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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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!