I’m not quite sure what hits me first, the sound of the hawkers shouting out their comestible wares or the smell of the cooking — an aromatic mix of sesame, spices, soy, rice wine, frying oil and grilling meat. The stalls of Taipei’s Ning Xia night market are at once bedlam and a joy.
Above the tightly squeezed crowd, clouds of smoke and steam drift over brightly-lit stalls offering glossy, roasted duck heads; and necks, intestines and hearts of every conceivable nature; piping hot bowls of noodles and fresh dumplings.
Taiwan has the best night market scene in the world, as well as some of the finest street food. I’ve come to this island in search of fried chicken (lushly marinated in soya milk then spiced and floured), gooey oyster omelette of egg and sweet potato studded with small, fat salty oysters, covered in sweet, vinegary, ketchupy sauce.
It’s an odyssey to find coal-roasted squid, poached quail eggs, pig’s blood rice cake, frog spawn, and skewered and grilled crickets, as well as ‘little sausage wrapped in big sausage’ (which is in fact a sausage-shaped roll of sticky rice wrapped in a membrane that is heated then slit open like a hotdog and filled with a ‘real’ sausage).
And then there’s stinky tofu, a truly honking Taiwanese staple which begins as regular tofu fermented in basins of brine until it reaches a malodorous ripeness, and then deep fried to render the outside crispy while the centre remains soft and bouncy.
Having little space at home, the Taiwanese seldom cook, preferring to head out almost every night for the cheap snacks found everywhere — on street corners, in dedicated markets centred around temples or transportation crossways, or in clusters of food-devoted streets — all of it freshly made using this rich island’s amazing natural larder.
There are more than 100 night markets across the country selling xiaochi, ‘small eats’, with dishes generally costing between 30 and 60 Taiwanese dollars (60p-£1.20).
‘A melting pot of cuisines’ is often a cliché, but the food of Taiwan really is. Inhabited first by aborigines, this island — sitting between the South China and East China Seas — was settled by Fujianese then Hakka people from mainland China. It was then ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese, colonised by the Dutch in the 17th century, followed by the Spanish and then, between 1895 and 1945, the Japanese. At the end of the Chinese civil war, Chiang Kai-shek and the defeated Kuomintang army retreated to Taiwan with more than two million people, including the mainland’s best chefs.
I’m guided through Taiwan, its culinary history and the wondrous world of xiaochi by Bao London, a team of three young street food vendors who last year won a Young British Foodie award. Taiwanese Er Chen Chang, her partner Shing Tat Tung and his sister Wai-Ting (their parents are Hong Kong Chinese) are at the vanguard of a burgeoning British love for Taiwanese food, purveying their gua bao, a milk bun of unfathomable fluffiness and filled with slow-braised pork, topped with homemade pickles, shaved peanuts and coriander.
At Ning Xia, the Baos (as they are known) head straight for the deep-fried taro (root vegetable) stall with its buttery biscuit smell. The queue snakes along the pavement and there’s a 20-minute wait for crispy balls of tuber.
Er Chen says: “What I really love is that people do one thing really well, adapting and perfecting their recipes. And if there’s a queue, it means they’ve achieved this and make the best. If you see a queue for food in Taiwan, get in it.”
We arise early to eat at the city’s most famous breakfast joint which shuts at 10am, a place Er Chen comes with her family to eat curdled milk and breadsticks. Fu Hang Dou Jiang at Huashan Market has a long snaking queue along the street and up a stairwell and a wait of at least half an hour for dan bing inside shao bing, omelette rolled inside a sweet-glazed hot sesame flatbread.
There’s another queue outside what is, undoubtedly, Taiwan’s most famous restaurant: Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. After 20 minutes, we’re led past an open kitchen where delicate dumplings are being made by hand. I take my xiao long bao — soup dumplings that are encased in a translucent skin and hold a puddle of broth and a ball of pork — and dip them in a dish of vinegars topped with slithers of fresh ginger (their roots in Shanghai). Everything here is clean and light. The highlight is the prawn siu mai, a dish of cloud ear fungus with a sweet vinegary sauce and a dotting of goji berries.
