Dragon fruit, guava, persimmon, peach, mango, kiwis, and more tropical fruit delights at the night market
I landed at the Taipei airport around 4:30 am. The airport and buses were still asleep. I needed the hour before everything opened to gain my courage. It was hesitant to enter Taipei, and Asia for the first time in my life. Would I get lost constantly, would I be able to communicate with anyone, how will I know what to eat were all the thoughts troubling me before arriving. NEVER MIND those worries. Taipei is awesome. They really love foreigners, especially Americans here. They love helping you and making you feel welcome. They love helping you find subway stops, new destinations, jobs, and breaking down menus and customs. Come right over. Don't hesitate. This is a vibrant city with style and tradition, nature and architecture, and lots and lots of motor scooters.
I had booked a 2 week stay at hostel in Guting/Shida, near the universities, at Eight Elephants. It just home here. Run by a crew of funny and inviting young ladies. Its laid back without the out to party vibe extremist backpacker vibe i had grown tired of in Australia. Within an hour of arrival Sara, the Eight Elephants receptionist, lead a group of us out for breakfast. A triangle of rice filled with beef, fish, pork, or many other fillings, wrapped in seaweed. I don't know the name, but its recognizable in America.
I'm all about business in Taiwan, working on design projects for clients in the states. Food breaks are the main event. I count the hours until my stomach is ready to try something new. Food is everywhere in Taipei. For lunch Sara shows some of the other guests and I Hong Kong style bento box. Each box comes with white rice, with sauteed greens and vegetables, sprouts, and some noodles (rice) and a choice of pork, duck, or beef. How could I pass up duck? The rest had pork. Which was a giant slab of deep fried pork belly hacked up in front of us. It costs less than $4 American. Asia is great. Well Asia is great if you're into meat.
A few hours of digestion and my Taiwanese friend and supreme food lover whose acquaintance I made in America, Michael, swings by to pick me up with his friend Katerine. He had a wise master plan to show me the sights, night life, and food of Taipei. First stop the Shida night market, which is within walking distance of my home.
If you've been to Taipei than you know about the night markets. The lively blocks filled with everything from trendy clothing, jewelry, knickknack, home stuff, tea, massages, prostitutes, but most importantly food stands and restaurants. Each has a specialty, snacks, sweets, fruit, all the way up to full meals and the options wind around alleys and lanes for blocks on end. You could spend an entire year of nights at the night markets and never try everything. I'm thankful to have my local Taiwanese friends with me to decipher whats what. Not to mention I'm so overwhelmed I have no idea where to begin.
First up a fried bun filled with pork and pepper. Warm, fatty, salty, and very comforting. I could eat two and call it a night, but there's so much more.
Next stop is liquid refreshment. Its legal and socially acceptable to walk around with open containers of alcoholic beverages. Katherine and I grab girly fruity malt beverages, mine was grapefruit, while Michael drinks ubiquitous "Taiwan Beer."
After balking at all the options we decide to sit down to a proper meal. My friends know what to order, and more importantly how to read the all Chinese menu. First a set of garlicky cucumbers with carrot and onion appear, followed by crunchy long pickled seaweed. Both are lightly pickled, and provide a nice contrast from the rich foods we are about to eat. Scallion pancakes rolled with thin beef, oval rice cakes sauteed with pork and tofu, ginger pork dumplings, and beef tendon noodle soup follow. Its a huge spread, but all the flavors are so strong and clear, that I can't stop going between each dish for more and more.
The oval rice cake dish has really pleasant soft bite to it and coated in its meaty sauce is one of my favorites of the night. The noodles as this restaurant are hand cut to be about 5 inches long, and 1/4 inch thick. They have an irregular shape, and look very hand made. They're in a soup with gelatinous soft beef tendon seasoned with star anise and surrounded by Chinese greens. This is my favorite. Its my first night in town, but I'm already gobbling it up with chopsticks. I may be making a mess with my half-assed chopstick skills, but my gluttony is forcing my hands to work.
Next stop a glass of whiskey at A Bar to help digest. Taipei has a vibrant night life full of modern bars to keep any New Yorker like myself impressed. There's table service, and a live band. It feels a bit glamorous. The whiskey is served with balls of ice nearly the size of the glass. Doritos are set out as bar snacks. Dorritos are really popular as food for adults here.
Michael orders a special drink. Shot glasses are set over glasses of liquor, set on fire with a torch, and knocked over into the glasses domino style causing the drink to foam and fizzle. The drink is dangerously mild for a mixture of many alcohols.
Sometimes the best company is simple and comfortable. Cucumbers with sesame sauce are a great drinking snack. Healthy enough not to worry about over indulging. The cool crispness of the cucumbers offsets is a nice break from fire and ice whiskey.
I'm really really happy I made the trip to Taipei. So happy I don't care how late I stay out, even if it means staying up past the time I arrived for a little karaoke. In Taipei they have a giant building full of karaoke called Cash Box Party World. Its a tower of singing and drinking. Sometime after cash box I made my way home and slept a long time.