I think many travelers would agree that the best way to really get to the heart of a new place you’re visiting is to just sit down for a good meal. Local food always paints a picture of the geography, economy, lifestyle and tradition of the area you’re exploring.
There’s no better place to eat and explore than a local food market. Last December, we traveled to Taiwan — a place well known for its night markets and becoming trendier as a culinary destination. Trends aside, the night markets in Taiwan are packed with good food. From sweet to savory, surf to turf, and fruit to veg, Taiwan’s night markets have it all. And the scent of stinky tofu cannot be escaped! It’s everywhere you want to be.
In two weeks we explored five night markets located all over the island: Tainan, Fengjia, Keelung, Shilin and Linjiang (not really a market, but a lively street we stumbled upon in downtown Taipei). Each night market is the beating heart of its community — alive with people and packed with culinary choices. We also explored the Anping market on a Saturday — full of activity packed into a few neighborhood blocks, with surrounding streets well worth exploring by bike.
Here’s a look at each market and its highlights.
Shilin Night Market
The most famous of Taiwan’s night markets, Shilin has been around since the early 1900s and occupies several blocks with endless food stalls and clothing stores for an all-around eat-and-shop experience. There are two levels — above ground and below ground. Thankfully we were introduced to Shilin by two friends who know it well otherwise we would have missed the latter, which offers a busy food court experience with small tables and chairs. We tried the snails and a locally famous peanut crepe with crushed black sesame seeds. Above ground, the line for peppered pork buns made in a tandoori oven was about 30 people deep but the reward was a searingly hot and juicy little pocket of goodness — the original Hot Pocket? — enjoyed on the steps of a nearby temple, along with other marketers and a few kittens looking for dinner. :: Shilin is in northwest Taipei, closest to the Jiantan MRT station.
Linjiang is within walking distance of Taipei 101. If you’re staying downtown or don’t have time to catch the MRT to Shilin night market, this is a fun place to get a cheap bite to eat. Linjiang extends a couple blocks and is only open to pedestrian traffic. A wide variety of food is available — grilled meats, steamed pandan chicken, sliced tomatoes with plums (which we saw at a few markets), and sweets like tang yuan or glutinous rice balls. :: Linjiang Street is a few blocks southwest of Taipei 101.
Keelung Night Market
While we were vacationing, Keelung was the talk of Taiwan because a 16-meter inflated rubber duck in the harbor (an art exhibit) had unexpectedly popped and deflated on New Year’s Eve. Since Keelung is on the northeast coast of Taiwan seafood is abundant and the highlight of the local cuisine. Try the fried shrimp with basil leaves — delicious! Also of note was the exceptional sushi available at a six-seat stall on the main artery of the market, as well as a small stand offering folded roti pratha filled with peppery spices and a fried egg. :: Keelung night market is less than an hour by train from Taipei, and walking distance from Keelung station.
Fengjia Night Market
Fengjia is a college town so the night market follows suit with a younger, more inventive vibe than others around Taiwan. Food stalls are interspersed among several blocks of clothing shops and restaurants. Not surprisingly, we found ourselves trying some culinary creations geared to the college crowd like a cheese stick covered in mashed potatoes then rolled in ramen noodles and deep fried. We also tried tao-tng pau siu-tng or “small sausage in large sausage” — a meat sausage in a sticky rice sausage that looks kind of like a hotdog in a bun. It’s a Taiwanese invention. :: Fengjia night market is about 10 kilometers northwest of Taichung main train station. Take a taxi and have a beer and a waffle.
Tainan Garden Night Market (also known as Tainan Flower Night Market)
My absolute favorite, and only open on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday nights. This market is open-air, enormous and a feast for the eyes and belly. A crush of people shows up for dinner and the market continues late into the evening. We tried flattened chicken, grilled pork shoulder, and a Mexican burrito made by two Indian men living in Taiwan. Their tortillas were made from scratch and cooked on an overturned wok. The fresh tomatoes were heavenly and the candied fruit was a sweet surprise. Do not miss this night market if you’re in or near Tainan. :: Tainan Garden Night Market is on the northern edge of Tainan, and best reached by taxi from the city center.
Anping is a charming historic district west of Tainan. We took a taxi there on a Saturday morning and watched the neighborhood wake up around the market streets. Vendors were setting up, women were steaming corn and making peanut cookies, and oysters were being shucked by the basket load for the ubiquitous oyster omelet. After wandering the streets all morning we rented bikes and extended our journey a little further out, sometimes in search of the many “sword-lions” that still adorn some of the doors of historic Anping houses. This was a charming area to explore during the day and, paired with the Tainan Garden Night Market in the evening, made for one of our favorite days in Taiwan. :: Anping is west and best of Tainan, reachable by taxi and curiosity.