06/13/2017 - 06/20/2017
It's hard to explain the significance of a night market to someone who hasn't spent time in East Asia. These unique markets are ubiquitous in China but also found in major cities throughout Southeast Asia and anywhere in the world where there is a large Chinese community. Eating is naturally a major aspect of visiting a night market but the social experience transcends the simple act of filling one's stomach. One of the first things Mei Ling asks me when I tell her about a city I want to visit is "Is there a night market?" All too frequently I have to tell her something like no, there's no night market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Fortunately for us, no city has elevated the night market into a pervasive cultural phenomenon like Taipei has. People go out at night to snack in Taipei the way Westerners go out to drink.
There are at least ten major night markets scattered around Taipei, but it's impossible to keep an exact count because of areas like Ximending which aren't thought of as night markets but have pedestrian zones packed with snack bars and street food. I compiled the most exhaustive list I could with big plans to visit all of them, but in the end we were only able to see three as well as Ximending. I'm not sure how much we missed though, as we saw a lot of same or similar dishes in all the markets. Most of the articles and blogs I read about the different night markets focused on their atmosphere or small differences in the prices, but we only encountered one atmosphere during our trip: rainy.
Our first genuine night market, and the only one we revisited, was in Shilin just north of the Keelung River. Shilin Market is the largest night market and has a reputation for being touristy. Even worse for the night market connoisseurs, it's considered to be expensive. However, dropping a few extra bucks wasn't much of an issue for us considering the amount we were already spending on our trip. Shilin Market had the added advantage of being practically around the corner from Mei Ling's grandfather's apartment. Aside from the long outdoor night market, there was an indoor food court and a games arcade. On our last night in Taipei it didn't rain and I got some good footage of the market with my iVUE Horizon video sunglasses, as well as an impromptu interview with one of the vendors who happened to be from the US.
I can't say much about Tonghua night market except that it was conveniently located in central Taipei, within walking distance of Taipei 101. It was raining so much the night we were there I could hardly take any pictures. By this point we had experienced three days of almost continuous rain and I coined the term "Taipei personality" for anyone who would throw on a poncho and get constantly deluged rather than miss a chance to see a night market. We were rewarded for our persistence with a huge platter of deliciously ripe yang mei. This is one of my favorite fruits, but unfortunately it's completely unobtainable outside of China and Taiwan. Aside from being practically unknown in other countries, the berry is so fragile that it's impractical to transport overseas. Just a slight bruise and the fruit immediately starts to acquire an unpleasant fermented taste. The opportunity to eat fresh yang mei is one of the treats I look forward to when I visit China.
Raohe is the second biggest night market after Shilin, and many people consider it to be the best. We particularly enjoyed the wide selection of fishballs and meatballs as well as barbecued shellfish. Cleo was amazed by the liquid nitrogen which spilled from the ice cream stand and made clouds around her feet.
You won't find a mention of Ximending in any article about Taipei night markets, but in its own way the whole neighborhood is the biggest and most vibrant night market of them all. It was without question the best part of Taipei we could have chosen to begin and end our days.