Taiwanese Night Market Culture: Eat, Drink, and Be Daring
I’ll never forget my first visit to a night market in Taiwan. It was a total affront on all senses. Too many people jostling for space; too many unrecognizable odors drifting through the air; too many animal organs skewered and on display for growling bellies. I elbowed my way through the crowds, searching for an English menu or a familiar food, covered in sweat from the summer humidity. Then I left twenty minutes later. Still suffering from jetlag and feeling a bit apprehensive about my travel plans, the entire experience was too much culture shock to handle.
Despite the unsuccessful occurrence, I returned a second and third time, prepared for the chaos and energy. Eventually, I found myself enjoying the experience a bit more. Before long, I was electing to visit night markets on a regular basis, lamenting over the lack of great night markets in the city I called home. It took a while, but I finally got the night market scene.
The problem with my first night market venture wasn’t simply that I was tired or overwhelmed, but that my expectations were set up entirely wrong. I didn’t understand the importance of night market culture, and I wasn’t able to appreciate the bustling frenzy and positive energy that made them so charming in the first place. But once I learned more about Taiwan’s culture and food scene, all of that changed.
Night markets in Taiwan date back hundreds of years, to when simple peddlers bore their food for sale across their shoulders. Later, quite sensibly, night markets had a close correlation with temples. After all, where people gather, there will be food. During Taoist festivals, venders would bring their snacks and set up stalls nearby, representing some of the first makeshift markets. Soon artisans joined them, selling handicrafts. With inexpensive prices that the lower and middle class could afford, night markets became a staple of life, not just for the food but also as a place to gather and socialize.
The practice stuck, and even in the midst of today’s mega-malls and westernization, night markets retain a strong hold within Taiwanese culture. This is partly due to the emphasis on xiaochi, which can be translated semi-accurately as small eats. Taiwanese have a strong place in their hearts for xiaochi, and cook variations of the snacks during different festivals of the year; however, these snacks are often available year-round at a night market. Additionally, many night markets have their own specialty snacks to offer, reason enough for Taiwanese to seek them out. Along with the food scene, the markets boast clothes, electronics, and carnival games—it’s seemingly possible to purchase anything at a single market!
Given all that night markets encompass, it’s no wonder that they are such a large part of the culture and a top tourist attraction. If you’re ready to give your first night market a go, here are some survival tips to keep in mind:
1. Don’t arrive hungry.
Yes, there is a lot of food to try at a night market, but extreme hunger typically doesn’t mix well with long lines and unrecognizable treats. Have a bit of an appetizer before you go so you can take your time once there.
2. Find the longest line.
The locals know where to eat; if there is a long line, chances are that it’s because there is some seriously good grub on the other end of it.
3. Pointing is acceptable.
Mandarin is a hard language, but luckily the Taiwanese are very friendly and willing to read your body language to understand what it is you want. If something looks good but you have no idea how to use your words, don’t be afraid to point and smile.
4. Remember the smaller night markets.
I chose one of the largest night markets in Taipei for my first excursion, and then complained when it was crowded. Remember the smaller night markets; they are everywhere, and often more charming than their larger counterparts.
Of course, the most important part of a night market is the food! While you’re ambling, keep an eye out for these:
1. Oyster Omelets
They were recently voted tourists’ favorite snack food, and for good reason. Consisting of eggs, oysters, and potato starch, this is one chewy treat you don’t want to miss.
2. Pearl Milk Tea
More commonly known as ‘bubble tea’ in the west, this drink is made up of black tea, milk powder, and small, chewy tapioca balls (along with a heaping pump of sugar syrup). Be forewarned: these drinks are highly addictive and can pack on the calories.
3. Stinky Tofu
Perhaps Taiwan’s most famous dish, you need only follow your nose to find it. Tofu is fermented, fried and served street-side with chili sauce and pickled vegetables.
4. Fresh Squid
Skewered squid is a night market classic, lightly marinated and cooked over a coal-fired grill.
5. Chicken Hearts
Feeling daring? Why not bite down on a chicken heart? No part of the animal goes to waste, including livers, intestines, stomachs, heads, and hearts. Try them skewered, fried or barbecued.
6. Duck Tongues
So the hearts weren’t adventurous enough? How about a duck tongue? It’s considered a fatty delicacy, and comes deep-fried on a stick. Watch out for the numerous bones inside.
7. Beef Noodles
I’ve saved the best for last. If there’s one thing you can’t leave Taiwan without trying, it’s beef noodles. Taiwan’s national dish, there is even an annual beef noodle competition where chefs compete to create the most scrumptious variation. Each restaurant has its own recipe, so try it again and again!
There are over 100 night markets in Taiwan, but these are some of the better-known ones to try:
1. Shihlin Night Market: One of Taiwan’s most famous and largest night markets. Be on the look out for fried chicken, dumplings, sausages, oyster omelets, stinky tofu, and pearl milk tea—all the classics.
2. Keelung Night Market: Its location near the sea makes this a great place to try fresh and local seafood.
3. Liouhe Night Market: Located in Kaohsiung, this is southern Taiwan’s most famous market, boasting stall after stall of food, games, and retail.
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Casey Siemasko, the Taiwan Editor for Wandering Educators, is a freelance writer, blogger, and avid traveler. She finds her life inspiration by exploring new places and meeting new people, and seeks to find magic in the most ordinary of places. When she's off the computer, she enjoys practicing yoga, training for marathons and scuba diving. Somewhere in there she also found time to write an eBook, 101 Tips to Living in Taiwan. She and her husband comprise the two lovebirds and digital nomads documenting their travel musings at http://acruisingcouple.com
All photos courtesy and copyright Casey Siemasko