How To Eat Your Way Through Taiwan's Night Markets Like A Local

Go beyond stinky tofu (you should already know to eat THAT)

Photo by Dave Krugman (@dave.krugman)

Street food is a 24/7 obsession in Taiwan. You can fill your belly extremely well for a bargain, and all three (or more) meals a day can be eaten right here on the street: the legendary breakfast, workday lunch, casual afternoon snack, exploratory dinner and late night cravings.

Even when it comes to humble street eats, the Taiwanese are fiercely proud of their food. Taiwanese people are constantly eating, thinking about, discussing food. Everybody holds a vehement opinion of their favorite rendition of any particular dish—or night market, down to the very stall.

As one of the “Four Asian Tigers” (the economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, which went through rapid industrialization and economic growth), the Taiwanese could enjoy food as more than just sustenance. It also meant that stall and shopkeepers could serve food out of passion, rather than just running a business.

The result? Taiwanese stall and shopkeepers often make their living perfecting one family recipe. Combine that with extraordinary local ingredients from the land and sea (Taiwan is a verdant island, after all) and a strong Japanese influence of delicateness, specificity and love for umami, and you get world-class street food.


Here are some tips for how to tackle street food in Taiwan:


It’s best to know before you go.

It can be overwhelming, but a little planning in advance (or let us do it for you) is worth it. Every night market is known for certain stalls you must visit, and these stalls are even numbered. Most locals just know the stalls by way of referring to streets and intersections, landmarks or a stall’s rough location within a night market.

Snack your way to success.

Resist the urge to order everything. Each stall has its one specialty. Yes, it’s simple, obsessive and confident. These stall owners don’t try to do it all. So you should practice the same discipline. If a local (or Journy) tells you to go here and get this one bite, do it. Don’t get distracted by the other options on the menu—or the stalls right next to it.

Photo by Dave Krugman

But use your spidey sense.

Alas, life is all about contradictions. That’s what makes it fun, right? We just told you to stay focused, but now we’re about to tell you to explore too. Keep your eyes and your nose peeled. You might sense a place is buzzing, or a particular display of food might be calling your name. Maybe you find yourself getting dish envy as you look over to the locals sitting next to you. If so, just go get some. It’ll probably be delicious. (Except when you tell your local friend later what you ate, they’ll probably shake their heads at you, because you didn’t experience the best of that dish, their recommended rendition.) Street food in Taiwan is overall of excellent quality, and food safety is high.

Jump in line.

Taiwanese people generally have good taste, in both Taiwanese and other cuisines (this is not a biased opinion). They love texture, fragrance, umami, lightness and subtlety. So that means, unlike in Times Square NYC or Las Ramblas Barcelona, here, it’s wise to follow the crowds. If you see a queue of locals, get in it. You’ll be rewarded.

It’s all word of mouth.

There is such a plethora of street food options that even the most avid local eaters don’t know it all. So talk to everybody—your cab driver, your nail artist, your hotel bellhop. Assure them you’re not a typical foreigner. Tell them that you’re open to the weird and wondrous—and ask a more specific question, like, “Is there a stall that you’ve been frequenting since you were a kid?” or “What spot do you go to multiple times a week?” As for speaking Mandarin or Taiwanese (the local dialect), well, we can’t help you with that. But the Taiwanese are a fairly educated bunch. Many speak English, and what’s more, unlike the Japanese who can tend to be risk-averse if they feel their English is imperfect, the Taiwanese are not afraid to speak and interact.

Photo by Dave Krugman


Here are our must-taste dishes:


Mango shaved ice


Taiwan grows epic mangoes—sweeter and juicier than you can ever imagine. Do you remember your first from-the-farm, organic, vine-ripened tomato and realized what a tomato is supposed to taste like? That’s Taiwanese mangoes for you. We recommend heading to a shop that’s only open during the part of the year surrounding summer, when mangoes are actually in season. The frozen stuff is still great, but only if you really need your fix.


Bubble tea

Photo by Emily Fedner

The locals have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this beverage. It looks like something that little kids drink, but grownups can’t resist the craving too. This is a trend that’s never diminished.

