Go on a foodie quest this month in the heart of the Taiwan capital, where street food and night markets are an intrinsic part of the local culture

A food stall at Shilin Night Market

A food stall at Shilin Night Market

Taiwan’s night markets and the many unique street-food dishes sold there are the pride and joy of this food-loving nation. But the barrage of noise, smells, textures and tastes can be overwhelming for the unprepared, and the quality varies. So, where do you find the sophisticated dishes honed over generations? In newspapers, magazines and on the internet, you’ll find discussions about the finer points of various night markets and what represents Taiwan’s street food. But as with any vibrant, living tradition, there is no consensus.

A temple near Raohe Street Night Market

A temple near Raohe Street Night Market

There are many night markets, big and small, scattered around Taipei, but a few definitely stand out. One of the largest is Shilin Night Market, which clings on to poll position in the listings, despite coming in for much criticism following a recent ‘modernisation’. Its sprawling labyrinth of stalls includes many long-established outlets specialising in old favourites, while the crowds it attracts have also made it a springboard for new street-food trends, from the recent grilled beef on skewers to the fad for grilled scallops. The new stalls attract a lot of locals and are worth trying, but only a few stand the test of time against the offerings that have been perfected over decades, such as pearl tea, pork sandwiches, vermicelli and oyster soup, deep fried chicken nuggets and stewed meats. A dish described as ‘small biscuit wrapped in a big pancake’ – a deep-fried crisp bread with various flavourings engulfed in a softer pancake – is particularly famous, as is a squid stew, though many of the specialist stalls have been subsumed into larger seafood stalls with little distinction.

At the opposite end of town, the venerable Raohe Street Night Market has a new lease of life thanks to the completion of the Songshan-Xindian MRT line, putting this once inconveniently located and slightly down-at-heel market in the middle of a bustling modern transport hub. The market is particularly known for its spare ribs stewed in medicinal herbs (much favoured for its remedial properties after drinking), and its pepper buns – a piquant meat bun baked in a kiln.

Oyster omelette at Ningxia Night Market

Oyster omelette at Ningxia Night Market

A smaller but always vibrant night market in the heart of Taipei’s old city is the Ningxia Night Market, which is renowned for two of Taipei’s best-loved stalls that specialise in the oyster omelette. This dish can be found at virtually every night market in Taiwan, but the stall with the name best translated as ‘oyster omelette shop next to the roundabout’ has queues down the street most nights of the week. This night market is also home to the Formosa Chang Gourmet Center, a modern palace to the most humble of all street-food dishes: rice topped with stewed minced pork. The chain store first opened in the vicinity during the Sixties, one of a number of establishments that has taken street food off the streets and provided higher levels of service, sanitation and comfort.

Many other restaurants have also taken up the banner of Taiwan street food, with all its chaotic exuberance, and brought it into a more elegant dining environment. This is no more so than in the burgeoning Yungkang Street commercial circle, where establishments such as Feng Cheng Restaurant serve lovely street-food-inspired cuisine in a cosy and well-ordered atmosphere. Yungkang Street is also the home of the mango ice sensation that has flocks of local and regional tourists lining up at a variety of establishments, successors of the phenomenally popular Ice Monster, which has now relocated near MRT Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall Station.

Night market shopping

Night market shopping

If visiting a night market with locals, it’s inevitable that you will be invited to try stinky tofu, a rite of passage for new arrivals due to its pungent aroma. Stinky tofu can be deep-fried or stewed in a spicy sauce, served with pickled cabbage or a stew of jellied duck’s blood, and elicits the kind of reactions often associated with blue cheese or durian.

However, for those who want to sample traditional cuisine in the most luxurious surroundings, make Cantonese restaurant Ya Ge at Mandarin Oriental, Taipei your port of call. The menu comprises delightful dim sum delicacies such as wild mushroom buns and steamed crabmeat dumplings.

Ian Bartholomew is a food writer based in Taiwan. He worked for many years covering food, arts and travel for Taipei Times and now runs Ian’s Table, a small guesthouse in Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast, where he is developing his interest in eco-tourism, local farming and organic produce

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