Most countries have a dining experience that is unique and quintessential to their culture. In the USA, it is traditional American diner, in the UK, a pub, and in Taiwan it is, without a doubt, the night market.
But while such traditional eating experiences can lose local significance as tourism industries begin taking them over, in Taiwan the night markets are still as essential to young local people as they are a must-see for people visiting the country.
This was highlighted in a recent BBC Online article about the culture of night markets and the social acceptability of late-night dining in Taiwan.
The article, which is well worth a read, touches on the long hours put in by most Taiwanese people, as well as the absence of a significant drinking culture, as a reason behind the attraction of night markets.
It also focuses on the main reason people tend to visit night markets: the amazing food. A Taiwanese night market is, according to the BBC “a foodie’s final resting place,” and they aren’t far wrong.
As with most articles penned by visitors to Taiwan, the focus of this one falls squarely on the dish for which Taiwan’s night markets are most famous: stinky tofu. This is certainly something every visitor to a night market should try at least one, but there is no denying it is (lets be polite) “an acquired taste.”
So, amidst the blur of noise, lights, smoke, and smells, what other dishes should you be seeking out at a night market. In this article, we have pulled together our list of the top five night market delicacies. If you have other suggestions, share it with us on our Facebook or Twitter pages?
5. Taiwanese Fried Chicken - 鹹酥雞
Image Credit: Flickr user - Falchion
If you are a fan of KFC or western fried foods, you might want to steer clear of this dish, simply because, once you have tried Taiwanese Fried Chicken, no other fried chicken will ever taste the same again.
You might be wondering what the difference is. After all, it is only a bit of chicken that has been fried in breadcrumbs. But, the Taiwanese fried chicken stalls are adding liberal amounts of their selected herbs and spices, as well as using sweet potato flour for their batter.
Mixes will differ from stall to stall, and no two Taiwanese fried chicken outlets will taste quite the same. Nevertheless, that is a key part in enjoying the fun of it. You can usually choose between which bits of chicken you would like, with popcorn chicken especially popular at the moment.
If you happen to find yourself at a proper fried food stall, there is likely to be a whole host of other deep-fried delicacies available too. Squid is always a good bet as are fish cakes（黑輪片）and sweet potato chips（地瓜薯條）, but the Taiwanese Fried Chicken remains the staple, and is always the most popular dish.
- Red Bean Pancake - 紅豆餅
Image Credit: Yellow Tin
Westerners often find the use of beans as a sweet desert a little unusual, but there is no denying that it works. Red beans are the most popular and are served with shaved ice, rice balls (湯圓), and Douhua (豆花). But if you pass outside a school at the end of the day, the chances are good that you will see an enterprising local person selling pancakes filled with red bean, sesame, peanuts, custard, and sometimes even chocolate and other sweet fillings, too.
Of these, the red bean pancake is the most quintessential Taiwanese treat. Generations of Taiwanese kids have grown up on these snacks, and that is why they are as popular in night markets these days as they are at the school gates.
They are made of pancake mix containing a red bean purée filling and are cooked in special cast iron pans. Outside schools, these pans are sometimes shaped like cartoon characters, but in the night market you are more likely to get a simple round cake.
It is fascinating to watch the stallholder spinning the pan to spread the batter around, and see the pancakes being picked out piping hot. When you bite into your first one, you will wonder why red bean hasn’t become more popular as a sweet dessert in the rest of the world. The treat is real taste of Taiwanese childhood.
3. Gua Bao - 刈包
Image Credit: Wikimedia
Gua Bao, or “Taiwanese hamburgers” as they are increasingly becoming known, are growing in popularity around the world. Gua Bao stalls can be found in many middle-class food markets in Europe and the USA, and there are even restaurants beginning to crop up around the world that are exclusively dedicated to them.
The truth is that nothing beats a night market Gua Bao. A proper Gua Bao consists of a steamed bun filled with slow-cooked pork belly and peanut powder mixed with sugar. It is often also accompanied by fried suan cai (pickled mustard greens), and fresh coriander.
The name “Taiwanese hamburger” could lead some people to assume a Gua Bao is similar to the sort of burger you get in a McDonalds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gua Bao’s are packed with a succulent flavor and texture, and will always leave you wanting more. Moreover, and like the fried chicken, no two Gua Bao are quite the same; every new one is an adventure.
2. Taiwanese BBQ - 燒烤
Image Credit: Yao Jia Food
If you are celebrating Moon Festival with Taiwanese people, the chances are you will be eating plenty of Taiwanese Barbeque with them. However, if you visit the night markets, then you can sample these delicacies all year round.
It is fairly simple to make. A BBQ stall will consist of a selection of meat, fish, vegetables, tofu, and other products. Choose what you want and the stallholder will then slap your choice onto their special barbeque and grill it for you.
The key to good Taiwanese BBQ is the sauce. This will be different at every stall, but will usually consist of soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and a unique combination of herbs and spices. The precise ingredients are usually a closely guarded secret, especially if it is a really tasty concoction.
There are some distinctly average Taiwanese BBQ stalls. If this is all you have tried, then you may wonder what all the fuss is about. But, find a good one, and you will be returning every night of the week.
- Oyster Pancakes- 蚵仔煎
Image Credit: Wikimedia
Some visitors might shy away from the Oyster Pancake stall fearing the possible effect this treacherous shellfish may pose to their digestive system when cooked on a street food stall. Yet, the queue of locals you are almost bound to see should quell any concerns you may have.
Taiwanese oyster pancakes are unique and tend to vary a lot from the similar dish that can be found in southern provinces of China. In Taiwan, they consist of a batter that is usually thickened with potato starch to give an almost glutinous consistency. To this is added a liberal smattering of small oysters which should be spread fairly evenly throughout.
They are not finger foods, not least because they are usually served in a savory sweet or spicy sauce. They are delicious and well worth the dribble of sauce you will inevitably get down your front after someone bumps into you while you are eating. Oyster pancakes are a quintessential Taiwanese dish that doesn’t give off an unholy smell. As such, they are an essential night market dish.