For the fearless, stinky tofu is one of the foods to try at the Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan. // © 2014 Mindy
A veteran of Taipei’s famous Shilin Night Market, my Taiwanese friend and night market guide, Evan, always goes caffeinated and prepared, clearly imagining his culinary targets and manifesting them like some sort of street-food-spirit-guru.
While I had heard that Taiwan’s night markets were bucket list worthy, it wasn’t until we canceled our fancy dinner reservations that I knew it was business time. We had important eating ahead and needed to free up as much stomach space as possible, instructed Evan. The goal, I learned, was to try as many of Taiwan’s most delicious treats as possible.
It wasn’t pure gluttony though. There was a method to the madness: a strategic game plan and the will power needed to avoid the second-rate dishes that beckoned while I was hungry.
First I learned about best practices regarding cleanliness and sanitation at the market. There is little worse for digestion than worrying about whether the mysterious “frogs lay eggs” drink, “blood cake” or “coffin bread” will potentially poison you.
According to my guide, the market and its food are generally sanitary, as the government has gone to great lengths to ensure its cleanliness. One safety tip that I learned was to always use disposable chopsticks instead of plastic utensils, which may have not been washed properly. At one stall where we were provided plastic ware, I requested and was given disposable chopsticks.
Locals also cautioned me against eating one of my favorite health foods. As alluring as those bitter melons look and regardless of the ubiquitous free fruit samples, do not eat the fruit at the market. In the past, fruit vendors have been caught injecting their fruits with sugar water and others have been accused of scamming tourists by cutting up fruit and overcharging.
Plus, with the exception of fresh, stinky durian (which is illegal to bring into the U.S. in its fresh form), why eat your favorite fruits when there are so many exotic offerings? With a brand-new food court building, the Shilin Night Market — which already sprawls its way through different streets — has gotten even more tempting.
One of the most essential dishes to try is stinky tofu, even though it tastes just like it smells. The fermented tofu dish is typically served with a brown sauce and some pickled vegetables. Other popular dishes include the oyster omelet, roasted barbequed corn, pearl milk tea, Taiwanese sausage, candied crab apples and the famous Hot Star “large” fried chicken.
Though my guide advises against wasting your stomach space on filling starches, a personal favorite of mine was the spicy deep fried plum sweet potatoes, freshly refried to order. Manning a one-person kiosk, the vendor was easy to pass but the chance discovery reminded me that while guides have excellent insight, it’s always worth it to leave room for personal discovery.
We recharged our appetites by walking the length of the market, playing carnival games and shopping. Though tourists love the Shilin Night Market, it is also a popular nightlife spot for locals, including young adults, so many shops are geared at youth culture, selling silly tchokes and trendy clothing. Casinos, karaoke and the like are also easy to find nearby.
Of course, one must eat dessert before leaving the market, and I happily learned that it is customary to end a feast with shave ice. At a sit-down shop along the market route, I had the highlight of my meal: a pyramid of fluffy matcha tea shave ice floating atop a pool of earthy, sweetened red beans.
The last two items are vegetarian-friendly, but beware: many seemingly vegetarian items are fried in animal fat. The “frogs lay eggs” drink, however, is not to be feared: it is a refreshing tea with tapioca balls and Aiyu jelly, a gel made from fig seeds.
Other things to note: the market is free, but bring many small bills for food items, which are fairly cheap (from about $1-$5).
Drinking at the market is also allowed and many food stalls sell beer, though you can get cheaper cans at the convenience stores located throughout. Depending on your taste, that may be a more tempting offer than a cool glass of “frogs lay eggs.”