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Some years ago, my mother and I — both chronic insomniacs — developed a habit of watching Taiwanese street food videos in the early hours of the morning.
In the 1960s, Taiwan — a tiny, heart-shaped island in the East China Sea — was known as the world’s factory, pumping out billions of toys, bicycles and tennis rackets from the warehouses that still line the coast.
Though those days are long gone, the rhythms of the production line still live on in street food stalls: in the crimping of dumplings, the wrapping of pork buns, the squirt of sweet soy sauce onto skewered squid. This hypnotic monotony soothed our minds into sleep.
When Mum and I first visited Taiwan in 2017, we found the street food to be as gastronomically comforting as it was aesthetically: a fusion of indigenous, Chinese, Japanese and European flavours
It delivered a perfectly calibrated punch of sweet, umami and salt, often all at the same time. We gorged on fried and sticky treats, not knowing what anything was.
On my second visit to Taiwan, I’m accompanied by Taoyuan-based guide Michelle Chiu Shan Chieh, who takes me to the Raohe Night Market on the north side of the capital, Taipei. I decide to seize the chance to better understand the national cuisine.
“What’s the most iconic Taiwanese street food dish?” I ask, pen poised over my notebook.
“Chicken nuggets,” she says, helpfully, before striding off into the crowd to buy our dinner.
I’m left to wander the aisles. From afar, a Taiwanese night market looks like a candle held in cupped hands, its warm, reddish glow filtering through the alleys between buildings. Up close, it’s a cacophony.
Mandopop thumps from an unseen speaker, punctuated by the roar of blowtorches and the sizzle of squid tentacles as they curl and blacken in the flames. I pass vats of oil, quivering in the noise.
I follow the market to the edge of the Jilong River, where I find Michelle brandishing a lunchbox.
She cracks it open to reveal fried pork ribs, crispy pork pepper buns, and deep-fried shrimps and scallops drenched in sticky pineapple sauce.
Below the ever-changing lights of the Rainbow Bridge, we dig into our riverside picnic, pausing now and again to lick the grease and salt from our fingers.
Though first impressions might convince you that Taiwanese food is all animal-based, Taiwan has one of the world’s highest rates of vegetarianism: 13 per cent, who mostly eschew meat for religious reasons.
At Dongdamen Night Market, in the eastern seaside town of Hualien, Michelle shows me a cornucopia of alien-looking flora.
Among the hooked beaks of hummingbird flowers and white, stringy betel nut flowers, clumps of mushrooms protrude like the eyestalks of giant snails.
Michelle points out a selection of plants to the seller, who chops them up and flings them into a wok. They taste as colourful as they look, as fragrant to eat as they are to smell.
Following our stir-fry dinner, Michelle and I meander down the wide aisles in search of dessert.
In smaller towns like Hualien, night markets have the liberty of space: they sprawl until they become like miniature cities themselves, with entire streets dedicated to different regional cuisines. Children swarm walls of googly-eyed plush toys, trying to win one in games of darts and catching plastic fish.
I feel a little like a child myself, tugging on Michelle’s sleeve every time I see something I want. I grab a skewer of sweet pastries from a stall. “Look, they’re hearts!” I say.
Michelle looks unimpressed. “Chicken butts,” she says.
A few days later, I am looking dubiously at a model of a chef suspended from the ceiling; he appears to be straddling a giant green sausage.
“It’s a winter melon,” says Michelle.
“It was a sausage,” says Chen Yonghe.”I bought it in Berlin thirty years ago and painted the sausage green, so now it’s a winter melon.”
Some Taiwanese street food venues have been around for so long, they’ve acquired cult status; Two Silver Cents, in Tainan, is one.
It opened in 1922 and is the only remaining traditional winter melon tea shop in the city; Yonghe is the third-generation owner.
He passes me a cup beaded with condensation; inside is a chilled, caramel-coloured liquid.
It’s been a long, humid day of Tainan temple-hopping — my clothes are sticky with sweat and the scent of incense. But when I sip on the sugary tea, it suffuses body and brain with renewed strength.
Yonghe takes me into the small, terracotta-tiled kitchen and shows me how he turns winter melon — a foot-long gourd distantly related to cucumber — into iced tea. In a shallow pan, he stirs the powder — a combination of sugar and winter melon, which he has boiled until dry. It will stay this way until reconstituted with water.
I whip out my phone and film the sweeping of the steel rod, the hum of the extractor fan, the musical chime of the crystals as they fall back into the pan.
I save the video; one day I’ll watch it again, to soothe my soul in troubled times.
Need to know
- Getting there: EVA Air flies to Taipei Taoyuan (TPE) from a number of international destinations, including London Heathrow (via a brief stop in Bangkok) and New York City.
- Best time to go: Apart from June to September, when Taiwan can be hit by typhoons at times, the country offers a variety of tourist attractions and activities for the rest of the year.
- Where to stay: From five-star luxury hotels and resorts to economic hostels, Taiwan offers a great spectrum of accommodations. Check out the Taiwan Tourism Administration website for more information.
- Food: Street food and night markets! Taiwan is best known for its diversity of food. Visit the Michelin Guide website to discover more.
- Must-pack item: A jumper and a mac might be needed as indoor air conditioners and sudden afternoon showers could turn the temperature slightly chilly.
- Anything else? In addition to Taiwan’s Lucky Land campaign which gives out 5000 Taiwanese dollars in spending money, Taiwan is offering visitors a Free Half-Day Tour at the moment.
This article on Taiwan street food was brought to you in partnership with the Taiwan Tourism Administration.
For more information and suggested itineraries, go to their website.
The writer was a guest of the Taiwan Tourism Administration with flights provided by EVA Air.
JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.