I like to think I’m a morning person, but the reality is that I always have been, and always will be, a night owl. My parents tell me that even when I was a toddler, I’d stay up late into the evening with my dad, sitting by his side watching late night television with him long after I should have drifted off to the Land of Nod. Tony is pretty much the same and back in Nashville we’d look forward to the weekends when we could stay up late watching movies or playing video games without having to worry about getting up for work the next day. You’d think that given our proclivities that our Big Trip would be nothing but late nights, but, well, we’re both 30 now and we’ve found that in our old age we value getting a full 8 hours of shut-eye in order to make the most of our waking hours and whichever city they happen to find us in. As we’re not really club or bar people (you’re shocked, I know), most nights we’ve been in bed embarrassingly early.
If there’s one place to make an exception to our geriatric sleep patterns, however, it is surely Taipei. This is a city that is pretty cool during the day, but becomes downright fabulous come the night.
The reason? Night markets!
Like most Asian cities, Taipei has plenty of markets you can peruse during the day, but the real stars of the show are its infamous markets that pop up around the city once the sun goes down. Permanent stores roll up their gates and nomadic stalls set up in every spare inch of space, all so they can peddle anything your heart could desire. Most markets span several street blocks that are closed off to motorized vehicles (though a few intrepid scooters always sneak through) and contain a truly dizzying array of items. In North America, we tend to hit shopping malls for our all our one-stop shopping needs, but in Taipei, you get yourself to the night market.
Even if you hate shopping or are living out of a 45L backpack, there’s still plenty about night markets to lure out even the most militant anti-consumerist. Night markets are a highly social activity as they provide a place for the Taiwanese to unwind after a long day at work, so the atmosphere at these markets is always festive and lively, and the people watching is unparalleled.
Also: there is so much food, which is clearly why we wound up spending so much time trawling these markets while in Taipei. We were in good company, as most Taiwanese people take to the streets for dinner; at night markets you will be spoiled for choice with the array of tantalizing tastes awaiting you. From full meals to bite-sized snacks that you can scarf on the go while you shop, there’s something to sate all cravings. It’s a great opportunity to take a walk on the wild side and try new things as we found that without fail, street food at Taipei’s night markets was not only incredibly cheap, but also insanely delicious.
Night markets aren’t unique to Taipei (or even Taiwan), but one great thing about the markets in Taiwan’s capital city is that they run every night of the week, rain or shine. With more than 10 major markets scattered throughout the city, chances are there will always be one nearby, so if you were so inclined, you could happily spend a week in Taipei eating your way through a different one every night. An admirable goal, we wound up doing some serious damage at three markets, and highly recommend that the next time you find yourself in Taipei that you make room in your schedule (and stomach) to check out the following markets:
The Famous One: Shilin Night Market
Shilin is the big kahuna of Taipei night markets—it’s not only the most famous, but it’s also the biggest one. For most visitors to Taipei, this is probably the only night market they’ve heard of, and it’s also likely the only one they’ll visit.
You might think that given all the hype that Shilin might disappoint, but on our visit with our amazing CouchSurfing host, Jackie (on whom we will write much more in later posts), we quickly realized that Shilin definitely deserves its massive popularity. We knew to expect plenty of food and clothing stalls, but walking through Shilin was like walking the midway at a county fair, as in addition to these things, there were also carnival games, including a really amusing one that was like a live action version of Angry Birds and involved hurling stuffed bird toys at stacked pyramids. If that alone does not convince you that you need to visit Shilin, then I don’t know what will.
Oh right, the food! There are certain standard dishes that you tend to see at every night market, but there are quite a few that Shilin is particularly famous for, and of course, Jackie made sure we tried them all. Not only that, but he helped us navigate not just the street-level portion of the market, but the whole section that runs underground (and that I think most tourists are unaware even exists) to ensure we tasted the very best iterations of each dish. With Jackie’s help, during our time at Shilin, we ate:
Deep fried sweet potato balls AND deep fried “milk” balls (essentially like fried cheese curds). We have yet to find any food that is not improved by being battered, fried, and served on a stick.
Oyster Vermicelli, a very hearty and rich noodle soup. For those for whom this dish is not sufficiently daring (we are not those people, at least not this time), another popular iteration involves swapping out the oysters for pig intestines.
A “chicken leg roll”, which is essentially what happens if you debone a chicken and then stuff the meat back into its own skin (like a spring roll) and then deep fry it. Yes, it is as amazing as it sounds, and yes, I am right there with you wondering how I had gone so long without encountering such a genius idea.
A GIANT fried chicken cutlet from the Hot Star stall that was seriously bigger than my head (aka the place to get fried chicken cutlets at Shilin; we waited in line for about 20 minutes to get ours!) and a hunk of GIANT Taiwanese sausage that it is traditional to eat with raw cloves of garlic. It sounds intense, and it is! But it is also so delicious; I still dream about this combination.
