Several places in the world compete for the title of world capital of street food. Bangkok, Penang, Marrakech, Seoul… and Taipei has definitely earned the right to be in the conversation.
Taipei night markets
There are many Taipei night markets, all of which are worth visiting depending on your desires. My favourite was the Shilin Night Market. Variety is the name of the game at Shilin. The food is located in the basement of a tall skyscraper, in which nearly 500 vendors are piled up against the other in a tight space.
The few available tables are associated with a vendor in particular. To be allowed to sit and eat, you have to buy a dish or two from the vendor who owns the tables. You are then free to roam all the other vendors in the night market and bring your food to the first vendor’s table. You can even bring food – or drinks – from outside of the night market!
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Fried chicken, which looks like an Austrian schnitzel or an American chicken fried steak is probably the most popular item. And it’s delicious.
But there are more bizarre foods to try, too
The vile stinky tofu is smelled everywhere in this small overcrowded basement. The foul smell of rotting, moldy, old dirty rag that comes from this piece of rotten tofu is ubiquitous. And when you bite in it (because of course I tried it), a putrid juice runs out of the moldy sweet piece of tofu, as if you’re biting into a dirty sponge and its pungent odor pours out of it, into your mouth and hits your nose like a ten ton hammer. Disgusting.
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It is also possible to try orange juice (oranges are green in this corner of the world) that includes blocks of gelatin to make a contrast in texture; skewers of all imaginable parts of every imaginable animal (or almost), grilled over charcoal and coated with a mixture of monosodium glutamate and sweet chili powder; sweet sausage; small fried crabs; marinated and grilled calamari; braised snails; cubes of sticky rice mixed with pig’s blood and gelatin, then grilled; and more, so much more…
Even the 7-Eleven has something unique to offer: Cha Ye Dan, boiled eggs cooked in a combination of medicinal herbs are available at all times in all stores, and the very unique smell of the eggs is omnipresent in each convenience store.
There are night markets in all cities of Taiwan. In Kaohsiung, a town south of Taipei, two must-try delicacies: duck liver ( not “foie gras” but rather the liver of a duck “au naturel”) and mullet gizzard, confit and dried.
Taiwan is not China
This statement will surely be worth of reprimands by my Chinese friends, but nevermind: even if you completely remove political consideration, the conclusion remains: the Taiwanese are not similar to the mainland Chinese in any way.
The Taiwanese are courteous, polite, generous and expansive. They strive to make you feel welcome. They try to speak English; want to have a conversation and want, above all, to know why you chose to visit their tiny country.
The political situation also seems relatively stable
Since the end of the Chinese Civil War, Taiwan and China are separate: the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-Shek, defeated by the Communists of Mao Zedong, came down to live on the island. China is communist (and also claims most of Mongolia and parts of India), while Taiwan is a democratic state. Moreover, since the leaders of the Kuomintang carried out democratic reforms, they lost power in the hands of the DPP, the separatist party.
This means that Taiwan is a place that is in “political limbo.” According to China, it is a Chinese State; according to the Western world, it is an independent state. This situation persists since 1992, when the two factions agreed on the fact that they disagreed.
This agreement, which seems a bit ridiculous to outside eyes, has nevertheless allowed Taiwan to recover a certain freedom. The coast of the island – and its wonderful beaches – was occupied by the Taiwanese army, scared that the mainland Chinese would disembark and take Taiwan by force, until 1992. Now the army has left and the beaches are there for everyone – tourist and local alike – to enjoy.