It is a truth universally acknowledged that food just tastes better when it is cooked in a dirty cart, served in the open air and costs next to nothing. All Asian countries do street food pretty well, but according to popular opinion, Taiwan does it better than any one else. It’s a pretty big call, but it is one of the only countries I can think of where food is the no.1 attraction and people visit with no other agenda than to eat.
We traveled to Taiwan in September during the Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday and I was equipped with the usual custom-Google map and daily itinerary but for the first time I’ve traveled, every single thing that I had pinned and planned revolved around food and food only. Whenever I told my husband where we’d be going on a given day, he would ask “What are we going to do there?” and the answer would always be the same: “Eat.”
The trip was so food-centric that it prompted us to have the following exchange.
Matt: You really, really love food don’t you?
Me: Uh, we’ve been together for nine years and you’re realizing this NOW?
Matt: No I always knew you loved food, but now I understand that it is your first and greatest love.
Poor guy probably wishes he knew that before he married me. Oh well, too late now!
Before hitting the famous night markets of Taipei, we did a day trip to Jiufen – a hilly, historic village with sweeping views of the pacific ocean and a famous “old street” full of fascinating things to taste and see. The long but narrow old street was packed with tourists, and unlike a lot of Asian markets where you just see the same things being sold over and over, everywhere we looked there was something different to eat and something different to buy (or in our case, something different to pretend to browse as we found some temporary relief in front of the store’s air conditioner.)
We were starving by the time we arrived so we stopped at one of the first little restaurants that showed off an array of fat, juicy fish balls, in all shapes and colours.
Using the universal language of pointing at a photo menu, we ordered fish bowl soup and braised pork price because they are Taiwanese classics, and also a bean-sprout rice noodle thing because it just looked delicious.
Really simple, street-side food to be enjoyed by locals and hungry travelers alike. I thought the fish balls would have more variety in taste though – are different shape/coloured fish balls meant to taste different or are they like Foot Loops in the sense that they always taste the same regardless of color?
We walked past stinky tofu a couple times and even though it’s one of Taiwan’s most famous dishes I just couldn’t bring myself to try it. I have a real distrust of food that smells bad – I mean, if something smells like butt, how can it possibly taste any good? I feel the same way about Durian. So yeah, big pass on the stinky tofu.
For dessert we bought the famous ice cream crepe:
Topped with shavings from a GIANT block of peanut praline!!!
And sprinkled with the strange and secret ingredient: coriander. Except wait… they didn’t actually give us the coriander!! It all happened so quickly I didn’t even realize they had left out a crucial ingredient until after I’d walked away. Is it usually an optional extra you need to ask for? Or is it because they knew we were Korean and, as experts in Korean tourists, also knew Koreans generally don’t like coriander? I don’t know… but I feel like we were left with something that was not quite the “real thing.” It was still delicious though.
That is Matt’s “Yom Yom” face. (Matt refuses to acknowledge that the correct term is either “Nom Nom” or “Yum Yum” and that “Yom Yom” doesn’t actually exist. Well, it does now only because he invented it and uses it all the time. Don’t think it’s going to catch on though.)
Old Street is LONG, and near the end we were so exhausted and sweaty that we sought refuge in a tea house.
Despite being overpriced and quite tourist trappy, the Jiufen Tea House was actually a very nice experience. The tea was brewed, stirred with a (real sakura blossom!) twig and poured for us, served in beautifully delicate ceramic pourers and cups. And we were able to take home the remaining loose leaf tea that we didn’t drink.
The place is also a ceramic art gallery. Sigh.. hand made ceramics always make me swoony.
We enjoyed our little tea ceremony… but then ten metres down the road turned out to be the end of the Old Street and the start of a row of cafes lining the cliff face and facing the ocean. Alas, we couldn’t justify another tea break so we just took photos.
After a long nap back at our hotel, we ventured out to the famous Shilin Night Market. There’s several night markets in Taipei, but my Taiwanese friend advised me that I only needed to go to Shillin – it’s the biggest and has EVERYTHING I could possibly want to eat.
First stop, where else but HOT STAR CHICKEN!!
I waited in the fast-moving line while Matt went to a nearby fruit cart to get some juice for us.
He came back a few minutes later with two plastic bags FULL of huge mango and melon pieces and a look a deep, deep shame.
“Babe, the lady took advantage of me”
Poor thing just want a small cup, but got bullied into buying two whole bags of tropical fruit.
“It happened so fast and I didn’t know what to do I was so frazzled!”
“How much was it?”
“…. 600 dollars”
600 TWD equals about 20 bucks which is WAY MORE than you should pay for ANYTHING in a Taiwanese market. I felt so dirty about it but Matt already looked like he wanted to cry or punch something so I held in my rage.
Luckily, we had a giant, crunchy, deep-fried, piece of chicken in our hands to ease the pain …. and oh, what sweet sweet medicine it was. Maybe I was just hungry, but I took one bite and announced “This is the best fried chicken I’ve had in my life!!”
So crispy! So juicy! So substantial! So perfectly spiced with garlic and chilli salt! We needed to save room for other types of street food, but I held onto my Hot Star and took bites out of it at regular intervals throughout the night.
We browsed through the market, played some arcade games, won a plastic Doraemon, and then lined up again for the famous “little sausage in big sausage” (I am told the name of this street delicacy sounds a lot less silly in Mandarin).
I couldn’t think of a better way to “Asianize” the classic American hot dog – this is a Chinese pork sausage wrapped in a glutinous rice sausage, topped with your chosen condiments. Nothing like anything I’ve ever tasted before and just an explosion of salty sweetness with each bite.
Then we tried some giant Ba Wan pork dumpling. The way they make this is quite fascinating. Balls of red pork meat are covered in a batter that looks something like white plaster, and then steamed, which turns the dough translucent.
I’m not sure if I like my dumplings as sloppy as this… but it’s definitely unique and worth trying.
Aaaannddddd…. that’s it. Yes, we only ate three things at Shilin Market … don’t judge me! We were tired and overheated and still had the dirty taste of 600 TWD spent on fruit pieces in our mouths. But don’t worry okay? Taiwan is only a two hour flight from Seoul and with so many things left uneaten, I would love to go back!