Taiwan, Part One: Night Markets and Street Food

1 Aug

Taiwan has to be one of the most food-centric places I’ve visited…and that list includes Japan, Hong Kong, and of course Malaysia, so that’s saying something. I ate so many crazy things on this weekend trip that I have to split it into three posts!

The edible wonders of Taipei’s streets: fruit for juicing; squid on the grill; a Taiwanese pasty; various chicken bits; fresh waffles; sausages

You can’t talk about food in Taiwan without talking about street food. Taiwan’s night markets are famous around the world, and the most well-known, Shihlin Night Market, even has an eponymous chain in Malaysia.

The craziness of Shihlin Night Market on a Saturday

The atmosphere at SNM is part tourist trap, part glutton’s paradise. Like street food everywhere, there’s a lot of starch and meat (preferably pork), usually deep-fried, and there’s an emphasis on novelty foods: I saw one stall with an extra-long queue selling deep-fried musubi (Japanese rice balls) with cheese. Another popular item was a sort of filled waffle, which came in a mind-boggling array of shapes — everything from SpongeBob SquarePants to this very NSFW version (which I’m linking to rather than posting, because my mom reads this blog, too).  There’s also a basement food court if you prefer your claustrophobia served with a side of air-conditioning and seats. (It’s really hard to dine on an oyster omelet while walking.)

In no particular order, my favorite things from the street were:

1) Black sausage

The black sausage lady strikes a pose

Taiwan is apparently Asia’s sausage capital. There are as many varieties as Germany has wursts. We picked up a black sausage (real name unknown) on our way to the night market, presumably flavored by the same source as other kinds of black sausage (i.e. blood), although this being Asia, it might have been charcoal. (Charcoal is an oddly popular flavoring here, popping up in everything from bread to macaroons.) Like the foot-long sausage we ate later in the night, it was quite garlicky, even more so when consumed with the slivers of raw garlic that it was served with. (Note: Taiwanese sausage is not ideal date food.)

2) Green onion pancake

Griddling the pancakes

Sometimes called green onion mochi, this is like a dense, chewy cross between a pancake and a bun. Even better deep-fried, according to a friend.

3) Oyster omelet

Oyster Omelet

We had something similar to this in Penang. It’s a little fluffier than an omelet, thanks to the addition of tapioca flour; in Taiwan, it’s topped with a sweet-and-sour sauce.

4) Whelks steamed with ginger and soy sauce

They’re better when you don’t think of them as snails

Whelks are a kind of sea snail. (It sounds so much more edible when you call it a whelk, doesn’t it? Did you know conchs and abalones are also sea snails?) I think Tom was dubious when I ordered these, but they turned out to be the hit of the evening; imagine a meatier version of clams. The hard part was digging them out of the shell — you have to spear the flesh with a skewer, and then pull it out without breaking — but we got the hang of it pretty well.

5) Bubble tea

The ubiquitous and inevitable bubble tea

You know I had to get bubble tea — it was invented in Taiwan, after all. For SOK readers who haven’t been to a pan-Asian restaurant lately, bubble tea (also called pearl tea), originally, is sweetened milk tea with tapioca “pearls” or “bubbles.” The fad spawned all sorts of variations, including bubble fruit juices, tea with jelly, and even a strawberry smoothie thing with “pudding.” (It wasn’t very good.) Interestingly, in Taiwan they stick to the original; when I tried to order an avocado juice with pearls with my extremely limited Mandarin (OK, it was just a lot of pointing), the people looked confused, and I just ended up with an avocado smoothie. Still, I have to say that the bubble tea in Taiwan is the best I’ve had, with good, strong tea and chewy-but-not-tough “bubbles.”

More crazy foodstuffs to follow, including dumplings and Taiwan’s famous stinky tofu!

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