At Lin Don Fang beef noodle shop on Badé Road, I stick teaspoons into pots of lard spiked with chilli and float it in a broth filled with beef tendon and noodles that tastes like vitality in a bowl. On Yong Kang Street, I find the famous cong zhua bing stall selling circular, flaky pancakes dotted with spring onion, cooked fresh on the griddle and filled with egg. Across this narrow street at Yongkang 15 is the home of the shaved ice mountain, a sweet frozen granita pile, topped with mango and condensed milk, various beans and even the root vegetable, taro.
For my final night, I relax amidst the vintage decor of Si-Zhi-Tang, a trendy but refined restaurant using seasonal produce on a changing menu of dishes such as chestnuts, pork ribs and bamboo shoots in a soy-braised broth with lotus buds or crab with glutinous rice, pork, dried shrimp, shitake and peanuts.
This timewarp eating house makes me think of Chiang Kai-shek. It may not have been part of his design, but by retreating to Taiwan, the political and military leader helped nurture a country that is justly becoming known as one of the world’s culinary capitals.
Five Taiwan food finds
Pineapple cake, or fengli su, is a small cube of cake filled with candied pineapple and a mix of winter melon. Chia Te. chiate88.com
Addiction Aquatic Development
An old fish market that’s been modernised to sell the city’s freshest fish and seafood. It’s picked live from the tank and cooked to order. addiction.com.tw
Hsu Ren Ping’s noodle factory
Take a taxi into the mountains to see noodles being pulled by hand then hung in the wind like stringy hammocks — and then try to do it yourself. Book in advance. No 3 Si Fen Zi, Wu Tu Village, Shi-Ding District.
Medicine broth and spare ribs
Join families sitting round tables in night markets and stalls across the city, piles of bones in the middle, slurping broth made with angelica sinensis, bark, dried dates, cloves, goji berries and other rejuvenating herbs.
Dotted along Taiwan’s bustling streets are vendors of bubble tea, a mix of brewed tea, condensed milk and balls of tapioca known as boba.
Four places for a taste of Taiwan
With more than 100 night markets across the country, these small-stall food purveyors offer a chance to taste as much as possible, sampling xiaochi (small bites) for little more than £1 a plate. Try battered sweet potato chips dusted with sweet plum powder and pancakes filled with milky ice cream, peanut shavings and coriander. And if you’re brave enough, embrace the putrid-smelling stinky tofu served on a stick.
Din Tai Fung
Join the queue at this dumpling house — the restaurant that has gone on to sire a global empire. An absolute must are the xiao long bao — little parcels wrapped in delicate skin holding broth and a ball of pork. Shrimp and pork pot stickers are crispy on the bottom, soft on the top and unctuous on the inside.
How much: Around £7 per person. dintaifung.com.tw/en
In truly vintage Taiwanese surroundings, owner Chen Chao Wen offers dishes changing daily. He suggests you order ‘family style’ and try many small plates. This is fine Taiwanese cooking with a twist, including pigs’ trotters cooked in aged nua diao (a type of shao xia wine) with soy beans, green squash from Ponhu, garlic marinated in miso, or spare ribs with five-year preserved vegetables, clams, almonds and daikon.
How much: Around £20 per person without wine. T: 00 886 2 8771 9191.
Owner James Tseng’s menu recalls Taiwan under Japanese rule. He prefers traditional dishes using methods he learned from his mother, such as oysters served with you tiao (deep-fried dough sticks) in a seafood broth. Sharing is encouraged and specials include marinated, large pig intestines, slow-braised in soy and spices, star anise and sugars; thin-sliced cold pigs’ ears; and ong choi — scalded vegetables fried with garlic.
How much: £10-12 per person for six dishes. T: 00 886 2 2343 2275.
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)