It’s a little after 7pm in Taipei as commuters, weary from a long day in the office blocks of the city centre, file into the famed Shilin Night Markets for post-work sustenance. This is a nightly affair as many commuting office workers like to stop in at the city’s myriad of evening food markets for a snack with friends. For the lucky souls who live on the Tamsui or red line of the MRT network, that means the warren of lanes and stalls that make up Shilin, Taiwan’s most famous night market.
Shilin is a must visit for Taipei bound travellers, not only because of the neon-bathed streets, carnival atmosphere and great bites to be had, but because it’s a fascinating cross-section of Taiwan’s abundant, and unique culinary landscape. First opened in 1913, Shilin is the country’s largest night market, and a treasure trove of Taiwanese delicacies can be found in its hundreds of stalls and tiny eateries, including “stinky” tofu, delicate oyster omelettes, fried pork buns, lemon jelly and that most popular of Taiwanese culinary exports, pearl milk tea.
What makes Taiwanese food such a massive drawcard for travellers is its origins. When Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces lost the Chinese civil war to Mao’s communist army, the soldiers, their families and supporters retreated to the island of Taiwan, known by its former Portuguese occupiers as Formosa. They brought with them the ingredients and culinary traditions of all of China’s different provinces, particularly those of mid and southern China like Fujian, Guangdong and Shanghai. Like an ancient recipe, these different culinary styles were blended together, enhanced by the dishes of Taiwan’s Hakka aboriginals and the subtle but distinctive influences of Japan, another former island master, to create a new fusion cuisine.
“There is something so unique about Taiwanese cuisine,” says Julia Chu, an economics student I meet at Shilin waiting in line for a heaped takeaway cup of mango snowy ice, a decadent mountain of shaved milk ice covered in mango and condensed milk. “We’re always eating, and when we’re not we’re discussing what we last had and planning for the next snack. Food seems to be in our blood!”
Food punctuates every level of Taiwanese society; it’s an impromptu religion, a hobby, an art form, a social occasion, a wealth declaration and everything in between. You’re as likely to see celebrities perched over steaming bowls of iconic beef noodle soup as you are to find them in fine dining restaurants, and chefs boast star status across the island nation.
Taipei is the melting pot of Taiwan’s culinary culture; here you can find everything from delicate steamed dumplings and fluffy gua bao pork belly and pickled cabbage “hamburgers” served by wizened grandmothers at busy intersections, right through to zesty bowls of danzai noodles laced with the Taiwanese staples of sesame oil, soy sauce, peanuts, coriander and fermented black beans. Dishes like the flaky scallion pancakes of the Shida market, the juicy pork pepper cakes of the Raohe markets, or the bawan mega dumplings served at the iconic Tonghua Bawan restaurant in Da’An District, have a cult following.
Time strapped travellers will love Taiwanese xiaochi, tapas-like dishes that are perfect for punters on the run. These tiny dishes are on the cutting edge of imbuing Taiwanese cuisine with foreign influences from across Asia and beyond, and offer a contemporary insight into the region’s most prolific foodscape. Despite their street stall origins (they dominate the stalls of most night markets), you can now find gourmet xiaochi dishes in proper restaurants across the country, but there is nothing like grazing at the markets, joining the locals, and eating your way across the country. After all, when in Rome…