“Hello, have you eaten yet?” These were my driver’s first words as I slid into his taxi after a lengthy flight into Taipei's Taoyuan Airport. Amusingly, this is the standard Taiwanese greeting you'll get when visiting the culinary mecca. The locals live and breathe the philosophy of “eat well and eat often.” Hungry for a food adventure, I was determined to experience the iconic night markets in the heart of the gastronomic island during my 10-hour layover. Thirty minutes in a cab got me to downtown Taipei, and I met my friend Tina Fong of Taipei Eats at the decades-old Ningxia Night Market. This open-air market had an energetic vibe that sent my senses into overdrive—and this was only the beginning of my epic night of Taiwanese street food. Here's what I ate.
Tina insisted we first try an oyster omelet, one of Taiwan's most famous dishes, to beat the long line that usually forms at the stall later in the night. The oyster omelet's ingredients are mostly obvious—oysters and eggs—but also feature sweet potato starch which creates a chewy consistency like the inside of a fresh croissant. Topped with chili sauce, this quintessential Taiwanese dish is even more delicious than it appears.
2. "Frog Eggs"
We washed the delicious omelet down with a refreshing homemade Aiyu Jelly drink. You can find the stalls that sell it marked by a frog sign, as the drink is commonly referred to as “frog eggs.” Don't worry, though: It's not actually frog eggs. The jelly is made from figs and served with tapioca pearls, sugar water, and lemon juice.
Next, we tried a meaty, greasy delight: chicken thigh encased in chicken skin and grilled to a beautiful crisp. My advice? Skip the numerous fried chicken stalls and go for one of these unique chicken skewers instead.
4. Thick Soup
Soup is an Asian staple and most Taiwanese soups get their flavor from hours of stewing. The soup we tried, called fried mackerel thick soup, is complexly sweet, sour and salty and topped with vinegar. Think fish and chips, but a soup.
I spied shiny white balls bubbling away and suspected they were mochi. I was right: The mochi balls I tried were freshly rolled in sesame powder and peanuts, then paired with shaved iced, a delightfully sticky treat.
6. Tofu Pudding
On the way to the next night market, Tina suggested sharing one of her personal favorites, tofu pudding, at a random street stall. In Taiwan, tofu pudding is served with boiled peanuts and taro root—both grown in southern Taiwan.
Once we arrived at the lively Raohe Night Market, we waited in line for the market's famous pepper-pork buns. While in line, we hungrily gawked at the bun assembly process, watching the pork-and-scallion mixture being stuffed into the buns, then quickly tossed into the tandoor-esque charcoal ovens. Warmly gooey on the inside and perfectly crisp on the outside, they were hastily devoured.
8. Shaved Ice
Anything with watermelon and lychee fruit grabs my attention, like the supremely fluffy Taiwanese shaved ice. The shaving technique creates an airy texture similar to cotton candy. The locals prefer shaved ice with copious toppings such as condensed milk, fruit, and red beans. It’s divinely refreshing after the spicy night market bites.
We were fiercely greeted by the stinky tofu stalls' notorious scent. Stinky tofu is fermented for months and typically deep-fried and garnished with chili sauce and pickled cabbage. I would describe the taste as barnyardy, though delicious.
10. More soup!
Finally, few things are as soothing for digestion to the locals as Four Spirit Soup or Shishen Soup—“shi” meaning four and “shen” meaning spirit. During the Qing dynasty, four of the emperor’s became ill and a doctor concocted a four ingredient, medicinal soup consisting of gorgon, lotus seeds, Chinese yam, and barley. An excellent dish to top off your night market adventure.
After all is said and tasted, end the night in a local bar with a Taiwanese whiskey on the rocks. If your layover allows—and if your pants still button—hit up Din Tai Fung for its globally acclaimed Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumplings. The commitment to their craft will have you popping one after the other, even after a night of eating.
>>Next: One Perfect Week in Taiwan