Taipei Night Market Culture
Taiwan was never somewhere we’d considered going.
We knew very little about it, didn’t know anyone who’d been, and frankly, didn’t give it a second thought when it came to travel planning. Until that is, a few months ago. Catching up with some fellow teachers in Korea, Taiwan came up in conversation, and stories of Taipei night market culture were told with unbound enthusiasm. The resounding chorus was abundantly clear: AMAZING FOOD. And with that, our curiosity was piqued.
Months rolled on and Taiwan lingered in our minds. We still knew precious little of the country other than the tales of food nirvana we’d been told, but, when the opportunity for a quick trip arose, it was enough to have us eagerly booking flights.
Would it live up to its reputation? Would the food really be that good?
Why, yes. Yes it would.
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AN INTEGRAL PART OF TAIWANESE CULTURE
Night markets have a long history in this part of the world. This is no more evident than in Taipei night market culture. Taiwan’s capital has a staggering number of night markets, ranging from small local affairs to huge and sprawling ones. They are busy, bustling places full of incredible smells, sights and sounds.
Taipei night markets started small and grew from there. They often sprung up close to temples and other places where people gathered. Popular among migrant workers in the 1950’s and 60’s, they were places where people could socialise and eat cheaply. Market stalls and small ‘hole in the wall’ type restaurants sold xiaochi foods (small eats), specialising in just one or two things.
Soon, the night markets attracted the city’s elite and their popularity continued to grow. As the decades rolled on and Taiwan’s economy developed, they became centres of popular culture, all the while remaining true to their humble origins.
Doubt you would have seen these back in the day
TAIPEI NIGHT MARKETS TODAY
The markets of today are a fascinating insight into the city. Starting from late afternoon, they continue till the early hours. Some are under cover, while others occupy the streets. Huge throngs wind their way slowly through these streets and lanes, stopping to sample a seemingly endless array of different food from carts, stalls and small restaurants, standing while they eat, perching on plastic chairs, or finding space on a temple’s stone steps. Smoke rises and rich smells drift by, sometimes tantalizing, other times overpowering. A festival atmosphere fills the air, a hubbub of human voices and laughter; Taipei night markets are social places, woven into the fabric of the city’s nightlife.
And there’s not just food. Shops and stalls selling clothes, shoes, bags and various trinkets abound. Shoes, sat on display under fluorescent lights, are individually wrapped in plastic, protecting their fresh fabric from smoke and insidious smells – no one wants their brand new shoes smelling of stinky tofu!
There are games too. Shooting balloons or spinning targets with plastic toy guns, or throwing hoops, it’s reminiscent of a visit to a carnival before the advent of big rides, when people would have fun with simple games.
The list goes on. You can get your fortune told, have a massage, indulge in a spot of scratchcard gambling or even shrimp fishing.
Put simply, a trip to Taiwan wouldn’t be complete without visiting at least one Taipei night market.
Wandering the streets near Shilin Night Market, Shilin Cixian Temple appears out of nowhere
TIME TO EAT
We love markets, but market food isn’t always appealing. Trying food is one of the most exciting parts of visiting any country, but for us, eating things based on their smelliness, ugliness, weirdness or notoriety, isn’t really a motivating factor. Fortunately, while there’s no shortage of food extremes at a Taipei night market, there’s a plentiful supply of cheap and delicious eats too – which kept us very happy.
Taipei night market food is hugely varied, a combination of many influences, from native Taiwanese to Chinese, Japanese and even further afield. The result is a fascinating blend of styles, tastes and smells. While you’ll find most things at all markets, some are considered specialties of a particular market. Shilin is famed for its stinky tofu, Raohe for its pork bone soup, Ningxia for its oyster and egg omelets, and Huaxi for its snakes.
Spoilt For Choice
Here’s the thing. Even if you spend an entire evening at one of the Taipei night markets, you can’t eat everything. Just go, enjoy the atmosphere, and try whatever takes your fancy. If you’re one of those adventurous food types who likes to seriously challenge your taste buds, then a Taipei night market is the place for you. If on the other hand you prefer to play it a little more safe, while still eating decidedly delicious food, there’s still more choices than you can possibly make. Saying that, here are a few things we really enjoyed, and think that you would too.
