Unbrave Eats: Shihlin Night Market Food

February 26, 2010

When my flight touched down at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, the television screens on the back of the seats starting playing an advertisement from the Taiwanese Tourism Board. (Which, when you think about it, is a little odd. Why try to sell a trip to Taiwan to a bunch of people who have already bought a trip to Taiwan? Wouldn’t it be better to try to sell us on a nice trip to some place we’d never think to go like, say, Turkmenistan?) The tag line for the advertisement was “Taiwan: Beyond Your Expectation.” Which, depending on your expectation level, this could be a really good thing (as in, “Wow, I thought Taiwan was going to be great, but it turned out to be the most amazing trip of my life!”) or just a so-so thing (as in, “Wow, I didn’t have any expectations for Taiwan, but it turned out to be decent.”) or a really bad thing (as in, “I expected to get a little sick in Taiwan, but I didn’t expect this tape worm!”).

So far in my past two days in Taiwan, I have to say that tag line has been pretty spot-on, especially in regards to the night market food. And, let’s just say, I had some pretty high expectations for that night market food. I mean, I am quite the connoisseur of any food served deep-fried or on-a-stick. If that food happens to be both deep-fried and on-a-stick, well then, I’m half-tempted to marry it. Seeing as I had heard a great deal of the food available at your typical Taiwanese night market is of the deep-fried and served-on-a-stick variety, I was pretty sure this was going to be my version of heaven.

Last night, I headed to Shihlin Night Market, Taiwan’s largest night market. Luckily, I was able to go with friends, both of whom were much better versed at the delicacies on offer at the various food stalls. They also happen to be much better versed at Chinese. While I’m more than happy to point and grunt and try any food that crosses my path (especially if it happens to cross my path on a stick), it’s always much nicer to actually know what you’re ordering and know what you’re ordering is actually going to be edible.

Earlier in the day while out on my own, I had had a not so pleasant experience at the bakery with something called the “deep fried pork floss bun.” Figuring I liked things deep fried and made of pork and served in bun format, I snapped it up in hopes of a delightful new treat. But instead of tasting like pork, my bun tasted like peanut butter and fish. As promised by the Taiwanese Tourism Board advertisement, this was an experience definitely beyond my expectations… but not so much in a good way.

With friends along at the night market, I was hoping to be able to avoid replicating the peanut butter and fish taste experience.
The first thing I tried upon the recommendation of my friends was the fried quail eggs on a stick. The eggs were coated in a sweet sauce and dusted with black pepper. I’ve had a few bad eggs in my day, so I’m usually wary of eggs in their various forms (especially eggs in their various forms from various forms of birds), I probably would not have tried these if they hadn’t come so recommended. I have to say I was happy I did as these were extremely tasty.

I polished off my quail eggs and a few bites from my friends’ food selections (including a bite off of some blood sausage made with pork blood and rice which I’m happy to report tasted a lot more like rice than pork blood… it also, of course, tasted like peanut butter, but, thankfully, not fish!). After these rather pleasant taste experiences, I was now ready to try something a bit more challenging for my taste buds (or at least for my nose): stinky tofu! We found a vendor selling chunks of the deep-fried stuff on a stick. Hey, deep-frying makes everything better… even stinky stuff, right?!


Turns out deep-frying does in fact make things better… even chunks of pungent, fermented tofu (and, as I just found out from Wikipedia, pungent, fermented tofu that very possibly has been sitting in a brine with maggots for several months… mmmm, thanks, Wikipedia!). True to its name stinky tofu does, in fact, stink. But the stench wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought it would be. The taste, I dare say, was almost enjoyable. It wasn’t too much different from the deep-fried tofu served at lots of restaurants in Japan…well, aside from the little issue of its odor (and, apparently, the little issue of the maggots).

Eating stuff on a stick certainly can make you mighty thirsty, so it was time to get myself a drink. Stands whipping up fresh juices, smoothies and other fruity concoctions are in abundance at the night market, so we stopped by one where I asked them to make their most Taiwanese drink for me. They recommended a blend of bitter melon (the fun, warty white-ish thing below) and pineapple juice. Despite my friends warning me otherwise, I decided to try it out. True to its name, bitter melon is in fact very bitter… and not in the least bit refreshing or enjoyable… which isn’t exactly something you’d expect from your fruit drink. But, you know, Taiwan and the whole expectation thing.

After (barely) quenching my thirst, I felt it was time to move on to my main course: sausage! But this was not your ordinary sausage. Well, admittedly, this sausage tasted like ordinary sausage, but the “bun” was actually a big ball of glutinous, sticky rice. Imagine sushi but with sausage. The sausage was rather tasty and the glutinous rice was hot and definitely, ummm, glutinous. But, overall, I have to say the rice was way too heavy. Plus, I had made the mistake of actually eating lunch yesterday, so I wasn’t nearly hungry enough to finish off my sausage and half-a-pound-of-sticky-rice treat. I ate half of it, and knew it was time to quit… well, at least time to quit the dinner portion of my evening and move on to dessert!

And what doesn’t say dessert like a big huge heaping pile of beans?! These beans were served on top of a mountain of shaved ice covered in condensed milk alongside some tapioca pearls (like those found in bubble tea) and taro balls (also often found in bubble tea). To be honest, I did not have high hopes for this dessert. First of all, there was the whole bean factor. No matter how many times I eat them as a dessert, I will never truly be sold on the idea of beans as dessert… that is, until someone figures out how to grow cheesecake beans. Secondly, I have never been a big fan of shaved ice. I mean, it’s ice. Why eat ice when you could eat ice cream?!

Despite my low hopes, I have to say out of all the tasty treats I tried last night, this one was by far my favorite. It’s amazing what an entire can’s worth of condensed milk can do to a big heaping pile of ice and beans! The ice was very thinly shaven and soaked up the condensed milk in a way that almost made this dish taste like ice cream. The beans looked and tasted a lot like lentils (and probably were lentils), but you hardly noticed their bean-y taste with all that condensed milk around. Plus, the tapioca and taro pearls on the side added some fun chewy texture. True to the words of the Taiwanese Tourism Board, this dish definitely went beyond my expectations… in a good way, that is.

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