OK, you don’t travel to a night market for a sumptuous feast worthy of Michelin stars and postcards home. But in Taiwan, the imagination and innovation on display in even some of its simplest snack stalls is something to behold.
Its night markets are run through with traditional foods, deliberately unchanged for generations, right next to food hawkers deconstructing and reconstructing street food essentials into something that’s at least worth a quick email (or article).
So here’s a quick tour of the top night markets in four major cities around Taiwan and their 10 most delicious dishes.
1. Stinky tofu
Shares the same love or hate relationship most people have with durian. Stinking, fermented tofu is deep fried and served with pickled cabbage, carrots and chili sauce.
I hated stinky tofu when I tried it in mainland China, Hong Kong and other Chinatowns around Asia, but I love Taiwan’s version. It’s sold everywhere in Taiwan, so just head towards that stink you smell at the night market.
Get your stinky tofu at: Raohe night market, Taipei
2. Rice/Taiwanese sausage
Rice sausage wrapped with Taiwanese sausage. Sticky rice is stuffed into sausage casing, grilled, cut open and is used as the “bun” for the traditional sweet Taiwanese sausage. You won’t mistake it for street meat from New York City, but it’s pretty good.
For all your rice sausage needs: Ruifeng night market, Kaohsiung
3. Coffin bread
A specialty from the night markets of Tainan, a slice of thick-cut white bread is deep fried to a golden crisp then the top is cut open and creamy seafood chowder is poured in. Think of it as Tainan’s version of the San Francisco bread-bowl chowder.
Coffin scoffin’ best at: Xiaobei night market, Tainan
4. Deep fried prawns
The key to any deep-fried savory dish is crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and this snack from Tainan does it perfectly. Freshly caught prawns are battered and insta-deep fried and served with a sweet brown sugar sauce, pickled ginger and wasabi for a sweet, sour, nose-clearing finish.
Find them at: Xiaobei night market, Tainan
5. Stewed pork rice
Pork belly or shoulder is slowly stewed with no fewer than 10 ingredients from the morning hours until the night market opens. It’s an open secret that the sauce that’s unused the day before is used the next day – and that’s why it tastes so good.
In northern Taiwan, the pork is minced while in the south they use pork cubes. This is a very commonly eaten dish on the night-market circuit. Sometimes shredded chicken is added to a bowl of stewed pork rice.
The most delicious part of: Dai Tian Gong night market, Kaohsiung
6. Baked black pepper pork
Baked black pepper pork pockets are the star snack at the popular Raohe night market in Taipei. Just outside the Ci You Temple, a small army of workers make these savory mouthfuls of goodness by baking them against the wall of a clay oven.
There is always a long line but once the pork pockets emerge hot, steaming and salty-good, you’ll be ready to start queuing all over again.
Look for the ovens at: Raohe night market, Taipei
7. Scallion pancakes
Although served in many parts of China, Taiwan’s version of this much loved Chinese classic is deep fried rather than pan fried and has a less doughy texture than the traditional green onion pancakes. These scallion pancakes are sold at most night markets in Taiwan.
Scallion champions: Liuhe night market, Kaohsiung
8. Squid stuffed with risotto
Perhaps inspired by an Italian recipe book, this snack from Taichung’s famed Feng Jia night market, Taiwan’s biggest, features pan-fried risotto, stuffed into a whole squid, then deep fried to an al dente crisp and topped off with sweet Dijon mustard and mayonnaise sauce.
It’s large enough to be a meal in itself but don’t go sharing this bad-boy with anyone – there are plenty to go round!
Gobble ‘em down at: Feng Jia night market, Taichung
9. Barbecued anything
Seafood of all kinds, chicken wings, cow’s stomach, tofu in all shapes and sizes, snake beans … your culinary imagination is the only limit when it comes to the Taiwanese night market barbecue.
You have a choice of dipping sauces too: a sweet and sour brown sugar sauce, sweet chili pepper sauce and sha cha (dried shrimp) chili sauce. Some customers don’t dip into any sauce at all and I can attest that it still tastes great. Barbecue stalls are popular at all night markets in Taiwan.
Best found at: Feng Jia night market, Taichung
10. Sweet glass rice dumplings
Dessert may not be at the top of the average Chinese diner’s mind but this delicate dessert is a great way to finish off your culinary foray into the night markets.
These dumplings are made with twice-steamed rice flour and you can choose from glass dumplings filled with red bean, green tea, egg custard, taro and even green tea mochi flavor. These dumplings are at most night markets in Taiwan but the southern Taiwanese, with a sweet tooth that would make Willy Wonka proud, make them best.
Seek them out at: Liuhe night market, Kaohsiung
Derrick Chang is a Canadian photojournalist based in Hong Kong.
This article was previously published in 2011. It was reformatted and republished in 2017.