A hungry traveller embarks on a neverending buffet of Taiwanese delights that make for an adventure good for both the tummy and the soul.
Words: Ellyse Ng Photography: Adam Lee
“Come in, come in! If it’s not delicious, you don’t have to pay!” The skin on her face was as thin as paper, but her toothy smile made her look years younger – a sign of confidence that her food was definitely not a reflection of the humble surroundings. To love Taiwan is to love its food. Standing in the basement of Shilin Night Market, amidst the pungent stench of stinky tofu and loud yells of competitive vendors, I was truly loving it.
Merging traditional cultures with authentic flavours, a trip to Taipei is literally fulfilling. Beyond Taipei 101 and bustling night markets, the city is bursting with international flavours and authentic Taiwanese food. Armed with guts of steel and an insatiable appetite, this hungry traveller set out with a determined list of food to devour, restaurants to visit and food stalls to systematically assault.
Taiwan’s night markets are legendary, but a true foodie knows that the main reason to visit Shilin Night Market is for its famous food scene. In this food centre, a plethora of culinary delights vie for your palate’s attention, with signature local offerings seductively tempting you to come taste and rejoice in this brightly lit basement.
Recalling my editor’s instructions (nay, instructed!) to sample the infamous stinky tofu, I gallantly ordered a double portion. When the plate was plonked in front of me, I bravely took a tentative bite of the harmless looking morsel. Lo and behold, the acrid smell filled my nostrils and my gag reflex kicked into high gear. For a split second, I wanted to spit the tofu out, hoping it would turn into a dangerous projectile and splatter on the cook’s face who dared put me through this ordeal. But, mind you, decorum prevailed as I was well educated in the genteel aspects of table etiquette. With an unflinching smile, I timidly pushed the remaining portion to my friend who seemed to have no qualms eating something that tasted and smelled like a wet and stinky sock. Definitely not my cup of tea, I protested. Despite my attempts at drowning the lingering aftertaste with bucketsful of flavoured bubble tea, I couldn’t get rid of the taste and my mouth smelt like… a sewer. But most importantly, I consoled myself; I had given it a shot and lived to tell.
Mercifully, the other local dishes were utterly delightful! Shilin Night Market proved to be a mecca of delectable offerings. Just about every imaginable street food is available here, from deep-fried crabs to Taiwanese sausages, and even the strange-looking Frog Eggs (青蛙下蛋) drink, which are actually dark tapioca balls with the most unpleasant name ever. Instead, Shilin is where you’ll find the local populace hanging out. One never, ever goes to bed hungry in this street in Taipei.
My guide and friend, Xiao Ling, shook me awake. It was barely 7.00am. “Quick, it’s time for breakfast”. I drowsily put on some mismatched clothing and dragged my feet out of the hotel. Sitting at a small eatery 10 minutes later, I stared at the bowl of soy milk and crisp Chinese crullers sitting nonchalantly on top. The simplicity of the meal was absurd for such a rude awakening so early in the morning. “It’s called yu tiao”, Xiao Ling exclaimed enthusiastically at the long piece of fried dough, before attacking it with gusto. Mimicking her, I dipped the tip of the yu tiao into the warm milk and took a huge bite. The explosion of soft dough and crispy shell soaking up the rich milk was a strange but nonetheless delicious experience. I turned and gave Xiao Ling a knowing look, as if to say: “Now I know why you risked your life and limb dragging sleepy me out so early in the morning.”
I later learnt that the yu tiao / soy milk combo is a common sight in many East Asian countries, but the Taiwanese have taken it up a notch with a lightly salted, crisp yu tiao that’s served with the creamiest soy milk I’ve ever tasted. I also sampled fan tuan, a plain rice roll – too plain for my taste – and dan bing rou song (rice rolls stuffed with chicken floss and egg).