I hate people who are not serious about their meals. -- Oscar Wilde

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Taiwan Dispatches: Shilin Night Market

Om Nomz Hero Note to Self: Lines in Asian Markets are always a good sign, we are impatient people. See a line, get in it immediately, you can figure out what they are selling later

Lady on Bottom Left- looks like she means business

I have not really written a lot of entries on Taiwan, but I figured that since I will be heading back again this year, I would recount my last visit to one of the most notable markets in Taiwan, the Shilin Market. Taiwan has an underappreciated foodie culture that has just the same fanatic food devotion in any other Asian countries. Taiwan night markets although you could shop for clothing and shoes that may have questionable copyright infringements; the focus if you ever visit a night market in Taiwan is the food. One that everyone hears about is Du Giang-long Market or Snakehead Alley and on instinct and the alluring name, you want to head there and hope for a Blade Runner-esque experience. What you will find there is a lot of tourists some food and cases of snake that do not taste very good and Taiwanese proprietors, waiting to overcharge the happy Mei Guo Ren in eat weird and chewy snake. There is nothing wrong with this, it is just the equivalent of going to Time Square and wanting a Dirty Water Hotdog, you do not really see any New Yorkers really doing this and you are buying a really expensive hotdog. You are much better off of going to Shilin Market, which can be just as touristy, but the food is good and still is frequented by all. 

Baked Bao Zi dude
Shilin Market is a bit of a hike to get to but thankfully the Taiwan subway/metro system was created in Japanese precision, it is clearly marked on the maps and has the names of the stops in English. Getting off the Shilin station, you are disoriented by the massive amount of people, strings of bare lights and stalls and people that are hawking food, tissues and other things at you. Shilin Market area has 2 parts to it, there is the actually market area that is covered, and open during the day and is basically a food court of multiple stalls. There you will find your Taiwanese street food staples like the fried chicken cutlets, meat is tube form and the oyster omelets just to name the popular. However, if you are like me and like the experience of eating on the street in a sea of people, let the bright lights and the throngs of people guide you to the street part of the Shilin Market. 

Pan Fried XLB innards

One of the first things that you should hit up, and jump in line for is the pan fried xiaolongbao (XLB). You will know you are at the right place with the line of people out this stall and pans of XLB being bathed in hot oil. The pan fried XLB are noticeably different not only by the lack of refined folding but it has a thicker skin and a crunchy bottom. The pan fried XLB are designed and made for street eating. They however do not lack any soup qualities as my first bite left me with roof mouth burn and soup dribbling down my neck. 

Pan fried XLB making

Any trip to Taiwan would not be complete without eating a bao zi, basically a meat filled roll and steamed. They can be found pretty much anywhere, but what you won’t find everywhere is baked bao zi that is done up in like this. The bao zi are baked in a tandoori-like oven and on closer inspection (after a few dirty looks from people in line), the process is similar to making nann, in which the bao zi is stuck to the side and the when they are ready, are peeled off. The result is a crispy slightly smoky exterior and a soft meaty interior. 

multiple oyster omelet making
Of course any trip to Taiwan would not be complete without an oyster omelet. It is not an omelet by your local diner standards and is a bit more similar to a crepe. It is a eggy mixture that is combined with oysters, eggs and a starch component that is blanketed over Taiwanese bok choy and smothered in a reddish gravy. The resulting combination of this is a textural and taste symphony that is unlike anything you have consumed. What makes the pancake is not the eggy crisp, sticky, gooey egg and oyster combination but it is that red gravy. The gravy is different from place to place, each putting something different, but they are all consistent with tomato/ketchup (Asian style Ketchup) and sweetness and maybe a slight amount for heat. The sweetness works magically and pairs wonderfully with the slightly bitter bok choy. 

Oyster Omelet

Another unique eat is the big sausage little sausage. The big sausage is composed of gluten rice and peanut sausage that has the similar composition of Cajun boudin and the little sausage is a plump, plum sauce sweet Chinese sausage. The big sausage is butterflied and the small sausage is shoved in and thick aged soy is squirted on top. To compare it to a hotdog is unjust and would not even be comparable, this thing is in a league of its own. 

Big Sausage little Sausage
Of course you’re in Asia, so dumplings are available and everywhere, and can get a bowl full for less than 1 US dollar. Be sure to add a good dose of hot sauce. 


Finally, my favorite street treat, and I guess the most adventurous eat is Pork Blood on a stick, Offal fans, take note. Most of the vendors that have pork blood on stick vendors are not brightly advertised and showing off their goods. You can recognize them by a simple rectangular wooden box that has wisps of steam permeating from the sides. The transaction feels a bit shady, as the vendor reaches into his box and pulls out a skewered rectangular block, but if this is wrong, I don’t want to be right. The block of blood is then coated in peanut sauce, a drizzle of aged soy and in my case, a bit of hot sauce. Surprisingly it is only slightly porky and does not taste minerally at all. The Pork blood is steamed with rice in order to give it some body and results in a gooey, chewy meaty stick and the texture kind of reminds me of being like extremely soft nougat. The crush peanut coating offers a slight sweetness and textural crunch and if you are all for textural foods and can embrace the love of gelatinous textures that Asians are so fond of, then give it a shot, besides, it cost less than a dollar and uhh good source of iron?

Pork Blood on a stick- Mobile Offal

Of course there are many things that I missed or did not take pictures of, like the oyster noodle stew or fried chicken cutlet but I was cursed with only one stomach. For first timers in Taiwan, Shilin is an experience that you should not mix. Despite the sea of people, locals and tourists alike, eating there is not as frantic as you would expect. There are bubbles and moments of serene eating as you stand in a pocket of free space between a juice bar and a Puma store eating a pan fried XLB. Though I am unsure if I will be making the ride out to Shilin Market this time around (got to try the other ones) there is no better way to immerse yourself into Taiwan and see firsthand what a food fanatical country is like. Oh by the way, the dudes with the surgical masks are not performing discount surgery, they are cooking stinky tofu so either steer clear or run towards it your choice, though I think you know what I would be doing. 

Yeah, insert your own inappropriate jokes here

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