I couldn’t help myself while walking around the basement level of the Shilin Market in Taipei. Everywhere I looked there were delicious-looking snacks. Fried salty chicken, crispy crab, dumplings, meats of all kinds ready to be fried… I ate something here and something there, and by the time I got to the end of the line, where I saw an iron griddle restaurant that proudly displayed a set of award trophies, I was full.
A good piece of advice for visiting a Taiwanese night market is to always walk through once to see all the fare before you make your choice. With so many treats, you don’t want to miss something. However, that’s hard to do on an empty stomach, so you should read this summary of Taiwanese snack food instead.
Taiwanese night markets are widely praised in tourist literature. Before even stepping foot in Taiwan, an image of Taiwanese pancake rolls filled with beef showed up on my Facebook feed. “I must eat this when I go to Taiwan,” I thought. So I did.
Lao Dong Beef Noodles (老董牛肉面) is a successful noodle restaurant Taipei that was featured at the Taiwanese Cuisine Exhibit of the 2010 Shanghai Expo as a representative example of Taiwanese fare. Besides beef noodles, it also has other typical snacks like shrimp rolls and beef stuffed pancakes. All three satisfied my taste buds. Though Lao Dong may not be the best in Taipei, it had a lot of variety of snacks for reasonable prices. My favorite was the beef (or pork) wrapped in scallion pancakes. The beef was succulent, and the pancake was cooked crispy on the outside. Visitors in a hurry can purchase them on the go at a window on the outside of the restaurant, which is located at 35 Minsheng W Road, Zhongshan District (民生西路35號，中山區), just outside the exit of Shuanglian Station.
Beef noodles are also a widespread dish in mainland China, so what is so special about Taiwanese beef noodles? That is also the first thing I thought when Taipei locals told me to try beef noodles there. Beef noodles are so famous in Taiwan that it is considered a national dish. It turns out that Taiwanese beef noodles are indeed different from the Chinese variety, which were popularized by the Hui ethnicity. Taiwanese beef noodles usually have a richer soup flavor, derived from the addition of soy sauce and other ingredients, including sometimes five spice powder. The beef was also thicker—in chunks at Lao Dong—than the thin pieces of meat at Lanzhou Beef Noodle restaurants.
- Night Markets
The most exciting place to try snacks in Taiwan is without a doubt a bustling night market. As you walk through throngs of people, you can see all kinds of food in every direction and breath in tantalizing smells. One of the largest of Taipei’s night markets is Shilin Night Market. Spread of over multiple blocks inside and outside, the area includes both souvenir shops and snack stalls. Arriving by subway one night (Shilin station or Jiantan station, line 2), I could see brightly lit signs hanging from the sides of buildings and a long line of people walking down the pedestrian street.
The main food area, however, is located inside a building at 101 Jihe Road (基河路101號, 士林區). On the first floor vendors sell packaged snacks that one can take home for friends. Such famous souvenir snacks include pineapple cakes and mochi. Pineapple cakes, with the fruit encrusted in buttery crust, vary in price from machine-manufactured and cheap to the handmade varieties. Bargaining is possible and recommended there. Mooncakes with pineapple or other tropical flavors are also popular in Taiwan.
The cooked food restaurants are on the basement level of the Shilin Market. It is there that I looked around, unable to decide what to eat. I had a list of famous Taiwanese snacks drafted from research and recommendations:
Oil noodles (担仔面)
Duck soup pot
Eel noodles (鳝鱼炒意面）
Taiwanese meatballs (肉圓 – ba wan)
Braised pork rice (沾肉飯）
Pan fried buns (生煎包)
Taiwanese-style hamburger (割包)
Pepper pork cakes (胡椒餅)
Three-cup chicken (三杯雞)
Some of those are hard to find in Taipei because they are regional foods. Eel noodles, for example, are from Tainan in the south. Others, like braised pork rice, which has fatty pieces of pork braised in a soy sauce-based sauce and put over rice to soak the rice, can be found anywhere. As I walked through the night market, other dishes I hadn’t thought of came to my attention. Pepper chicken (deep fried chicken drenched in black pepper with fried mint leaves) looked and tasted irrestible.
Others like pan fried buns were simple and nothing special.
To summarize a few highlights:
Like a round dumpling, when you bite into it, your mouth fills with happiness. Steamed rice and sweet potato flour balls filled pork with vegetables like bamboo, usually in soup. While it is called rou yuan (肉圓) in Mandarin, Taiwanese call it ba wan.
Three cup chicken
With chicken cooked to absorb flavor in a mix of rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil, this chicken is very moist and flavorful. Garlic, ginger, and basil added afterwards add to make it bursting with savory kick.
This noodle dish from Tainan includes pork, shrimp, egg, and spices in soup. In Taiwanese dialect, danzai (擔仔) is pronounced as ta-a.
- Other Night Markets
Night markets are found in abundance in Taiwan. The Taiwanese tourism bureau has a page listing 12 famous night markets throughout. In Taipei in particular, Linjiang Street Night Market and Ningxia Night Market are also listed. I visited Ningxia Night Market as well on my trip. It is near Shuanglian station, along Ningxia Road (at the corner of Ningxia Rd and Mingsheng W Rd). It is completely outdoors, a pedestrian street lined with stalls.