Take a deep breath. Star anise and cinnamon permeate your lungs. Sautéed garlic lines your throat. Now, let it out slowly. Behind the veil linger chilli and salt, a romance in the grey smoke billowing from the wok. Sweet grilled squid, fried stinky tofu, slowboiled beef broth and entrails — the smells are at once complicated, seemingly incongruous, and intoxicating. They might just make you fall in love with Taiwan. They’ve been known to have that effect on travellers.
For many, a trip to Taiwan translates to an extended culinary tour: one or two weeks, maybe a month, of night markets, noodle shops, and visits to aboriginal farms. It’s time well spent. The island revolves around food. In fact, ask locals about their favourite dishes or where to find them — locals like Paulie Huang, co-founder of Three Little Birds, a hostel in the Shida district of Taipei — and expect a lesson on lu rou fan (braised pork on rice), the optimal texture of you tiao (deep-fried Chinese crullers), and the proper length of time needed to simmer beef tendon in a hot pot.
“The best food is in Kaohsiung” says Huang, a laconic and warm-hearted entrepreneur who doubles as an editor of major motion pictures. “It’s sweeter there, sweeter than it is in Taipei. Maybe a hundred years ago, sugar was hard to find and expensive. Putting more sugar into food was a way to show hospitality. In the South, we still cook like that. But all of Taiwan is a little different.”
The regional differences she mentions result from a history of tangled influences, native and foreign. And yet, almost miraculously, as the country has taken root in
ambiguous politics and tenuous sovereignty, a distinct heritage has managed to blossom. Taiwan was first colonised by the Dutch and Spanish during the Age of Discovery. Enchanted by the mistshrouded mountains, long blue inlets, and native traditions, they christened it Isla Formosa — beautiful island. But Europeans weren’t the only outsiders to recognise its natural beauty. The Isle of Formosa attracted a string of suitors.
In the seventeenth century, Taiwan succumbed to the Han Chinese. Later, it fell to the Japanese, who ruled for 50 years. Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, the island was returned to the Chinese, but the odyssey was far from over. In 1949, as the Communist party took control of China, the republican Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, setting up headquarters in Taipei under the direction of General Chiang Kai-Shek. Today, Taiwan is officially called the Republic of China, but its freedom, as well as its relationship with mainland China, remains vaguely defined.
Over time, the country has become a sort of pot-au-feu — red-brick forts and cracked wooden temples contrasted by heavy industry, street after street of concrete and
flickering neon — the various influences from a tangled colonial past most visible in the cuisine. The Europeans introduced foreign fruits and vegetables. The Chinese and Japanese imparted cooking techniques and flavours. Combined, these elements have helped develop a style that’s purely Taiwanese.
“We’re not like China,” says Toto Sean, an outgoing polyglot from Taipei and one of three co-founders of Three Little Birds. “Taiwanese food is not as spicy [as Chinese], but it has more balance and better flavour. We eat slowly, too, enjoying every bite.”
In Taiwan, breakfast choices include the everpresent bao, steamed buns filled with sweet or savoury ingredients, from pork to cabbage to sesame paste. Another popular item on the menu is the hamburger (han bao bao in local dialect), a peculiarity of Western origin that goes down surprisingly well in the morning hours. Whatever the day of the week, breakfast almost always involves a trip to a shophouse like those in the Yonghe district of New Taipei. In the predawn hours, workers at the famous Yong He Dou Jiang whip up a number of short eat-style Chinese specialties. There’s a syrup-covered turnip cake or shaobing, a baked flatbread topped with sesame seeds and often filled with a fried egg, scallions, and sprouts. The more adventurous might order soup dumplings or a fist-sized sticky rice ball with roasted pork in the centre. It all gets washed down with a glass of hot soy milk. Or, for younger generations, bubble milk tea.
Similar restaurants exist throughout Taiwan, from Hualien to Hengchun, putting the country’s Chinese influences into focus in the early morning light. But while breakfast shops might display the country’s East Asian roots, the distinctive spirit of Taiwan lies in the night market. In fact, where there’s a city, there’s a night market. And when the sun goes down, the stalls go up, and Taiwan suddenly transforms.
One of the oldest in Taipei, and perhaps the preferred choice among locals and East Asian tourists, is the Raohe Street Night Market. A stroll through its narrow alleys reveals a surreal world. Amid the cacophony of clinking video games and karaoke stalls, locals of all ages convene at rexine-covered tables. They sit hunched over plastic bowls, their lips pursed as they suck down noodles. Teen-aged boys and girls in costumes of belly-shirts, cut-off jeans, and flat-billed caps — an absurd, almost genderless modernism — drift between stalls of smart phone cases and stuffed animals, cigarettes hanging from their lips, expressionless looks in their eyes as they size up soup dumplings and oyster omelettes. Chinese and Japanese tourists flock to Raohe by the busload; dropped off at the spectacular backlit arches that mark the entrance, they stroll down two aisles of snacks, games, and trinkets. Altogether, the market feels like a sort of cyberpunk carnival.
At the southern end of the island, Ruifeng Night Market in Kaohsiung draws a slightly more rambunctious crowd. Snake-like queues form at the entrance, because the
good stuff isn’t hard to find: the smells of papaya milk, blood cake, and soy-braised noodles float into the night sky, beckoning pedestrians two blocks down the road coming up from the underground MRT. In the centre of the market, food vendors give way to fashion. Street lights turn night into day. Pop music from one stall battles electronica from another.
In big cities like Taipei, students and workers are notoriously busy — the work day often begins at dawn and lasts until long after sunset — so the night market
becomes an essential piece of the work-life balance. It’s where cuisine collides with culture, where reality blends with fantasy, where, if only for a few hours, the grind softens and everyone can just let loose.
In smaller, less mercenary cities, the night market is more of a recreation centre than a place to grab a quick dinner. A fun night out in Taichung might not involve
dancing or alcohol, but rather throwing darts at balloons, trying on imported graphic tees, and snacking on chillidusted squid. In Tainan, the cultural capital of Taiwan, the location of the night market changes each day, which adds a refreshing kick of excitement to the usual experience.
Between shrines, hot springs and mountain passes, a traveller can find a thousand reasons to linger in Taiwan. The most enduring memories and the greatest
reason to stick around, however, might involve food. The cuisine is the window to the culture, to the soul — to the complexities of the past and the politics of the present.
It’s what makes outsiders fall in love with the teardrop island. It’s the indelible proof that Taiwan will always evolve, always endure.