Chow down and taste the difference at Taipei Night Markets. The city’s dazzling street food scene is the ultimate Asian culinary adventure.
Taiwan is an island nation after my own heart. It is obsessed with food. We’re talking dedicated festivals for beef noodle soup, museums for milkfish, and cult followings for fried chicken cutlets. In the buzzing capital of Taipei, you can chow down on different dishes every night for weeks on end without leaving the city’s bustling night markets.
Like much of Taiwan’s culture, its food heritage is closely entwined with China, yet there are nearly as many contrasts as similarities. There is also a heavy Japanese influence, and to a lesser extent, from Korea.
Just stroll along any seemingly nondescript street and breathe in the aromatic mix of soy sauce, rice wine, spices and charcoal grilled fish. The streets are where the greatest taste discoveries are made and you don’t need to venture far to find them.
Taipei Night Markets
The Taipei street food scene doesn’t quite have the global kudos of say, Bangkok or Singapore, but it still garners a huge following of obsessive fans among well-travelled foodies. It really does have one of the most exciting and accessible food scenes in Asia.
Night snacking is viewed as a social event as much as downing a few beers in a pub so locals converge in groups on an almost nightly basis to eat, meet and mingle. Street snacking means a tightly packed, vibrant visual feast at Taipei’s food stalls so you’ll get a real flavour (in every sense) for local life and likely collect a host of new friends into the bargain.
In recent years entrepreneurial restaurateurs have been making their mark with an increasing number now the proud recipients of Michelin stars, but the real essence of Taipei food can be found in the dozens of bustling night markets. To whet your appetite here are our top picks for street food.
1. Shillin Night Market
This is arguably the grand-daddy of the Taipei food scene, with a history dating back generations. The main food hall is bright and orderly, while a maze of food stalls spill out on the streets, wafting the aromas of giant fried chicken steak, oyster omelette, fried buns and the infamous local specialty of stinky tofu. Its pungent whiff is unmistakable – think strong blue cheese on steroids.
Shilin Night Market, Shilin district, Taipei City, Taiwan. MRT: Jiantan Station, open 3:00pm –1:00am.
2. Shida Night Market
This is a different proposition but no less entertaining. It is in the heart of the university district, so frequented by young, graduates who snack and socialise long into the night. It is less of a dedicated foodie destination with a more haphazard collection of food stalls which has gradually mushroomed in size over the years.
Tiny food carts rub shoulders with crepe and omelette stalls, trendy little cafes and gourmet burger joints. Must-try snacks include Taiwanese pan-fried pork buns, steaming beef noodles and spicy fish cakes. It is definitely has the most youthful vibe of all the main street food destinations, and is also the epicentre of Taiwan’s vibrant street fashion scene.
There’s a ton of small boutiques piled high with funky clothes, shoes and cutesy accessories. In keeping with the fashionable ambiance, there are numerous uber-cool coffee shops dotted along the back alleys.
Shida Night Market, Taipei City, Taiwan. MRT: Taipower Building Station, open 12:00pm – 12:00am
3. Raohe Street Night Market
Stretching for more than 600 metres along the street of the same name, Raohe Street is the most accessible for first-time Taipei foodies with a higher proportion of English language signage and visually arresting neon lit stalls. There is a mind-blowing array of flavours from full-blown steamboat style feasts, mountains of fresh seafood and calorific dessert snacks.
Must-try bites include port pepper buns, fried dumplings, braised pork rice and stinky tofu – if you dare! It is a buzzing night time haunt with its own streetwise entertainment courtesy of the flamboyant food vendors. The market is also alive with a carnival-like spirit featuring kid-friendly arcade games and even fortune telling stalls.
Raohe Street Night Market, Songshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan. MRT: Songshan Station, open 5:00pm – 12:00am
4. Liaoning Street night market
For Taipei standards, Liaoning Street night market is a cosy and compact foodie haven, stretching only about 200 metres along Laioning Street. Also referred to as Tonghua Night Market, it is perfect if you are seeking a less frantic street food experience, and is definitely the go-to spot for seafood lovers.
You’ll happen upon some unique, rarely seen concoctions such as fried goose, fish-flavoured eggplants and giant squid with pig’s blood cake. If they don’t sound particularly palatable, there are oodles of other tasty options. Simply pull up a stool, point to your favoured choice and inhale the tempting aromas wafting in the air.
You’ll find perhaps only a handful of tourists venturing this way, so this Night Market Taipei 2017 adventure is a full-on authentic experience. That means no long queues to get fed and a languid ambience where you can linger longer enjoying the food and listen to the animated chatter long into the night.
While seafood is the big draw, it’s by no means the only option. Tease the taste buds with oyster omelette, migao glutinous rice pudding, braised beef or even a few Thai-style dishes with a local twist.
Liaoning Street Night Market, Taipei City, Taiwan. MRT: Nanjing E. Road Station, open 4:00pm – 02:00am
5. Ximending Night Market
Follow the Taipei Night Market map to Ximending as a good bet to transition from day into night. It is a flourishing retail district crammed to the rafters with shops, cafés, teahouses and market stalls that seamlessly transforms into a vibrant pedestrianized eat street once night falls.
Ximending is Taipei’s counterculture hub of fashion and art with a distinctly Japanese flavour in both the food and the cosplayers who come out in force to shop, stroll and strut their stuff. There is street entertainment aplenty with enigmatic mime artists and talented buskers.
