One of my favorite people from my training group was from New York City, but her family was Taiwanese and lived in Taiwan. In addition to just being awesome, she was also kind enough to help me and the other trainees get to know Taipei. It was definitely nice to have someone who knew how to speak Mandarin and was familiar with the city. Early on during training we all took a trip to one of the most quintessentially Taiwanese places, a night market, with my friend as our guide.
Night markets are a major part of Taiwanese culture, and one of the things that really stands out as unique about the country. Almost every city has a night market, but some are more famous than others. They are a series of streets and roads that are lined with myriad shops selling a million things. Some stores are just rollaway stands while others have dedicated real estate in the buildings, but almost all of them are quite small.
Most of the stands sell food, including everything from ice cream to chicken feet. Some appeal to standard American tastes with things like Korean fried chicken or loaded baked potatoes, and some are for broader palates (or people used to Taiwanese food), like blood cakes and chicken gizzards. Outside of food, the stores sell clothing, cell phone cases, video games, candy, toys, jewelry, and many, many other random things.
The particular night market we went to in Taipei is one of the most famous ones in the country, called Shilin Night Market. This being our first night market experience, there were two big shocks to the system. First of all, it is CROWDED! Squished like sardines against your neighbors, you are funneled along the streets, trying desperately to decipher the hundreds of stores in front of you to catch something you might like. Then you have to wriggle your way free in order to buy something. It’s chaotic and fun, but definitely not for agoraphobic people! It’s easy to miss something you might enjoy, especially when you don’t speak the language and it takes you longer to figure out what a store is offering. I constantly felt like I was in the way, but eventually I learned to stop caring because no one else does.
The second shock comes when you innocently wander into the smell radius of an infamous Taiwanese food: stinky tofu! (Dun dun dun!) Stinky tofu is fermented tofu, sometimes stewed, sometimes fried. The story I heard was that a tofu stall owner forgot to put away his tofu and it had fermented, stinking terribly. Loath to let the food go to waste, he added salt and pepper and ate it anyway. He discovered that the fermentation had given the tofu a delicious flavor, despite the horrible smell. So he sold it to others and a national dish was born. Don’t underestimate the smell! It really is an attack on your nose. A trainee friend started gagging. I tried to be polite by not holding my nose, but it was really awful, and I wasn’t very successful. The best comparison I can give is that is smells like sweaty gym socks stewed in vomit. That smell covers a five block circle. Foreigners gag, Taiwanese come running! Yummy! Apparently the tofu is supposed to be delicious, and the fried version is reportedly less stinky, so if you visit Taiwan and are brave, give it a shot. I never managed to open my mouth long enough to dare a bite. I actually regret not trying it.
I definitely recommend any night market in Taiwan, but especially the Shilin night market, which is the biggest. They generally pick up around seven and go late into the night. Bring walking shoes and brace yourself for the jostling. Keep an eye on your belongings, but I never got robbed. In general, it’s not likely to happen, but it’s still a good idea to be mindful in such close quarters. Most importantly, have fun, and don’t worry about being in the way if you spot something deliciously tempting 10 people away from you.