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A Culinary Journey Through Taiwan’s Night Markets

Published: March 6, 2023
Across Taiwan's scrumptious night markets, you can expect to find all kinds of delicacies and snacks, such as cuts of meats that are sliced and boiled, roasted chicken or goose, steamed or fried buns, deep-fried or grilled cuttlefish, oyster omelettes, fluffy pastries, and stinky tofu. (Image: Manos Angelakis/Luxury Web)

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In Asian cuisine, freshness is key. Whether the cook practices his or her craft at home, in restaurants, or in night-market stalls, you can expect each dish to be made with fresh, quality ingredients and sauces.

“Night market” is the name given to open-air areas in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singapore, housing numerous stalls that sell a variety of inexpensive but tasty food.

In ancient China, markets that operated at night were known as “ghost markets.”

In Malaysia and Singapore, night markets are now commonly referred to as “pasar malam,” which literally means evening market — “pasar” being related to “bazaar,” a Persian word meaning “marketplace.”

A national pastime

Eating is a national pastime in Taiwan. Food courts appear at practically every highway stop, and inside basements of many large buildings. For the tastiest local food though, head to the night market. There’s quite a number of them in Taipei, and they all offer quality and variety for little money.

Grilled squid is a delicacy in Asia and is typically enjoyed with a dipping sauce such as garlic soy sauce or chili oil. (Image: Manos Angelakis/Luxury Web)

Foods can range from spicy to bland, steamed to deep-fried, and the list goes on.

Night markets in Taipei are street markets that operate in urban or suburban areas. A few, such as Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market, also known as Snake Alley, utilize purpose-built structures but most occupy either sidewalks or entire streets that would be normal thoroughfares by day.

The atmosphere is crowded and noisy, especially during traditional holidays.

The night markets have become famous for their xiaochi, which roughly translates to “small eats,” or finger foods.

Cooked in small portions, these dishes are often taken as carry-out items, but numerous sellers provide folding tables with stools or folding chairs where customers can stop and consume their purchases. Though some of the “xiaochi” will change from year to year, certain others such as sliced, boiled, or roasted chicken or goose, steamed or fried buns, deep-fried or grilled cuttlefish, oyster omelets, and stinky tofu have become beloved staples in many night markets across the island nation.

Cuts of meats that are sliced and boiled are served with savory sauces, alongside roasted chicken or goose, steamed or fried buns, deep-fried or grilled cuttlefish, oyster omelletes, and stinky tofu have become staples in many night markets across Taiwan. (Image: Manos Angelakis/Luxury Web)

The Shilin Night Market first opened in 1899 and is centered on the Yangming Theater in the Shilin District of Taipei. It is considered to be the largest and most famous night market in the city. The market encompasses two distinct sections sharing a symbiotic relationship: a section formerly housed in the old Market Building contains mostly food vendors and small eateries. The surrounding businesses and shops are selling other items. The food court holds 530 stalls, and the second floor serves as a parking lot for cars.

The night market we visited on my trip was the Ning Xia Night Market. The first half of the market is dedicated to eating establishments and is the most crowded part, while the other half is for clothing and shoes. The food part has cooking stalls in the buildings on both sides of the street, plus free-standing ones occupying the center of the street.

Oyster omelettes, known as o-chien in Chinese, are a delicacy in Taiwan and consists of a savory filling made up of oysters. A starch (typically sweet potato) is mixed into the egg batter to give the resulting egg wrap a thick and fluffy consistency. (Image: Manos Angelakis/Luxury Web)

No trip to a night market would be complete without a bowl of oyster noodles. Fresh oysters are added to noodles and broth thickened with starch, then served with stewed sausage, Zhenjiang vinegar and a sauce, topped with cilantro.

Another very popular item, an oyster omelet, is made from fresh oysters coated in potato or sweet potato starch and fried in a wok or a flat-top grill with eggs and onions, then served with a sweet and sour sauce.

Stinky tofu is fermented tofu squares – the stinkier, the better the taste is supposed to be. It’s deep-fried and served with pickled cabbage, carrots, and chili sauce.

Another staple consists of picking different cuts of meats such as chicken, squid, slices of beef, fish tofu, etc, that is cooked in a rich, savory broth to be enjoyed similar to a hot pot meal. (Image: Manos Angelakis/Luxury Web)

Chicken broth with hacked steamed chicken, gizzards, chicken livers, and rooster testicles is quite popular, and can be served by itself or with a side of noodles.

Large squid and cuttlefish, grilled or deep fried, are also very popular, and strips or tentacles of the grilled mollusks are sold in paper bags — conveniently wrapped up to be consumed while walking around the market.

For dessert, pineapple cake is very popular. The bite-sized morsels in a crumbly shell contain sweetened, pressed pineapple and are a delight to have after a hefty meal. Every bakery stall offers its own unique version.

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