When I first mentioned that I was planning a short exploration of Taipei's culinary terrain, almost without exception, those who have been made a comment about the night markets there, either endorsing them or deriding them. There seemed to be a split; those whose opinions on food I respect tended to be negative and those whose interests lay elsewhere (I tolerate a few of these people) were more likely to talk them up. Online information on the city's cuisine has these markets front and centre, the green jade centrepiece of the Taipei food landscape. It was hard to get a read.
I would have to literally explore. And given that my entire command of Mandarin is restricted to 'hello', that street names are spelled (sometimes significantly) differently on maps, that google maps more often that not would not recognise the street names I entered, I knew that the expedition was fraught with the risk of failure. What I did not anticipate was the universal generosity of spirit of the locals. They not only give directions. On several occasions in my three day trip, a local accompanied me to the place I was rather feebly seeking on my own. The Taiwanese are naturally and gently hospitable.
What also made the quest simpler was that Taipei does not have just one night market; they are a feature of every district, at times it seemed every neighbourhood. This fact in part began to inform my view of them. If the night markets are everywhere, not just in those districts populated by tourists, they must be places where locals actually promenade, meet, interact and eat. And if so, then they can’t all be eating badly. Amidst the ping-pong balls and chopstick fishing rods of the sideshow games, I surely would find an eatery or cart with gastronomic spunk.
But would it be in Banqiao, a district of the so-called ‘New Taipei City’, twelve minutes and six metro stops from Taipei’s main station, where I happened to be staying. On first sight, the Nanya Night Market exhibits all the characteristics of night markets that I had been warned of and that I normally eschew. Predominantly it is ‘Things-on-Sticks-Ville’, with a dozen or more vendors specialising in impalement. Wooden skewers run through all parts animal and many vegetables; mystery balls, fallopian tubes, cocktail sausages and mushrooms just to name a few. Milk and tapioca ball ‘tea’ stations have lengthy queues indicating that these concoctions may well be the national beverage of Taiwan’s youth. Vendors selling portioned bags of cut fruit are also prominent, the pink guava being the best seller.
I walk up and down, my appetite and interest on the wane. Then, towards the end of the market strip, I spy promise; a dark den moderately rowdy with patrons silouetted by large lit fridges in back loaded up with gorgeous green bottles of Taiwan’s Gold Medal beer. This is not the bubble tea set. They are definitely more of my ilk, enjoying a drink at the end of the day to take the edge off. A few may have tipped over the edge but it’s a real crowd. Two middle aged women are pissed and chain-smoking. A table of men are receiving double the lip they give from the young waitress. At the front of house, behind polystyrene boxes of oysters and a refrigerated cabinet of other seafood, a griller man with red hot coals is calling out for my order. The proprietor of the house is hands-on, seating us, telling us the first two oysters are on him before returning to his station at the sink to work on scrubbing their shells clean.
From an open broiler comes the first plate of our order, squid with edges browned and still bubbling alongside a ramekin of pepper for dipping and an elaborate garnish of orchid (no less), curly parsley and pickled daikon that is not in keeping with the surrounds nor the clientele. We roll with it, devouring the squid which has an indefinable perfect chewiness.
The complimentary oysters come and go quickly, as they should, sliding off their shells, a smudge of wasabi, a thin slice of lime, a drop of soy melding together a moment of quixotic transcendence. Needless to say, I order more and then more again, every one going down as the first one did. The proprietor has that knowing smile as he looks up to observe my progress.
An outstanding way to eat corn is also introduced to me. Baby corn in its husk is broiled until the husk starts browning. The waitress delivers it with mayonnaise and salt on the side and demonstrates how to eat it. She expertly tears the outer leaves off to reveal the fine sagging hairs around the inner cob. In a motion not unlike a helicopter, she swings the hairs through the mayo to coat them and dips them in the salt. Our lesson is over. We are fast learners.
This Taipei night market experience has rewarded thorough exploration. I was not entirely put off by the superficial sameness of the scene. My expectation would now be that all of Taipei’s night markets yield at least one (maybe more) eating expereinces to match the one I had in Banqiao. I have more than one reason to return.