I have always known that night markets are an essential part of the Taiwan experience. After all, everyone comes back from the peninsula laden with extra calories from the good food. And with that in mind, I started on my own discovery of Taipei’s night markets.
Shih Lin Night Market – Always being entertained
There is a certain devil-may-care attitude about Shih Lin.
A doe-eyed vendor in a flowing floral dress could set up shop next to a gruff-looking man covered in tattoos. One sells cute and whimsical pouches while the other sells basic functional black and white socks.
Food-sellers often locate themselves away from the main food street and along poorly lit alleys. Only the brave would venture in, led by their noses and rumbling stomachs. And for their courage, they will be rewarded with luscious, juicy bits of meat and tender pieces of preserved vegetables perched on top of fat grains of rice, just like I did.
Now, for the entertainment: Highly mobile vendors and unsmiling market policemen performing a pantomime at least 20 times a night. Each time a policeman is spotted, the vendors disappear orderly down the alleys and into the back rooms of nearby shops. They wait patiently for the policeman to walk past before resurfacing in a convoy, taking up the exact same spot as before. Strangely, the policemen see no more than three metres in front of him, and looks neither left nor right, just like a horse wearing blinders.
Ximending – Expect the unexpected
In the Harajuku of Taiwan, there are lots to see.
At the main junction, there are shop promoters bearing placards or wearing feathery wings, in hopes of drawing the crowds in with their good looks. If it rains, they just put on their ponchos, and continue sweet-talking passers-by.
Just off the junction, a crowd of people gather and together they slurp oyster mee sua hungrily from little green plastic bowls. There are no tables and few plastic stools yet grumpy old grannies, labourers with leathery skin, and youngsters togged out in the latest threads stand side by side, devouring the peppery smooth mixture. Whoever said that food brings people together knew what he was talking about.
A side street off an alley nearby has tailors selling some smart-looking suits and school uniforms. This is the perfect juxtaposition – great mix of both sensible and functional clothes sold in a market known for its fashion and even outrageous dressing tailored for youths.
Danshui – Breathe in some history
People head to Danshui for the sea breeze, food, and romance, where couples strolling hand-in-hand along the seafront are often spotted. People also head to Danshui to relax. Families play a game of catch while friends listen to buskers singing in the square, their warm lilting vocals complementing the soft taps of the waves against the shore. In the distance, a puppeteer sets up his stage for a later show, but remembers to have his puppets shake hands with curious passersby.
And after making their pilgrimage to the Lover’s Bridge, they stop at one of the numerous shops selling Dan Shui’s specialties. One of these is the mysterious metal egg.
Many flock to Danshui for Ah Po Tie Dan, which are essentially chicken or quail eggs that have been braised repeatedly and air dried, until they become hard. But the story behind the metal egg is shrouded in mystery.
One version says that Ah Nian Po discovered the dish on a slow rainy day, as the braised eggs she was selling stewed for hours in the cooker. Her customers loved the chewy hard texture, and she started producing them in large quantities. A Madam Yang bought large amounts of these eggs, recreated them, and sold them as her own creation, to the chagrin of Ah Nian Po.
The other version says that Madam Yang discovered the dish because she was so busy tending to her shop that she let the braised eggs stew for hours. Her customers loved it and things were never the same.
So who really created the dish? No one is verifying it. It remains shrouded in mystery but do try it upon chancing it at one of Taiwan’s night markets.