So what about the food? It’s all here in Ximending. Amid the flashing neon billboards there are trendy coffeehouses, conveyor belt sushi restaurants, juice bars and traditional Taiwanese food stands dishing out a mind-boggling volume of savoury and sweet snacks for the hungry masses. Highlights include steaming noodle dishes, hotpot, fried chicken and blow torched fired beef cubes.
Ximending Night Market, Taipei City, Taiwan. MRT: Ximen Station, 11:00am – 12:00am
Top Taipei Food Tours and Experiences
Ramp up a food adventure with a guided tour of the street food scene. A good bet if time in the city is short, you’ll get a comprehensive grounding in the highlights of Taiwanese food culture while venturing to parts of the city rarely frequented by many visitors.
1. Taipei Eats
Taipei Eats is the top dog for Taipei food tours led by expert guides who really know their stuff. The Xinyi food tour kicks off in the afternoon with a visit to a bustling traditional market, rummaging through the seasonal fruits and exotic vegetables with snacking stops to sample delicacies like hot green onion bread.
You are then guided through back alleys few tourists get to see in search of the authentic. You’ll get to kick back with a plate of old school sesame noodles at a hole in the wall café washed down with creamy bubble tea, and sample famous pork belly stuffed Taiwanese burgers.
The tour picks up the pace with a journey through Taiwanese art and history at Eslite Songyan Culture Park and Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, after yet more gluttonous stops to sample the ubiquitous stinky tofu, fried buns, rice cakes and more. It is a leisurely tour but there’s a lot to take in on an educational level with captivating stories about Taiwanese culture and the importance of food.
Taipei Eats 369, Section 5, Zhongxiao East Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan
2. Urban Adventures
At Ningxia Night Market it is love at first bite for many an adventurous food warrior. Come with an open mind as Ningxia is noted for many weird and wonderful street snacks. In fact the finale of this Urban Adventures’ guided tour is an optional ‘bizarre food challenge’ with prizes up for grabs for those brave enough to try three of the weirdest local delicacies chosen by the guides.
More palatable bites include snacking on scrumptious taro balls with egg, shrimp soup, pork leg rice and a host of vegetarian favourites. In all, you’ll get to taste a local snack and five local dishes while being regaled with the colourful stories behind each one. The tour is presented from the perspective of a local, so you get an insightful lowdown on real food culture.
3. Hunger Games
As the name suggests, this is a fun foodie experience with a touch of gamification. Tour the Taipei street food scene with a delicious twist. Scoff your way around Jingmei Night Market with a dozen different snacks while trying to guess exactly what the goodies are.
It’s a fun night best suited for young adventurous travellers keen to try anything at least once. Guides are knowledgeable and eager to share all their secrets of Taipei food culture. Best of all, Jingmei Night Market is one of the city’s most authentic street food destinations. There is a constant hum of activity but very few foreign tourists venture here.
Tour Me Away 228 Peace Park, Taipei, Taiwan
4. Ivy’s Kitchen
Eating is one thing, but nothing beats getting busy in the kitchen and creating your very own edible masterpiece. That’s where Ivy’s Kitchen comes in. Ivy’s offers primarily tailor-made Taiwanese cooking classes where you may choose exactly what you want to cook from a list of set menus in a private or group setting. It is fully hands-on experience with an optional food market tour to personally select the raw material, guided by genial chef Ivy.
It is a cut above the average cooking class with only top notch ingredients used. Available dishes to cook cover a diverse array of Taiwanese favourites and also global flavours including Mediterranean, North African and more with an inimitable Taiwanese twist. Ivy’s Kitchen also offers separate traditional market and street food tours for foodies who would rather just eat instead of slaving over a hot stove.
Ivy’s Kitchen 446, Section 6, Zhongshan North Road, Taipei City, Taiwan
5. Shrimp Fishing
Angling for yet another unique Taipei foodie experience? All it takes is a fishing rod and a little patience. Urban shrimp fishing is a hot local favourite pastime in Taipei where youngsters meet, eat and mingle. The premise is simple: you get a rod, unlimited bait, and a space by an artificial pool to fish for shrimp.
You’ll no doubt see locals adept at filling their buckets full of the crustaceans in no time, but it’s harder than it looks! My advice is to come as a group, sip a couple of beers while you wait for the shrimp to bite and have fun. Once you eventually catch your supper, there are barbecue grills at each pool to cook your catch.
All the shrimp fishing pools are rather unglamorously located under tarpaulin and all clustered together near Shilin Night Market. It’s a fun experience and serves as a social hangout for locals, particularly as all the shrimping pools are open 24/7.
Conclusion – Keep an open mind for a culinary culture shock
Once you get a taste for real authentic street food Taipei style, there’s definitely no going back to overpriced chain restaurants or fast food joints. While this blog post gives a good grounding for a first street food adventure in the Taiwan capital, it still only just about scratches the surface.
Ponder this thought: there are more than 100 huge night markets to grab a bite. When you add into the mix the super cheap prices for street food, there is little motivation to stay at home and slave over a hot stove. Perhaps best of all, sampling Taipei night market food is to have the senses constantly under attack. You’ll hunger to come back time and time again.
Alexander Grootmeester is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.
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