Taiwan is perhaps most famous for the sprawling street markets that spring up on sidewalks and alleyways at night. Among the myriad clothing, trinkets and electronics on display are specialty food stalls hawking all manner of exotic dishes. If you want to find out what snake's blood, sea snails, chicken butts and deer penis tastes like, this is the place to be! Guiding your stomach through these culinary corridors can be a daunting task though. Here are six food stall tips that will keep you sated and alive.
The night markets in Taiwan are renowned for providing delicious, affordable food for adventurous tourists. Many of the morsels you'll find are completely alien to western palates, which makes them all the more intriguing. On the downside, this can create a bit of a gastronomical minefield where you're never quite sure what you just stuck in your mouth.
During a recent work trip to Taipei, I checked out some of the capital's most famous night markets specifically for our foodie readers. Here are a few tips I picked up along the way.
#1 Enlist a local as your tour guide
If it all possible, drag a local friend along during your first night market experience. In addition to knowing the best markets in the area, they will also be able to fill you in on non-identifiable foodstuffs and recommend dishes to suit your palate. They can also act as an interpreter, which is handy if you want to haggle prices!
If you don't know any Taiwanese people, try and go with a friend who has been before. Failing that, bone up on your intended market destination via some online guides. In short, you'll have more fun if you don't walk in blind!
#2 Don't sit near stinky tofu stalls
Stinky tofu is a fermented bean curd snack that is widely considered to be among the worst smelling foods on the planet. It makes you feel like there's an overflowing latrine inside your nostrils and the stench continues to seep out of your pores hours later. In other words, it's a bit of an acquired taste.
If you're eating anything other than stinky tofu, we recommend sitting well away from the offending stall. Otherwise, the olfactic assault will likely put you off your meal. (Incidentally, if you're keen to give stinky tofu a try, go for the crispy deep fried version. The stench is slightly less noxious. The localised shashlik variety also has a gentler aroma.)
#3 Bring a brolly!
Taiwan is known for having notoriously unpredictable weather. If you're travelling during typhoon season (generally late summer), be sure to have an umbrella in tow. Most night markets provide little to no covering which makes for a damp and miserable food adventure.
Thanks to the monsoon-influenced humid subtropical climate, you can basically expect to encounter heavy rainfall at least a couple of times during your stay. That said, if you don't mind getting wet the temperature is usually pretty mild even during torrential rainstorms.
#4 Travel off the beaten path
There are over 100 night markets dotting Taiwan and they all offer different foods experiences. While the big tourist destinations provide a good cross section of dishes, they can be too noisy and commercialised for some people's tastes. If you're willing to travel a little further outside of city centres, there's a whole smorgasbord of eccentric local flavours waiting to be discovered.
There are also specialty markets that cater to specific tastes. For instance, Huaxi Street Night Market (AKA Snake Alley) offers a dizzying array of snake-based delicacies along with exclusive oddities like turtle blood soup and deer penis wine.
#5 Leave room for dessert
If you can take time out from chowing down on miscellaneous critter's genitals, be sure to try some of the yummy desserts. One of the most popular dishes is shaved ice served with various decadent toppings such as chocolate syrup, peanut sauce and freshly sliced mango. On hot summer nights, this is just about the best thing ever.
Other famous desserts you can find at most night markets include Moi-ji (soft rice cakes with sweet fillings), grass jelly (a plant-based delicacy), ò-giô-peng (gelatinous dessert made from fig seeds), Mijian (candied fruit) and bubble tea.
#6 He who dares, wins!
Some food stall wares can be pretty confronting to the wandering laowai/foreigner. Even if you consider yourself a pretty adventurous foodie, a lot of this stuff is beyond the pale. I mean, deer penis wine? Really?
It takes a hardened stomach to nibble some of these bizarre victuals -- but to refrain is to miss out on a rare cultural opportunity. If you're unlikely to travel to Taiwan again, this could be your only chance to try some of this stuff. So make the most of it!
(Of course, this is coming from a guy who devoured a human placenta pizza, so this was basically a walk in the park for me.)