Why is it so good? The classic is tea and milk with jumbo tapioca pearls in it, consumed through a large straw. You get to satisfy your caffeine craving and sweet tooth while having a ‘QQ’ party in your mouth. QQ is that addictive springy texture most closely akin to noodles cooked al dente. Indeed, it did originate in Taiwan, now prevalent around the world. I’ve had bubble tea everywhere—from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Cape Town! Here is where it all started.

Bubble tea microtrends pop up every few months. The latest craze is brown sugar milk tea, made with fresh milk rather than non-dairy creamer. The sweetener is a caramelly brown sugar syrup swirled into the tea rather than plain white sugar.


Oyster and pig intestine vermicelli

We get it—this combo sounds a bit baffling. It’s not exactly what most Westerners wake up feening for. But this dish, when good, is a mastery of nuance. There should be no unappealing funk, even incorporating these adventurous ingredients. 

First, Taiwan’s local seafood is world-class. The oysters here are farmed to be small, tender and sweet; they’re cooking only ever-so-slightly. The pig intestines should have satisfying ‘QQ’ chewiness, almost a cleaner tasting meaty alternative. The broth, containing lots of umami elements like bonito flakes and small dried shrimp, is thickened like a hot ‘n’ sour soup, which helps the flavors land and linger on your tongue.

You can top with minced garlic (we ask for extra), cilantro and black vinegar for extra acidity, umami and fragrance. When we took travel show host and global eater Andrew Zimmern to Taiwan, this was among the very few dishes he hadn’t ever tasted. It may not be a pre-makeout dish, but we’re still in love.


Stinky tofu

Photo courtesy of @elleroi

This is tofu that’s been fermented for oftentimes several months(!), which isn’t so bad when you realize that a lot of your favorite foods (beer, wine. Kombucha, cheese, yogurt) are fermented. 

The traditional method of producing stinky tofu is to prepare a brine made from fermented milk, vegetables, and meat. The brine can also include dried shrimp, amaranth greens, mustard greens, bamboo shoots and Chinese herbs,” says Wikipedia. 

When in any market, you'll smell this stuff wafting everywhere. Yes it smells like wet stinky feet slash gym socks, but we swear—it doesn't taste like how it smells. In Chinese, we speak fondly of stinky tofu as if it were a person who is off-putting at first, but surprisingly charming once you get to know him or her better. We say it smells stinky, but tastes fragrant.

Protip: Try all the ways they prepare it to assess your preference. It comes fried in bite-sized cubes or soft, served in a broth; you can even get with ma la (numbing) spicy sauce.


A Journy favorite: Ning Xia night market

Ning Xia night market is smaller and especially famous for many food specialties. Here's the scoop—


Goose soup noodles and goose head

Photo by Dave Krugman

Goose is like a better, more flavorful duck. It’s such an underrated fowl meat elsewhere, but here in Taiwan, it’s well-priced, fresh and delicious. You can find it in noodle soups in a clear goose bone broth. At stall 30, be sure to you don’t miss out on the other goose parts, too, like, yes, the brains. My father would say: The more brains you eat, the smarter you get.


Oyster omelet

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The oysters in Taiwan are very, very good. Oyster omelets are a mixture of a starchy batter, eggs and fresh greens studded with jewels of fresh, plump little oysters. Here at Ningxia, there’s always a huge line for this oyster omelet stall, which zooms out from the open kitchen on on a conveyor belt. It’s a bit of a spectacle, and it tastes as good as the show. Protip: If you can’t get enough oysters, order a side of more oysters garnished with refreshing ginger.


Mochi

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This delicious snack is handmade right before your eyes, sticky and tender. Choose black sesame or peanut flavor. Sticky, soft, like a duvet for your mouth, once they beat the dough into submission and form the mochi balls, they roll it into crushed black sesame or peanut. While I marginally like peanut more, I can’t help but get both.


Stewed pork belly rice (lu rou fan)

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Unctuous, fatty, like a big bear hug of a rice dish. Protip: Ask for the duck egg topper.

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