Sunday 23 November 2014

Vegan Food at Taiwanese Night Markets & Shaved Ice

Night Markets in Taiwan

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 with friends and family, 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, which I recommend giving a wide birth.

Not My Favourite Taiwan Pastime

While I can appreciate the food and community focus of Taiwanese night markets (as opposed to the rampant consumerism in the posh shopping malls elsewhere in the world, not that Taiwan doesn't have those too), I must confess that I am no fan of night markets, and go to them only if I'm showing around tourists, or for my book or blog. Some of the night markets in smaller towns in Taiwan are very enjoyable, as they are less crowded and more just a hangout spot for locals, which beats the local pub from my culture. These are, unfortunately, well out of the reach of foreign visitors without their own wheels, and most offer little if any vegan food (see final paragraph at the bottom of the page). In this article I will cover some of the nightmarkets which are easily accessible from Taipei for foreign travellers.

What's Vegan at Taiwanese Night Markets?

Meters and meters of intestines, and pig's blood soup, are available at this vendor.
Probably not much, unfortunately. While many night markets in larger cities have a single vegetarian stall, the focus for most locals is very much meat, and often exotic types. Choose a non-endangered animal, choose an anatomical organ, and a cooking method, and you'll probably find it on the menu somewhere at a night market, especially a large one like the Shilin Night Market(see below). Or if you'd prefer to choose your organ from the whole corpse (often an overweight pig) then that's an option too. Some of the stalls are truly disgusting, and the stench of such a wide variety of animals cooking in such crowded locations can be overwhelming, and make for a wholy unpleasant experience indeed! When there is vegetarian food, it's generally fairly bland, as to be expected for food served in minutes from 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, especially when food is so cheap all over Taiwan.

Shaved Ice and Desserts

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.

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


While food will always be avilable, there is also plenty to do, with popular activities shooting balloons to win prizes (junk) and other spring-fair type amusements. There are unfortunately some cruel activities such as goldfish fishing for children; while the fish are usually returned to the pool afterwards (in exchange for a prize) I can't imagine the goldfish have much quality of life.

Shilin Night Market

I really don't recommending going, but if you must it's at Jiantan Station (not Shilin Station. Just follow the crowds, or your nose, to the night market. 

Shilin Night Market

The Shilin night market is Taiwan's most famous, but along with Taipei 101 and the National Palace Museum (the three often go together as Taipei's most famous attractions) I think it's grossly overrated.  (I do recommend most tourists visit the other two, but get them over with as early in the day as possible and move on to more meaningful attractions). 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, except through the lungs and clothing of the continual stream of passers-by. 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.

Nanya Night Market (A.K.A. Banciao Night Market)

MRT: Fuzhong Station, Exit 1
Nanya East Road
Follow the signs and the crowds.

Nanya (Banciao) Night Market

My favourite night market in Taipei is actually in Banciao. 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.

Raohe Street Night Market 

MRT: Songshan Station (terminal station), Exit 5
Follow the crowds, or signs to Ciyou Temple
From my travel guidebook: left: fried mushroom stall, centre: how it's grown, and right: how it's served up.
Raohe is one of Taipei's more pleasant night markets, because it's open air, allowing some of the fumes to escape, and because there is at least a pretense of crowd management, by keeping each direction of traffic flowing one-way only.

Best of all, there is a vegan stall selling mushrooms, which are cooked over a grill, a healthier version of the more traditional deep-fried options. Copycats also appear from time to time. Be careful with seasonings, which may not be vegan, but not much can be wrong with the mushrooms themselves, or how they are cooked.

Keelung Night Market (廟口夜市)

10 minutes' walk southwest of Keelung Station (on regular trains, not MRT or High Speed Rail)

Take any train from Taipei headed north for Keelung. Beware that most north-bound trains turn off before Keelung and continue on to the northeast coast (most commonly visited by tourists for Jiufen and Jinguashi). So be sure to board a train headed for Keelung, and then get off at the last stop (Keelung Station).

Directions to Keelung Night Market from your location

Perhaps the most famous night market in Taiwan is the Miaokou (literally "temple mouth") night market in Taiwan, located in Keelung, Taipei's port city. In recently years a lot of effort has gone into cleaning up Keelung, and making it less of an ugly, run-down port city than it used to be, but there is still a long way to go. The city does have a few interesting old forts dating back to the Dutch era.

Keelung (Miaokou) Night Market

The Keelung Night Market is most famous for its food, and its vegetarian stand lives up to that reputation, by night market standards (read: low standards). The market is also more spacious than other night markets in Taiwan; however, you'll need to hold your nose as you walk through the rest of the market to reach it.

It's nothing to blog about, but these noodles from the Keelung Night Market are about as good as night market food goes in Taiwan.

If you really must visit a night market, then it's worth stopping by on your way back from Jiufen, but I would recommend going straight back to Taipei and enjoying a late meal at Hooch (Ooh Cha Cha) instead.

Find Your Own Night Market, If You Can!

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 when you got off the train to stretch your legs, perhaps in Southern Taiwan or on 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 travels. Then you can truly say that you've had the Taiwan night market experience.

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