Pork Pepper Buns (Hu Jiao Bing)
These buns are a real treat. Marinated pork is mixed with chopped green onions and black pepper, then wrapped in thin dough. The dough is sealed, sprinkled with sesame seeds and cooked in a cylindrical, high-heat oven. The finished bun has a browned, crispy, crunchy shell, and piping hot, soft and juicy meat on the inside.
Originating from Fuzhou in China, they are famously sold at Fuzhou Shi Zu Pepper Buns just inside the entrance to Raohe St. Night Market. We started at the other end of this 600m long market, so by the time we reached this stall we were well and truly stuffed. Not to worry, we didn’t miss out; they have a stall on the street at the Shilin Night Market and we’d sampled it not once, but twice the night the before. They are one of the cheapest things you can buy at just 55 TWD.
Green Onion Pancake
This was a tasty delight that kept us going and going at Raohe St. Night Market. Everytime I thought it was finished, Kim produced yet another piece from the brown paper bag. A cross between Indian roti and Korean pajeon, this savoury pancake was cooked to order on the hot plate in front of us. It was perfect to snack on from the bag as we made our way from stall to stall, sampling other smaller morsels as we went. Again, it was cheap at just 50 TWD.
Freshly cooked Green Onion Pancake
This Japanese influenced sweet snack was one of our Taipei night market favourites. Made from glutinous rice, when barbecued on the grill, mochi takes on a deliciously gooey texture. Delivered to you in a small paper tray and drizzled with a sauce of your choosing, this rice cake snack is heavenly. We hit up one lady’s stall twice on the outskirts of Shilin Night Market, on our way in, and out. And at Raohe, we stopped at the ‘Mochi Man’ on our way up the street, and crossed over especially on our way back down. The first one at Shilin was savoury: teriyaki sauce with seaweed sprinkles. After that it was sweet all the way: brown sugar, honey, peanut, strawberry and red bean. Yes, we ate a lot of mochi. Again, great value at 35 TWD for one or 100 TWD for three.
Peanut Brittle Ice Cream Spring Roll
Another sweet treat that you simply shouldn’t miss. This was something we’d first spotted in Jiufen, Shifen and Pingxi on our day trip from Taipei. Watching the workers vigorously shaving piles of fine pieces from the solid peanut block was a pleasure in itself. Unfortunately, every time we saw it, we already had food in hand. We finally tried it at Raohe Night Market. The woman working at the stall had a more languid style than the others we’d seen, so we had a little bit to wait, but oh boy was it worth it.
Shaving off peanut brittle
Laid out on a thin wrap, the sugary peanut shavings were accompanied by scattered sprigs of coriander and topped with three small dollops of ice cream. Wrapped up, it looked just like a spring roll. Or maybe a small burrito? The combination of flavours and textures were unbelievably good, and the sugar rush was the perfect boost for some more night market meandering. Another bargain at 50 TWD.
And The Rest
Aside from the above notables, we stuffed ourselves with so many scrumptious servings of delightfulness that we could go on and on. From scallions wrapped in bacon to deep fried squid and mushrooms, pretty much everything we tried was tasty and extremely affordable. The only thing we weren’t keen on was the barbecued squid we tried; a bit tough for our liking, and the powdered spices sprinkled on top didn’t do it any favours, but maybe we just got a bad one! Between the two of us, we ate our fill at the Taipei night markets for less than 500 TWD, eating multiple snacks over several hours. Indeed, over the course of our three day trip to Taiwan, we only sat down to eat twice, and were genuinely surprised at how little we spent given the food we’d eaten.
WHAT TO EXPECT
So how how best to navigate a Taipei night market?
Take it slow
These markets are busy places, packed full of locals with a healthy sprinkling of tourists. Don’t expect to get anywhere fast. Settle into the flow and rhythm of the crowd, take your time, and allow yourself a few hours to properly explore and eat your way through what the market has to offer.
You won’t be going anywhere fast in these crowds
Don’t arrive empty stomached
Be prepared to eat but don’t arrive starving after a busy day’s sightseeing. Have a little something in the belly to keep you going till you get your first bite. You don’t want to be hangry while working your way through the crowds or waiting in line.
Keep a beady eye out for long lines
Look for any long lines of people waiting. The locals know where’s good, and a substantial queue at a night market generally means only one thing – fantastic food. If the line’s not moving, don’t stress. It’s normal for vendors to cook a batch of whatever they’re making, then sell it quickly till it’s gone.
