When you’re holidaying in Asia, eating at the markets is an absolute must do. Being in Taiwan for 10 nights, my partner Jeremy and I took it upon ourselves to basically eat everything in sight that looked good, or that my family recommended we try. Here’s my guide to different market feasts and street treats we enjoyed during our time in this beautiful city where markets seem to populate every second suburb.
Youtiao is definitely one of my favourite childhood foods. Otherwise known as Chinese doughnuts, these deep fried strips of dough are ethereally light, decadently oily and when fresh – have the most satisfying crunch to them when you bite down.
You may be familiar with youtiao when you’ve had congee as it’s often piled on top as a garnish. In Taiwan, they eat it for breakfast plain, or in two delicious ways that definitely lured Jeremy and I most mornings (my grandpa would jump on his motorbike and drive down the mountain to get us fresh ones each day).
My boy is a big fan of youtiao wrapped in shaobing, which is a flatbread like pastry that’s crunchy and flaky. I can hear you saying curiously – bread on bread? Well this is just plain yummy. While it could potentially be dry, the oiliness of the youtiao binds it all together and makes it a cohesive dish. When eating this you wash this down with a hot or cold (depending on your preference) soy bean drink.
For me, the obvious choice is youtiao wrapped in cong you bing with fried egg. Youtiao might be one of my favourites but cong you bing tops the list for sure. These crisp savoury scallion pancakes are crunchy on the outside and folded over inside with oil in between the layers to give it a pull apart texture. Having the egg cooked on one side is something we do at home a lot with them when we make them – it adds extra flavour, body and another texture.
Together the youtiao and cong you bing work so well. Crunchy dough on the side, soft egg around it and another crunchy layer that’s salty and intense in flavour from the scallions. Heaven!
You can also choose to have plain cong you bing on it’s own – which tastes great dunked in chilli oil (if you’re not opposed to having chilli first thing in the morning… which I’m not!). Look how deliciously golden brown they are!
I adore tofu of all kinds. Silky, firm, Chinese, Japanese – they’re all so wonderful to me. In Taiwan, tofu was an everyday occurrence in my diet, which pleases me to no end as I tend to go a little crazy here in Perth if I haven’t had it for a few days.
Have you heard of stinky tofu or to dofu? If you haven’t and you’re travelling to China or Taiwan, get on this fantastic treat. Don’t let the intense smell deter you, the taste is worth the nasal hair singeing feeling – which actually gets me salivating rather than turning away.
You can eat stinky tofu cold, steamed, fried or stewed. I like fried and steamed myself – both of which are a must to enjoy with a tear inducing chilli sauce.
One of the most interesting tofu dishes I tried when I was away was one that took silky tofu and cut it into thin ribbons to resemble noodles. Served with herbs, broad beans and a thin gravy like sauce this cold dish is delicate and fresh. It’s like springtime on a plate – and a really interesting way to see tofu presented compared to your more standard fare.
If there’s a dish that many people refer to as distinctly Taiwanese, it’s oyster omelettes. While Western omelettes are primarily egg based, these are a combination of egg with potato starch to get a thicker and smoother consistency.
The omelette is studded with small, sweet oysters and scallions then fried in a saucepan using pork lard. When you serve it, the sauce is a zingy citrusy chilli sauce poured over the top. The version we tried at the markets had less oysters than I’ve had at other venues, but nonetheless it tasted good with those slightly crispy edges and chewy centre.
Served with a similar sauce the oyster omelette is blood rice pudding. These little cakes are made up of steamed rice that has been soaked in pig blood. They have a glutinous, almost sticky texture though are relatively mild in flavour. I like dunking them in peanut powder, which is a more traditional way to eat them, giving crunch and some needed saltiness.
If there’s one thing that makes my boy particularly happy it’s baozi (or bao). Steamed bread with delicious fillings that range from your simple barbecue pork to complex mushroom mixtures and everything in between.
These are everywhere at the market for you to try. When done right, the bun is soft and moorish, the filling flavoursome and a good balance of sweet and salty. I like some of the more different versions like the one above which has sesame worked into the top of the dough and the inside was a flavourful combination of mince meat and greens. It drips oil and juice when you bite into it, showing how moist the fillings inside can be.
Radish cake is something you may be familiar with if you ever frequent dim sum eateries. After all the grated radish and other ingredients are combined, they’re pressed into a mould and steamed. From there the mixture is cooled, sliced and then grilled.
