(I’ve been wanting to write a piece on Taiwan since my memorable trip last March but work and responsibilities took precedence… until now! If you grew up in Taiwan I hope this makes you homesick, in the best sort of way. And if you’ve never been to the island maybe this will entice you to give it a place on your “must visit” list.)
I bend down to inspect a vacant spot on the concrete steps in front of a brightly lit store with a blue and green neon sign that reads “Family Mart”. Seeing no excessive fluid or grime, I lay claim to the prime real estate and turn my attention to my recently acquired loot.
A small plastic bag holds three xiao rou bao, soft white buns stuffed and steamed with juicy pork and smothered in a spicy chili sauce. A paper sleeve cradles a chicken filet the size of a Dan Brown novel. The succulent meat has been pounded out, bathed in salty brine, breaded and fried until shatteringly crisp. A generous dusting of a secret spice blend blankets the golden exterior. Hints of garlic, chili and white pepper waft towards me. Slices of bell fruit, the love child of a watermelon and spool of cotton candy, stare up at me through the thin plastic container holding them. Their dark pink skin and white interior glisten under the neon lights.
Many years ago I lived a couple of train stops away from this epicurean heaven known as the Shilin Night Market. This is my first trip back since I left the island of Taiwan ten years ago. I savor the moment and take in the action around me.
A few feet to my right, a young couple hurries out of the way as a sputtering scooter hops the curb onto the sidewalk. The driver squeezes into a tight space between two other scooters and flips down the kickstand. His bike is the latest to be added to the expanding row, parked alongside each other like a precarious game of dominoes (surprisingly, and perhaps a little disappointingly, a scooter domino tumble rarely occurs).
Vendor stalls are packed into what, during the day, is an open space in front of a movie theater and continue as far as the eye can see along the main road, their lights disappearing down the adjoining alleyways. The chatter from dueling megaphones can be heard over the traffic. Two fast talking vendors are advertising competing sales on ladies undergarments. A mannequin bust wearing a garish blue top with black bows anchoring the straps swings from a pole suspended over one of the display cases. Ladies, young and old, are crowded around both stalls handing over pink bills in exchange for thickly padded bras.
Think of an item you want to buy, I guarantee that someone sells it at this massive nightly street market. Jewelry, toys, watches, movie posters, cell phones, clothes, shoes, they’re all here. An entire section of the maze is devoted to the latest Taiwanese craze, puppies small enough to fit into the palm of your hand and kittens still attached to their mother’s teat.
The real draw of the Shilin Night Market is not its questionable pet purveyance, but its food. The market is the equivalent of an opium den for adventurous eaters and its vendors, iniquitous pleasure pushers. You can get lost for hours in the intoxicating aromas and flavors.
Colorful mounds of tropical fruit wait to be washed and sliced for hungry customers. Dozens of stalls sell variations of the popular drink jen ju nai cha, sweetened black tea with milk and tapioca balls. Vats of hot oil fry small baskets of fish balls, sweet potatoes, and seafood tossed with fragrant garlic and sweet basil.
Little restaurants along the streets serve hotpot and teppanyaki. Unlike the showy, sub-par, and overpriced Benihana version, the spread here reflects the atmosphere—fresh, vibrant and blissfully unrefined. In adjacent shops giant slabs of frozen milk lay on metal wheels fitted with blades. The white sheets, falling like powdery snow, are piled high on plates and covered with multiple toppings. My favorite? Strawberry puree on one side, passion fruit on the other.
The streets of Shilin would delight even the most daring gourmand. Grilled chicken anus, little rubbery brown triangles stacked four to a skewer, tantalize passersby. Fiery red chilies stand out in a sea of black, inch long, stewed sea snails. Braised chicken feet appear to be crawling out of their display trays. The extremities are a gelatinous treat for those who don’t mind rolling tiny toe bones around on their tongue. Venture toward the outskirts of the maze, and you may pick up the faint odor of open sewer. The rank fumes trigger an unnatural curiosity and you begin to sniff uncontrollably, your mind dancing back and forth between several possibilities, each less appealing than the last. Open sewer? Decomposing flesh? Some kind of gory combination? Then you spot the offending stall where all looks innocent enough, chunks of tofu bubbling in a sea of oil. This is the Taiwanese treat chou dofu, stinky tofu. Bean curd fermented in a ripe vegetable and shrimp brine. No doubt it’s popular for good reason, but I can’t vouch for that. In all the years I lived there I was never able to get within two feet of the repugnant treat.
Adventurous eater or not, on any given night the streets of Shilin prepare some of the best food you’ll taste in your life. After being away for ten years I had expected time and modernity to alter this night market, but there she stood like a stunning woman who never ages. Every scent, stall, and twisting alleyway from my memory was there. A pudgy old man, who 10 years ago made the best xiao rou bao in the market, was still carefully tending to the contents of his steaming cast-iron pans. Memories long forgotten flooded back when I bit into those savory little buns. Suddenly, I was a mischievous teenager again, full of ridiculous ideas and dreams sitting on a grubby step in the vibrant city of Taipei.