My first memory of Taipei as a young girl of 11 back in 1990 was of a noodle stall down the street from my Grandma’s apartment. I was just a kid, so I was cheap. I had a couple of coins in my pocket and was alone with my younger brother, so I had no parents or relatives to fund my meal. This wasn’t my first time visiting Taipei, but it was my first time venturing on the streets alone. I felt excited, empowered and, most of all, hungry.
My plan was to wander up and down the winding alleys, exploring all that Taipei’s street food scene had to offer, but I was stopped cold by the gratifying smell of my favorite childhood noodle dish oamisoir, also known as oyster vermicelli. Twenty cents (USD) bought one steaming hot bowl of this briny, umami bomb.
Oamisoir is a thick and deliciously unctuous dish featuring thin rice noodles, oysters and chopped intestines, if you are lucky. These days, many authentic Taiwanese eateries in San Gabriel Valley, California offer oamisoir, but nothing has ever beat that 20 cent bowl from my childhood.
On my most recent trip to Taipei, I was already planning my menu on my airplane ride, somewhere miles above the Pacific. After all, how often do I get to taste the food of my parents’ homeland? It had been five years since I had returned home. One might point out that there is plenty of Taiwanese food near where I live in Los Angeles. But I would counter that the boba shops don’t even get the boba right! The boba in the States is quite chewy, even at the top-rated teahouses, while the boba you get in Taiwan is meltingly soft like the softest mochi you’ve ever encountered. I was ready to stuff myself with shaved ice, Din Tai Fung, Taiwanese breakfast, bubble tea and more. I wanted it all, and my newly exchanged NT was burning a hole through my wallet.
We hit the streets of Shilin Night Market that first night in Taipei. Having just eaten airplane and airport food for the last 20 hours, walking into the din and aromas of the Shilin Night Market was intoxicating. I was somehow able to scarf down crispy, burning hot stinky tofu, Hot-Star fried chicken the size of my head and a boba milk tea within what seemed like five minutes of stepping into this food heaven. I was ready for more. I had only spent mere pocket change at that point. My fingers glistened with oil, and the essence of popcorn chicken lingered in my mouth. I slurped down an oyster omelet and chomped on tiny soft-shell sea crabs. I was happy.
The Shilin Night Market is one of the most famous street food destinations in the world. It’s been covered on Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” and features over 500 vendors. It’s by far the largest night market in Taiwan, so you shouldn’t leave the country before spending a night there!
Here are just a handful of the street foods that you must try when you visit Shilin Night Market.
Oyster omelette (ô-á-chian) is Taiwan’s traditional surf and turf dish and is a signature night market favorite. Eggs and potatoes are mixed and fried on a scorching hot pan, enveloping the delicate little oysters inside. The potato starch gives the whole dish a gooey chewiness that the Taiwanese love. It’s all topped off with a generous amount of screaming red, ketchup-based sauce.
Tanghulu is Taipei’s answer to candied apples. Why do we only candy apples here in the States? Taipei’s tanghulu candied strawberries are a much more delectable treat and are conveniently bite sized. The juiciness of the fresh strawberries is highlighted by the crunchy candy barrier that your teeth have to break through for the luscious reward. The strawberries are sold on bamboo skewers and are a portable treat as you explore the night market. Tanghulu actually originated in northern China and is a typical winter treat. I’m so glad it’s being served in Taiwan year-round!
Small Sausage Wrapped in Big Sausage
There are numerous types of sausages being sold at the night market, but my favorite is the small sausage wrapped in a big sausage. It looks similar to a hot dog and features a charred Taiwanese pork sausage wrapped in a glutinous, sticky rice sausage. You can top it with your own selection of condiments like wasabi, thick soy sauce or pickled bok choy to name a few. I just like it plain and hot off the grill. It’s perfect just as it is and doesn’t need any accompaniments.
Taiwanese Sizzling Steak
On nearly every street corner of the Taiwanese night market, you’ll encounter a sizzling steak shop. Sizzling steak is served on a blistering hot, black cast iron skillet. The tender steak covers a bed of spaghetti noodles and is topped off with a fried egg. This is a meal you have to sit down for and is usually paired with a sweet corn soup, salad and a hot bun or piece of garlic bread. It’s quite an affordable meal and generous in size. Save this for your last eat at the night market, or you won’t have room for anything else!
Hot-Star Fried Chicken
There’s always a line at Hot-Star Fried Chicken, but don’t worry because the line moves briskly. Hot-Star chicken is very similar in taste to Taiwanese popcorn chicken, except that its the size of your head. It’s Taiwan’s version of fried chicken, pounded, coated with flour and then dunked in hot oil. You can select your preferred spiciness level, and it will arrive in your hands fresh and piping hot.
I’ve just covered a few of my favorite night market treats, but I could fill a book with every delectable treat there is to try. The night market is certainly a highlight of any trip to Taiwan, but delicious food is around every corner in Taiwan. It’s the ultimate foodie destination, so come prepared to eat!
If you go
In search of more Chinese delicacies?
Everyday China: Culinary Adventures in The Middle Kingdom
Yau Ma Tei Hong Kong: Contrasts and Transformations