Oyster omelets, for which Shilin is particularly famous. For comparison’s sake, we also had a shrimp omelet. Both were delicious, especially after we slathered them with this sweet, slightly spicy sauce that was kind of like a chili ketchup, but not as gross as that might sound.
Amazingly, we somehow had room for dessert, so we filled that space with something we dubbed a “crunchy biscuit roll” and essentially amounted to fried crispy flavored dough that is bashed to bits and then rolled in a soft, chewy rice wrapper. I went with black sesame, Tony went with red bean.
We were bursting at the seams at this point, but Jackie insisted that no trip to Shilin would be complete without capping the evening off with the classic Taiwanese dessert of snowflake ice. Snowflake ice is kind of like a slushy, or the shaved ice desserts you find in other Asian cities, but is even better! Rather than simply shaving boring old ice into a bowl and slathering it with sweet syrups, Taiwan goes one better and first mixes condensed milk with the water prior to freezing it, so that you wind up with something that is like a fluffy ice cream that then gets slathered with sweet syrups. We opted for the strawberry snowflake ice because the more famous mango iteration was not in season. It was incredible both in the moment and afterwards when we had crazy sugar-fueled dreams following our crash into a diabetic coma.
It may be hard to believe but this impressive display of gluttony barely scratches the surface of what is on offer at Shilin Night Market! If your time in Taipei is limited, this is a great place to experience extreme, concentrated night market goodness. It’s got all the highlights of the best nightmarkets, and although it can get overwhelming at times and you’ll surely get lost, at least you know you won’t starve to death!
Off the Beaten Track: ShiDa Night Market
ShiDa Night Market is located close to the Guting Metro station and begins right near the campus for the National Taiwan Normal University. This is another instance where CouchSurfing paid off big time for us, as we likely never would have found ShiDa on our own, in part because it’s not officially a night market anymore! Because it’s right near the university, it gets tons of student traffic which also results in a lot of mess and noise, much to the annoyance of local residents. So they complained, and now ShiDa night market is technically no more. But, you’d hardly know it from the looks of things—when Jackie brought us to his old stomping grounds (he is a NTNU alumnus) ShiDa looked as lively & raucous as ever. It’s nowhere near the size of Shilin, but it’s got a very energetic, fun-loving vibe, and is definitely more manageable for those who don’t dream about getting lost in a labyrinth of food.
Because it’s targeted at a university audience, Shida has lots of clothing and many of the usual fried-food-on-stick offerings you would expect, and at rock bottom prices. This time, our primary objective was a noodle restaurant that is nestled in the heart of the market, where you pick out all of your fixings—from noodles, to veggies, to meat, to different types of tofu—which then get boiled in a complex, herbal stock. This is comfort food at its finest for Taiwanese students, and Jackie told us it was a popular place for students to fuel up when they were burning the midnight oil studying OR following a wild night on the town. It was easy for us to see why the place was popular as the food was tasty but also incredibly cheap: for just $5US, Tony & I shared this massive plate of noodles & mix-ins!
One of the hardest things about walking through night markets is that everything smells so good (Except stinky tofu. It really does stink. A lot. Kind of like rotting dog food, actually.) and ShiDa is no exception. Jackie was trying to hustle us to a shop just a few streets away to grab dessert, but I just had to pick up a mouth-watering matcha & caramel waffle for the road. You know how in Asia you are always seeing restaurants offering “pancakes”, only if you’re from the U.S. or Canada, you generally tend to end up with something that is maybe more like a crêpe but not what you would consider a pancake? Well, Taiwanese waffles are nothing like that. Taiwanese waffles are not just as good as western waffles, they’re better. Not only do they come in kick ass flavors like “matcha caramel”, but they manage to be caramelized and crispy on the outside, but soft and fluffy on the inside. Heaven! Every day I remember a new food we ate in Taiwan that was so good, I’d get back on a plane just for that and Taiwanese waffles are frequently on that list.
Jackie only let us get one waffle, because our real dessert was to be had at Smoothie House. It’s not technically part of the ShiDa Night Market, but it’s so close by, it might as well be. A Taipei institution, Smoothie House is where snowflake ice was invented! This time around, we were able to dig into an amazing mango snowflake ice. It was so sweet and creamy and absolutely delicious. Tony & I once again split a bowl, but we noticed that most Taiwanese people were far greedier and we were the only people sharing. Given this, I have no idea how Taiwan is not the most obese nation on the planet, though Jackie claims that when he lived for a year in the United States, he actually lost weight! All I can say is that I wouldn’t hold it against anyone living in Taiwan who turned into a huge fatty, and am simply amazed that most people are instead ridiculously skinny.
