The Street Food of Taipei

It’s always a challenge to talk about a trip after the fact. Friends ask us how our time in Taiwan was, and we instantly respond, “It was great…”, and then stop. Anything you say next would be a ridiculous oversimplification of your experience, but what other choice do you have?

My answer: “The food was amazing.”

And really, truly, it is.

Taiwan is famous for her bustling night markets, which open daily around 5:00 PM and run into the early morning hours. Many of the markets have shops and stalls selling clothes, trinkets, and cheap house supplies; but the real draw of a night market is the food. It is not a place where you go to do your grocery shopping – you go to eat.

True to form, we had researched the markets extensively prior to our trip, and had begun compiling a list of things we wanted to try before we even arrived. One evening in Vienna, we ate dinner while watching a 30-minute Youtube video of a person silently walking through a night market, zooming in on the food being prepared at every stand. We were glued to the screen for all 30 minutes.

This type of research actually wound up being excellent night market preparation. The markets are a maze of activity with seemingly endless food options – it is simply impossible to try everything. Furthermore, some markets are famous for certain offerings that you will not find anywhere else. Knowing all of this in advance helped us to prioritize our eating (very important), know what to look for, and better still, know what it was that we were eating.  

Once in Taiwan, we didn’t waste any time. The evening of our first day we ventured out to the massive Shilin Night Market with two friends, Dave and Kyla. Our first purchase was the most notorious of Taiwanese street foods: stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu is a common, albeit extremely divisive, find in Taiwan. It is made of tofu that has been allowed to ferment in brine and seasonings until it takes on an extremely pungent, funky smell. I would liken the smell to strong blue cheese that has been rubbed into really dirty, over-used gym socks, then left in a closed bag for two weeks.

You can find stinky tofu served in various levels of stink, but the version most often found at the night markets is on the less extreme side: the tofu is deep fried, covered with a sweet chili sauce, and served with sweet and sour cabbage.

Jacob and I bought one serving ($1.50 USD), and jumped in. As with most stinky foods, the flavor was much milder than the smell. The fried texture and sweet chili sauce helped to make the tofu more palatable, but the funk really pushed through in the aftertaste, lingering in your mouth until you ate something else.

Most of the stalls in the night markets are permanent fixtures, with small storefronts or open kitchens for cooking their food. Scattered throughout the aisles however, you can see the flow of people break around little carts manned by vendors selling trinkets, cooked quail eggs, baked sweet potatoes, and more. The small carts, according to Dave, are typically illegal vendors, who do not have the permission needed to set up a permanent shop.  “Just wait until the police come,” Dave said.

Less than five minutes later were standing in a broad aisle, with three or so of these “illegal vendors” in sight. Suddenly the one closest to us perks up her head, looks around quickly, then snaps shut her cart and disappears down a side alley – all in 10 seconds. The other vendors had disappeared just as quickly. A minute later a police man walked slowly down the aisle. Thirty seconds after they had passed, the vendors were back in place. None of us could figure out how the vendors had been alerted that the police were coming – “maybe they have an app for that.” ;)

After finding a place to dispose of the remains of our stinky tofu (we couldn’t bring ourselves to finish it all), we rounded a corner to find a line of 15-20 people extending out from a tent where a flurry of activity was taking place. We were too far away to see what the tent was offering, but the line was enough to convince us. If this many people found this particular stand worth waiting for, in an apparent sea of options, who were we to say they were wrong? 

As we got closer to the tent we found out that we were queueing for steamed and pan-fried pork buns, sold for a shockingly cheap 37 cents USD a piece. We each bought a bun, hot off the griddle, and bit into a soft and lightly crisped dough, topped with sesame seeds, and filled with deeply flavored pork dripping in its own gravy. It was one of those moments where everything goes quiet as you are filled with reverence and awe – like looking at the Sistine Chapel. Just imagine how much more amazing the Sistine Chapel would be with pork buns.

This experience drove home a lesson that would be our mantra for the remainder of our time in Taiwan: if you see people queueing for food, get in line. 

The Taiwanese have absolutely no qualms about waiting in line if the reward is deemed worthwhile. It is, in fact, such a documented phenomenon, that some stalls will hire people to form a queue just to entice other shoppers. Certain foods, restaurants, and stalls are so incredibly popular (made so by the food bloggers that have the Taipei market cornered), that queuing for the food, then posting a selfie with your prize, has become a status symbol.

Our “get in line” philosophy worked every time, without fail.

Another time we decided to just “get in line”, we wound up with the most addictive scallion pancakes you could possibly hope for. Jacob and I were roaming the streets of a trendy art district in Taipei, when we came across a line of people stretching past several storefronts. A quick investigation found that the line terminated here:

Five minutes later we had our own pancake ($1.00 USD) in hand, hot off the grill. The dough was savory and salty; doughy, crunchy, and chewy all at the same time. It was one of those foods where the very act of sinking your teeth into it feels very satisfying.  

As food is available virtually everywhere in Taipei, most of our daily adventures included either stumbling across something amazing to eat, or tracking down one of the food items on our list.

One of the things that topped our list was Gua Bao, one of Jacob’s and my favorite foods. Gua Bao is essentially a steamed bun, split open, and stuffed with sweet braised pork belly, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and crushed peanuts. It is a gorgeous, perfectly balanced combination of everything you could want in one bite: sweet, smoky, sour, meaty, with a soft bun, tender pork, crunchy peanuts, and a fresh hit of cilantro.

Unfortunately, it is not an easy dish to find in Europe. Now that Jacob and I were in the land of Gua Bao however, nothing was going to stop us. Until – we couldn’t find it. We didn’t see it in the night markets, and all of our wanderings around random food stalls down back alleys wasn’t turning up any Gua Bao. Eventually we described the dish to our hosts, asking if they had seen it before. Thankfully, Wendy believed she knew of a stand in their neighborhood that made it. Our eyes widened at the news. Gua Bao was close - closer than we even expected. Twenty minutes later we were following Wendy down a labyrinth of streets, dodging scooters, with a single goal in mind.

And then – there she was. A young woman worked the stand singlehandedly, selecting perfectly fatted pieces of pork belly from their braising liquid and stuffing them into little handfuls of heaven. She must have seen the anticipation in my eyes, like a dog straining at a leash, because she held out the first Gua Bao and said, “Take a picture!”. Yes, ma’am.

A couple of days later we were back at the stand, and she recognized us. “One Gua Bao?” she asked. “Three please!”. ($1.39 USD each)

On one of our last evenings in Taiwan, a small group of us made our way to the well-known Rahoe Night Market. This particular night market offered another one-of-a-kind street food that was high on our list: black pepper buns. Judging from the layout of Shilin Market, the buns might be a challenge to find, but it would be worth the effort.

It turns out that we had found the buns almost before we entered the market. Forty people waited in a line stretched out past the market entrance, corded off into a snaking queuing order like airport security.

As opposed to the typical Taiwanese bun, which are made of a soft dough and steamed until fluffy, these buns are baked. We watched as a small crew of cooks worked furiously to stuff the dough with an unbelievable amount of black pepper pork and green onions, then close up the bun and stick it to the side of a large drum-like oven. Once the bun fell of the side of the oven, it was cooked and ready to go.

They were so hot when we got them that we all burnt our mouths on the buns. “Worth it”, we said, as we tried to keep eating and cool off our mouths at the same time. ($1.50 USD each)

We spent just under two weeks in Taiwan, so as you can imagine, I could keep going for a long time. Rather than telling you about each thing, here is a visual synopsis of our street food. (And that isn’t even including anything we ate in restaurants – I saved those amazing experiences for another blog post.)