed) Taiwanese chain known as Din Tai Fung, which has spread to many of the neighboring Asian countries

An of course, I had to try a few of their dumpling-based offerings.  This is the Taiwanese iteration of xialongbao, or the soup dumplings I sampled back in Shanghai.  This time around, however, there was no spilling on my shirt!

And of course, I had to try a few of their dumpling-based offerings. This is the Taiwanese iteration of xialongbao, the soup dumplings I sampled back in Shanghai. This time around, however, I’ve learned my lesson and there was no spilling on my shirt or third-degree burns on my tongue!

Taking advantage of the plentiful seafood afforded to the country as a result of its geographical location and island status, a hungry traveler will also find all sorts of creative dishes utilizing the bounty of the sea:

Oyster Vermicelli with a side of Oil Rice (liberally coated in hot sauce, no less)

Oyster Vermicelli with a side of Oil Rice (liberally coated in hot sauce, no less)

Tempura Fish, taking advantage of the bountiful seafood available

Tempura Fish — the Taiwanese version of the Japanese staple, where a pleasingly crisp outer texture melds perfectly with the soft, flaky interior

Oyster Omelette with a sweet, fruity sauce ladled atop

Oyster Omelette with a sweet, fruity sauce ladled atop

Cuttlefish (or squid) Stew

Cuttlefish (or squid) Stew

Fishball Soup, another common dish not only found in Taiwan, but all across Southeast Asia

Fishball Soup, another common dish not only found in Taiwan, but all across Southeast Asia

The markets themselves are often crowded with wandering pedestrians, making their way in and out of stalls, stopping here and there to sample whatever catch’s their eye, and generally lingering around whatever stalls seem to be doing the most business.  As such, it is convenient that many of the vendors’ offerings are geared towards the “eating out of hand” variety — as opposed to requiring a table to enjoy — meaning that you can easily grab a delicious bite at one stand and then enjoy your tasty treat while pondering which paper lantern purchase or what a great gift that mahjong set would make for family or friends back home.  After all, the combination of eating and shopping is half the fun of the night markets!  Here are a few of the on-the-go-eats I was able to sample:

Flaky Scallion Pancake, made to order with whatever fillings you like

Flaky Scallion Pancake, made to order with whatever fillings you like

Pig's Blood Rice Pudding (or Pig's Blood Cake) -- a mixture of sticky rice and pig's blood that is coated in peanut powder, cilantro, and served up on a stick

Pig’s Blood Rice Pudding (or Pig’s Blood Cake) — a mixture of sticky rice and pig’s blood that is coated in peanut powder, cilantro, and served up on a stick

Pepper Cakes - A gourmet version of a hot pocket that is stuffed with a mixture of pork and black pepper and then cooked in clay ovens

Pepper Cakes – A gourmet version of a hot pocket that is stuffed with a mixture of pork and black pepper and then cooked in clay ovens

The sweet and sassy taste of a Taiwanese sausage

The sweet and sassy taste of a Taiwanese sausage

A bite-sized hunk of fried pork (beware, they don't remove the bones before frying)

A bite-sized hunk of fried pork (beware, they don’t remove the bones before frying)

A street vendor preparing my Steamed Spring Roll (Run Bing)

A street vendor preparing my Steamed Spring Roll (Run Bing)

The final product

The final product

Fried Bao, or small dumplings that are stuffed with pork or veggies and fried up in huge pans until they are ready to burst

Fried Bao, or small dumplings that are stuffed with pork or veggies and fried up in huge pans until they are ready to burst

I'm not sure when "fried chicken" morphed into serving nearly a whole chicken flattened, battered, and fried, but I'm certainly not going to complain

I’m not sure when “fried chicken” morphed into serving a nearly-whole chicken that has been flattened, battered, and fried, but I’m certainly not going to complain, as it is a meal in and of itself

After a night of noshing on delectable street eats, I’m always inclined to indulge my sweet tooth, as well.  And luckily, Taiwan is prepared, as they are packing a bevy of sugar-laden treats that engage the eater not only with their taste and smell, but with their visual appeal and texture.

The reigning king of Taiwanese desserts: massive mounds of shaved ice topped with various frozen fruits, sugars, and syrups.  These may similar to creations from other countries, but nothing compares to the glutinous delights of an authentic Taiwanese Shaved Ice Mound

The reigning king of Taiwanese desserts: massive mounds of shaved ice topped with various frozen fruits, sugars, and syrups (shown here is the mango version). These may appear similar to creations from other countries, but nothing compares to the gustatory delights of an authentic Taiwanese Shaved Ice Mound

Sweet egg tarts (again, similar to the Portugueuse Egg Tarts I found in Shanghai).  This version was made with Black Tea, however, adding yet another subtle layer of flavor

Sweet egg tarts (again, similar to the Portuguese Egg Tarts I found in Shanghai). This version was made with Black Tea, however, adding yet another subtle layer of flavor

Pineapple Cake - a sweet snack so ubiquitous that is has almost become a national symbol

Pineapple Cake – a sweet snack so ubiquitous that is has almost become a national symbol of Taiwan

Sometime nothing satisfies at the end of a night like a big hunk of starch.  Shown here is a sweet Pineapple bun with a heaping hunk of butter melting away inside

Sometime nothing satisfies at the end of a night like a big hunk of starch. Shown here is a sweet Pineapple bun with a heaping hunk of butter melting away inside