If you get a good version, it’s full of flavour gems that usually include dried shrimps, shitake or even some meats. Bad versions will have way too much rice flour and result in something that is tasteless and bland. This version at the morning markets was sadly in the latter bracket, but the outside was crispy enough to at least enjoy that aspect. Thankfully we make this at home and my mum’s version is wonderful (she uses yam!) so I wasn’t as disappointed as I could have been if this was a rare occurrence for me.
Cold. Refreshing. Excellent. This is one of the most valuable recipes I’ve learnt from my mum over the years. While it may seem simple – cold noodles, sliced cucumber and sesame sauce, balancing the flavours is tricky. But when it’s good, it is the ideal dish to get you through a hot summer’s day or night. These are pretty common in my work lunchbox when I actually have enough foresight to pack a meal to take in, though we add shredded chicken and carrot too for extra texture and taste.
All hail the mighty gua bao, the kind of Taiwanese street food. Soft, pillowy dough like traditional baozi but stretched out to be more like a burger bun. These are traditionally filled with slabs of tender, braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, coriander and peanut powder.
Everything works so well in this dish. You get the crunch of the peanuts, the sourness of the veggies, the decadence of the fatty pork and the overall richness of that braising liquid that has soaked into the meat.
These are the best kind of street food – they tick every box and make you want to give up all the other dishes to just crawl into the dough and live there forever.
Things on a stick
At Tamsui Wharf we discovered an array of Chinese sausage all stacked up on a stick. Some made with duck, others with blood, and another with fatty pork. They’re shiny, moorish and a good little pick me up to munch on while wandering around this seaside venue that attracts hoards of tourists.
Also at Tamsui Wharf you’ll find an array of fried things on sticks. While we walked past most, my ah ma (grandma) insisted we tried these shrimp sticks. They’re wrapped in a wanton like pastry and fried to crispy perfection. Stacked on top of each other with a drizzle of chilli sauce these little treats are like junk food for Taiwan. Not the best thing we ate but I can see why my ah ma recommended them.
Before we arrived in Taiwan I had been talking for weeks to Jeremy about the barbecued corn. In the days of my childhood they would turn the corn by hand but now they have a fancy machine to arrange this for the vendor. As it turns over the flames three different sauces are brushed over the top – satay, then fermented tofu then chilli. When it’s sufficiently roasted, sesame seeds are sprinkled onto the surface.
One important thing to remember when ordering this is to make sure the corn is not dry otherwise you’ll be extremely disappointed in the taste. When the corn is fresh and juicy, it works hand in hand with the variety of sauces spread over.
A full squid on a stick? Hell yes. You can have it in two different ways (from different market vendors) – one is grilled, where they chop it up for you and provide a stick to pick up the pieces from a bag and the other is deep fried in it’s entirety.
We ordered a grilled version and at the same time Jeremy ordered a stick of ji pigu (chicken bum or parsons nose). I think he gave the vendor a big shock being this tall white guy ordering such a delicacy but he’s quite partial to the fattiness of the chicken and gobbled them up once they’d been grilled to a nice crisp consistency.
Shaved ice is a dessert that comes from Taiwan. It’s such a clever invention and so light and ethereal that you don’t feel like you’re over indulging when snacking away on it. We tried a few different versions during our stay in Taipei, the best being the mulberry shaved ice at Shiling Night Markets. The peanut was a close second!
Surprisingly, the soft serves in Taipei are actually pretty damn good. In particular the yam flavoured ones (identified by their alarming purple colour) are a unique and delicious choice. I love how yams are used consistently as a dessert ingredient – particularly in cakes and ice-cream.
While we’ve all had the more traditional fried ice-cream you get at Chinese restaurants, I have to admit the versions we were served in the mountains of Yangmingshan, were next level. Coated in a crisp, thin pastry these little pizza pocket looking bites were served with pineapple or yam ice-cream.
One bite in and I was utterly mesmerised. I love the idea of fried ice-cream, where you have this piping hot outside but a cold, creamy centre that doesn’t seem to be impacted by the quick flash fry. Amazing.
There are so many more market and street eats to try when visiting Taipei – I barely scratched the surface in my visit but left feeling so impressed and wistfully missing the cuisine the minute I stepped onto the plane to leave.