It takes time to bake those perfect Pork Pepper Buns, so be patient! Enjoy watching them being prepared while you wait
Eat on the move
Depending on where you are, there may be nowhere to sit. Some stalls have seating, and some markets have more seating areas than others, but be prepared to eat on the move. It’s all part of the night market experience. Grab yourself a fresh fruit juice, bubble tea or sweet snack to keep those sugar levels high.
Wander till you’re hungry again
If you find yourself full, but there’s still more you want to eat, don’t worry. Just wander for a bit, soak up the atmosphere, and when you’re ready, keep sampling.
With so many night markets around the city, how do you decide where to go? If you are going to be in Taipei for an extended period, well then, lucky you. But if like us, you only have a few days, here’s the lowdown on the best night markets to get your teeth into.
Shilin Night Market
Shilin is the big beast of Taipei night markets, generally considered to be the oldest and most famous of the lot. The original market began in 1913, although it moved to its current spot in 2002. Located in Shilin District, it’s close to the MRT’s red line.
As you enter from the street, the market’s main building is full of games, clothing, bedding, accessories, trinkets, and general random market stuff. In the basement, a large, brightly lit food hall has an abundance of restaurants selling a huge variety of food, much of it seafood. Here, you can sit on plastic chairs at metal tables in the canteen like surroundings, and grab a beer with your grub.
The basement food hall at Shilin Night Market
While the indoor food hall has a lot to offer, we preferred the atmosphere of the tightly packed, narrow streets outside, where market stalls sprawl beyond the central building, past temples, restaurants and many shops. Sure, there’s less chance of a seat, but being out under the night sky, part of the slow-moving crowd, with clouds of smoke burling and rising up from the grills, it felt like this was the genuine Taipei night market experience.
As the biggest and oldest Taipei night market, Shilin should be on your list, but for the best experience, focus on the streets around the main building.
A sit down restaurant with a queue out the door on a busy street approaching Shilin Night Market
Raohe St. Night Market
At the end of the green line in the city’s east, Raohe just shaded it as our favourite Taipei night market. Running straight along a single street for almost 600m, it’s an easy market to navigate. Entirely out in the open, it has that really authentic feel. The market stalls sit back to back down the length of the street, with a path running either side. On the other side of each path are the shops, restaurants and stores that are the permanent features of Raohe Street – there day and night. The market stalls themselves are mostly food stalls, with the odd clothing or dog grooming stall interspersed. Some stalls are just eat and go style, others have plastic tables and chairs rammed into the available space. The best way to experience the market is to start at one entrance, eat your way up one side, and then eat your way back down the other.
While famous for its pork bone soup and pork pepper buns, Raohe St. Night Market has so much choice that there really is something for everyone. We were thoroughly satisfied, but could have tried and eaten so much more if we’d had either bigger bellies or more time.
Ningxia Night Market
Close to Zhongshan MRT station on the green line, Ningxia is a favourite with locals. A little smaller than some others, it’s a long row of mostly food stalls, closely jammed together, and you can comfortably get from one end to the other in an hour. Although famous for its oyster and egg omelettes, like all Taipei night markets, you can find just about everything.
Linjiang St. Night Market
Sometimes called Tonghua Night Market, this is the nearest night market to the city’s No.1 tourist destination: Taipei 101. Although closest to Taipei’s famous building, this market has a reputation as a much more local affair. Expect fewer tourists and more locals.
Huaxi Night market
Started in 1951 as the first night market targeted towards tourists, with signs in English and Japanese, Huaxi is famous for its snakes. Otherwise known as Snake Alley Night Market, you can find it just behind Longshan Temple. Here you can get live snakes straight out the tank, indulge in a shot or two of snake wine, and partake in various other snake-based products. These days though, the snake thing’s not quite as prominent as it used to be, and you can of course find most of the usual popular eats here too.
SO DID THEY LIVE UP TO THE HYPE?
By now the answer should be obvious. Night markets are the way to eat in Taipei. They give you access to an unbelievable range of food, in snack form, so you can try, eat, and eat some more. They have something for every level of adventurousness and give you a fascinating insight into the local culture. What’s more, they’re also an extremely affordable way to eat. In short, Taipei night markets are the perfect distillation of Taiwanese night life and food, and are most certainly not to be missed.