Trays of Fen Yuan, small glutinious balls of steamed sticky rice powder stuffed with fillings such as red bean paste or green tea and then either eaten out of hand or used to top any other various desserts

Trays of Fen Yuan, small glutinous balls of steamed sticky rice powder stuffed with fillings such as red bean paste or green tea and then either eaten out of hand or used as a topping for other desserts

And finally, a trip to Taiwan wouldn’t be complete without at least trying the Bubble Tea.  Invented in Taipei, this sweet, sugary drink is a mixture tea, milk, and occasionally a variety of flavorings that is then shaken to the point of being foamy (thus the “bubble” name) and then mixed with a few spoonfuls of tapioca pearls for extra texture.  Generally served in a plastic cup with a sealed lid and an oversize straw, this Taiwanese creation has become popular all over Eastern and Southeastern Asian, with Bubble Tea (or sometime just Milk Tea) stands dotting most corners:

I've sampled Bubble Tea all over the world, but I finally made it to the source

I’ve sampled Bubble Tea all over the world, but I finally made it to the source.  This particular version is the classic Milk Tea flavor, but tricked out with two different sizes of tapioca pearls for textural contrast

A large tray of the jello-like aiyu jelly, which is served over ice in a lemonade-like drink

A large tray of the Aiyu Jelly, which is served over ice in a lemonade-like drink

Sweet Almond Milk made from Soy

Sweet Soy Milk, this one being the Almond flavor

This doesn't look like much other than a cup of tea, but in reality, it is Taiwanese Bitter Tea, boasting an IBU count comparable to that of West Coast American IPA's

This doesn’t look like much other than a cup of tea, but in reality, it is Taiwanese Bitter Tea, boasting an IBU count comparable to that of West Coast American IPA’s

Finally, even though the Taiwanese people consume very little alcohol (they usually opt for tea or milk based drinks), I did manage to find one local beer to satisfy my beer geek instincts

Finally, even though the Taiwanese people consume very little alcohol (they usually opt for tea or milk based drinks instead), I did manage to find one local beer to satisfy my beer geek instincts

As mentioned in my previous post, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Taiwan, so much so that I’m going to make a point of adding a return trip to my itinerary sometime in the future.  And in the interest of full disclosure, even though I still have the rest of the island outside of Taipei to explore, it is the food that is really drawing me back!  After leaving Taiwan on this trip, however, my last stop before heading home for the holiday season is that of the densely populated island of Hong Kong.  Until then, cheers from the Night Markets of Taipei!

Post-Script — Special thanks to Nancy, Anthony, Kelly, and especially Agatha for showing me around your home — I couldn’t have found better guides.  You guys made the trip truly memorable for me!

Post-Post-Script — Frequenters of Taiwanese cuisine will quickly note that I missed Lurou Fan, or Braised Pork Rice, which is possibly the most famous (or at least the most common) dish found in the Night Markets.  In this regard, I have no excuses: I dropped the ball.  It was available everywhere at every market, so being that is was so easy, I continuously saved it for later in favor of a more unique offering.  Alas, my time to leave finally rolled around and I realized I had forgotten about it.  Shame on me, but I guess it is just added motivation to return!

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

14 Responses to “Stinky Tofu, Bubble Tea, and the Legendary Night Markets of Taiwan”

  1. 7 more days and I will eat all these :)

  2. Wow Andrew! I’m just glad I read this when I wasn’t feeling too hungry.

    Just the other night I read an article on CNNGo titled “40 Taiwanese foods we can’t live without”, and it seems like you went through pretty much the entire selection! I’ll have to make a note of all these dishes before the trip next March. You have me totally sold on those night markets!

    Actually, are you still in Hong Kong, or have you made your way back to the States?

    • It’s funny you bring up the CNN Go article, as that was actually one of my guides! I had a little notebook with all of the dishes written down so I’d know what to look for, or at least what was available. I didn’t quite knock off all 40, but I got pretty close!

      And I’m actually back in the States already. I usually try to keep the blog up to date (or at least within a day or two), but I’ve been slipping lately and have fallen a week or so behind. So it goes, I guess. I know it is a few months off still, but I’m looking forward to seeing what you and Bama get into when you hit Taiwan. Are you guys planning to travel around to other countries on the same trip, or just sticking around the island?

      • I couldn’t help noticing the parallels with CNNGo. Some of the photos are almost identical – especially those of the pepper buns and flaky scallion pancake!

        We have about 10 days planned for the trip, and although we could have visited another country in that time (one idea was Japan’s nearby Ryukyu Islands), Bama and I decided it would be best to head out of Taipei and see a bit more of the island. We’re drawn to the east coast especially – it seems very rugged and beautiful from the pictures we’ve seen!

  3. Wow, so cool! It looks like there’s so much good stuff to try. I don’t even recognize most of it. Also, I cannot believe how huge that piece of fried chicken is!

  4. WOW! your post made me hungry! and I just had a pot luck lunch from my work too!

  5. Oh my goodness. I want to travel to Taiwan now!! Are you still on your journey?

    • I’d highly recommend a trip to Taiwain! Ha ha. And yes, although I’m currently back in the US for the Christmas season, I’m going to be hitting the road again come January, so I’ll still have plenty more to show of the vast world in which we live!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Life on the Road – Part 3: Reflections on East Asia | Temporarily Lost - February 13, 2013

    [...] to take her up on the invitation, and the progression of dishes that followed (which can be seen here) is something that be in my dreams for a long time to come.  Thanks again, [...]

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