Our Favorite: Tonghua Street Night Market
Tony and I like to pretend that the following is an actual strategy we use to choose places to eat, but the reality is that this tactic we’ve developed is really the result of two things: poor planning & laziness. Normally we wait until one of us (usually me) is absolutely starving before we set out in search of food. What this tends to mean is that we generally wind up eating at whichever establishments are within 5-minutes of wherever we happen to be staying. Lucky for us, the hostel we stayed at for a few nights in Taipei was located just around the corner from the Tonghua Street Night Market. It’s not hard to figure out why we wound up eating there 75% of the time we were staying at that hostel (in our slight defense, it also rained A LOT while we were in Taipei, so food that was close certainly didn’t hurt), but don’t get the wrong idea and think proximity was the reason we’re giving our top spot to Tonghua! We thought the food scene here was possibly the most vibrant and diverse of all the night markets we visited, and some of the things we had here remained our very favorite eats.
[And yes, like most other night markets, there were plenty of shops selling non-food wares, but you know where our priorities lie! Also, although we occasionally saw a few tourists here, there were far fewer tourists here than you are likely to see at Shilin, though definitely more than you would see at ShiDa (which is to say any, as we were the only non-Taiwanese people at ShiDa)… all to say that if not doing the conventional tourist thing matters to you, then you’ll definitely want to check out Tonghua.]
Taiwan is famous for dumplings, and the ones you can pick up at Tonghua are tasty & cheap. I know that steamed ones are healthier, but ones that have been steamed and then pan fried in a wok so the bottoms get all crispy are clearly superior on the deliciousness scale. And of course, perfectly fried dumplings (which these clearly were) are not the least bit oily. We enjoyed every crunchy bite!
Banh Mi sandwiches are more correctly Vietnamese, but that didn’t stop Tony from ordering a sandwich from this little vendor tucked away at the end of the street two nights in a row. It was crammed with roasted pork, pâté, pickled veggies, mayo and cucumbers, and the bread had the requisite crunch. With so many choices on offer, you’d better believe that this sandwich was good if we went back for repeats!
Speaking of seconds, we ate a lot of grilled meats on skewers at Tonghua, as they were perfect cheap eats to keep our stamina up as we wandered from one food stall to the next, searching for the very best eats. There was one vendor we preferred where we tried: beef, enoki mushrooms wrapped in chicken, Chinese sausage, chicken “ass” (irreverently known back home as “pope’s nose), the best steak ever, and pig-blood cake! That’s right, we ate grilled blood (mixed with rice)! And it wasn’t bad, either. It was really popular with Taiwanese visitors to the market, so we decided to give it a shot and we quite enjoyed it. The best part of all, however, was probably when we asked a drink vendor who spoke excellent English to clarify what exactly it was we were eating. The look of horror that crossed his face when he realized we didn’t know it was blood and would have to break the news to us was priceless. He was greatly relieved when he stuttered out that it was blood, and we shrugged and took another bite, telling him that’s what we had suspected, we just wanted to confirm. (For those of you not interested in eating blood, that’s cool. Just go for the grilled steak—it was our favorite of the bunch.)
Our adventurous eating didn’t end there, as with prices for most things hovering around $1US, we could afford to be a little reckless. I ordered myself a little parcel of what I thought were caramelized apples, but in fact turned out to be candied potatoes (which we naturally called “diabetes potatoes”). They weren’t offensive, but they weren’t our favorite dish either. This is the risk one takes when one gambles at night markets. Also, I guess Filipinos aren’t the only ones who like sweet potatoes…
In addition to these amazing eats, we also partook in fried chicken, crispy pork buns that magically managed to be juicy, crispy and chewy all in one bite, and this amazing fry bread that had a fried egg cracked over it and was then drizzled with a slightly sweet sauce. Unfortunately, the rain was so bad on the evening that we enjoyed this smorgasbord that we opted to leave our cameras at the hostel. So apologies for not documenting any of it in pictures but tormenting you with the knowledge these things exist nonetheless.
To make up for that, feast your eyes on a picture of just one of the many many Taiwanese waffles we ate at Tonghua. The flavors here were off the chain, as we enjoyed strawberry & condensed milk, mango, and caramel QQ, but that still left over half the menu untried. One interesting thing I noted was that rather than a liquid batter, the vendor was using something that looked more like cookie dough. It is possible that this is how Liege-style waffles are made in Belgium. I really didn’t enjoy my time in Belgium back in 2005, but if this is indeed the case, we may have to pop in when we hit Europe to verify this claim. This is important research we have to conduct!
So, there you have our favorite night markets in Taipei! Going back through our pictures and reliving our time there, I am shocked anew by the fact that more people do not visit Taipei just on the basis of how amazing the food scene is there. Everyone knows about Thailand’s amazing night markets, and we all know we can (and should) eat ourselves stupid in Singapore, but why has Taipei continued to fly under foodies’ radar? How is it possible that we have all been living with such a huge culinary blind-spot for so long?
I don’t have the answers for you, but all I can say is that I’m so glad I’ve seen the light and am no longer living in gastronomic ignorance!
Tell us: Is this the first you’re hearing about Taipei’s amazing night markets? Which of these things would you jump on a plane in order to try? (It’s ok, you can totally say waffles. We won’t blame you!)