Sunday, 23 November 2014

Night Markets & Shaved Ice

Night markets are an important part of Taiwanese culture, entrenched in the national psyche. Some markets focus on food, usually small snacks, called xiao chi (,literally "small eats"), some on shopping, some on entertainment and most a mix of all. For many Taiwanese a visit to a nightmarket is a regular social outing, enjoyed with friends, family and all, especially in smaller towns and cities. Tell a Taiwanese person that you haven't yet visited a night market and they'll probably bind you hand and foot and drag you to one, unfortunately most likely the infamous Shilin Night Market.

Nanya Night Market

However, while a part of me appreciates the more food and community-based focus of Taiwanese night markets (as opposed, say, to the rampant consumerism in the posh shopping malls in Japan, not that Tiawan doesn't have its share of them as well), let me confess that I do not enjoy night markets, especially the ones which focus on food. While many have a single vegetarian stall, night market food is generally meat heavy, and even the vegetarian food is generally fairly bland, which is hardly surprising for food served up in a hurry from such a cramped, outdoor environment. Add to that a lack of running water, and I simply don't get the appeal of eating there as opposed to a clean, functional restaurant. And as for entertainment I personally can't find much of value in many of the activities. Fishing is unfortunately a common night market activity for children (the fish are returned to their tiny pool after the fun is over, but probably don't enjoy the whole experience much, or their life between markets). Nonetheless I'd still recommend a visit to at least one while visiting Taiwan, so here are a few notes and suggestions for if and when you do.

Shilin Night Market?

Shilin Night Market

The Shilin night market is Taiwan's most famous, however like Taipei 101 and the National Palace Museum, I think it's grossly overrated, literally so in many ways. (I do recommend most people visit the other two, but get them over with as early in the day as possible and move on to something more meaningful). Name any body part of any exotic animal and you'll probably find it at Shilin Night Market, boiled, deep fried or mixed into an omelet. There used to be a vegetarian stall at Shilin's old location, but it doesn't seem to have survived the market's most recent move to its current basement. Add to that the fact that it's underground, so the stench of unrefrigerated and deep-fried animal parts has nowhere to diffuse to, and it's far from my favourite spot to enjoy some fried noodles (though the old lady's dumplings at the old location were surprisingly good, all considering). If you do get dragged to the Shilin Night Market I recommend going on a stomach which isn't too full (lest you lose your last meal) or too empty (as it'll be a while before you next find food, or want to). And it's hard to even fight your way through the crowds shopping for junk just to reach the food section, for which the market is most famous.

Vegetarian Food Stall near Shilin Night Market

If you do still feel like eating afterwards then the nearest vegetarian stall open that late that I am aware of is outside 312 Danan Road, a short walk from the night market.Choose your own foods and they'll fry them for you - typical night market style. I haven't tried it myself (as I try not to eat deep fried food at that time of night).

Late Meal?
An interesting spinoff of the night market culture here is that most restaurants close early, so if you're hungry after about eight oclock you're either headed to a night market or a convenience store. Of my trips to night markets, most are simply because they are the only thing open (besides the nearest convenience store).

Shaved Ice

These servings should all be vegan except the small containers of 'pudding' along the back row. Nanya Night Market (see below).

One common type of food sold at night markets in shaved ice (bao bing, 刨冰) which originated from Japan (known there as kakigori) and was made popular during the Japanese administration of Taiwan last century. Ice is shaved from a large chunk using a kind of converted drill press, and to which customers choose to add a number of toppings. Most are either boiled beans and grains, or sweetened fruits, either as jelly or jam. As far as I am aware the jellied fruits are all vegan, which I understand is usually set with pectin or agar from seaweed.

The shaved ice is placed on top of this, before it's drowned in syrup.

The mixture is then usually drowned in a very rich syrup (perhaps not one for someone watching their calorie intake) but sometimes a mixture of fruit and condensed milk is used. Also some serve pudding, which of course contains milk. While ice is generally a suspect for making people sick the world over, but I've never heard of this being a problem in Taiwan, but if you've come straight from a country with pristine tap water it might not be your ideal first dessert.

Shaved ice as it looks after the ice has been crushed.

My favourite?

My favourite night market is actually in Banciao, a short but not very pleasant walk from Camp David Hotel (a good budget hotel). It's known as both the Nanya Street Night Market (though it's actually on Nanya East Road) and also as the Nanya Tourist Night Market, but don't expect to see many other tourists there. The vegetarian stall does a few vegetarian dishes, but you'll need to specify that you don't want fake meat, and the curry is also likely to contain dairy products. A better bet is that they do a good range of shaved ice. The owner / chef is very happy to serve foreigners, and demonstrate how he makes all the ingredients by hand.

The owner of the vegetarian stall at the Nanya night market after demonstrating how shaved ice is made.
Your favourite?
However, I believe that the best night market you can visit in Taiwan is the one you stumble on in that small town you just decided to stop over at, perhaps in Southern Taiwan or the East Coast, where you're the only foreigner there. You might just find that there's a vegetarian stall, and that the bewildered owner is  happy to cook you up some dumplings. And you may even prove your fine shooting skills (at balloons) or become a master at pinball, which will be sure to win a fine piece of junk fresh out of a sweatshop in Guangzhou to carry around for the rest of your trip. Then you can truly say that you've experienced the best of night markets in Taiwan.

1 comment:

  1. I go to the skewer BBQ stand, the one where is skewer is like 12NT , then you choose a bunch of stuff, then the BBQ it for yo - just choose all veggies, corn, green pepper, corn,mushroom, tofu, rice sausage, ect. Also the general fried stall, just choose all veggie stuff... its cocked in the same oil as all the meat stuff, but I dont mind about that, in my journey in vegan sm, im not concerned about cross contamination.