One of the most wonderful perks of my day job, aside from doing what I truly love, is occasionally hopping on the plane, and waking up somewhere that many people would have a hard time finding on the map. And even as someone who has spent most of her adult life either traveling or planning her next adventure, there are still places that feel foreign, a little intimidating, and hugely exciting: Taiwan for me was definitely all of that! For a place that’s renown for its population density, bustling night markets, and a hodgepodge of regional influences on their cuisine, Taiwan can be overwhelming, but a veg tourist’s dream destination nonetheless.
There are plenty of vegetarian or even vegan joints in the city, but to truly experience the culture and the culinary delights of Taipei a visit to a Night Market is a must. There are numerous night markets all over the city, selling knock-off designer goods, peddling in carnival-like games, and wafting a variety food smells at their visitors, ranging from somewhat appetizing to straight up tantalizing, with everything in between. You can eat snake meat, get your fortune told, or get a foot massage. Or you can delve into the magical world of Taiwanese culinary.
Stinky Tofu is one of Taiwan’s most famous foods and a night market staple. And while its name isn’t the most confidence inspiring, it was possibly the most incredibly flavorful and satisfying food I ate on my trip. The smell of stinky tofu is often compared to that of sewage, so I’m not sure whether it was the jetlag or my adventurous spirit that enticed me to try it, but the second I bit into it I knew I had found my new favorite food. The only thing to watch out for: stinky tofu is gets its pungent odor from the fermentation process it undergoes anywhere from 6 hours to up to a month. And it isn’t uncommon for meat, seafood, or milk to be added to the brine. So make sure that you ask for either a vegetarian or a vegan version: restaurants are certain to have those since a significant portion of the population are practicing Buddhists.
One of the things I quickly noticed at the night market was a lot of makeshift restaurants everywhere: someone stirring a pot of food that emanated delightful scents, people huddled under tarps tucking into steaming bowls, chatting and laughing with their mouths full. There was no glamorous atmosphere, low lighting, or any sort of ambiance. There were no tablecloths, or any sort of fancy service. Chances were that you would get told off in Mandarin for getting in the way. But there was authenticity and honest rawness that was worth more than any tablecloth. The same authenticity was true for the flavors presented in the meals. It was at a stall like that that I had my very first Hot Pot, a staple of Asian cuisine, consisting of a simmering pot of stock into which you place a range of ingredients that you are given. In my case it was a variety of veggies, veggie wontons, and tofu.
Another veg-friendly night market culinary delight is the Green Onion Pancake: the perfect food if you are craving something chewy, flaky, savory and somewhat fatty, which, if you have ended up at a night market late at night, is not all too far fetched. It’s a satisfying treat, but just make sure that you ask if the dough has eggs or butter in it. And if you stick around the food stall long enough, someone will be sure to tell you that the pizza that is so popular in the West is actually an adaptation of the green onion pancake that Marco Polo brought back with him from China.
Once I had had my dinner at the night market, it was time for dessert, and night markets certainly do not lack in those. With options aplenty, I decided to write it off as investigative journalism, as I tried and tasted a little bit of everything. But when it came to the Red Bean Paste Cakes, having just a little bit would have been a disservice to myself. So I ended up strategically positioning myself by the vendor cart, trying to draw out the recipe secrets from the man whose family had been making them for a few generations. Sweet and filling, also referred to as Taiwanese wheel cakes, they are made of waffle-style batter (vegan versions can be found!), which is poured into molds, filled with red bean paste, and once cooked, two sides of a mold are pressed together. The texture is rich and soft, melting in your mouth, making you wonder if you could possibly manage to eat a second one.
I ended up trying a lot of different foods at the night market, both delicious, and some less so. But the key takeaway was that to truly experience a culture, to get to know its people and its history, sometimes it’s enough to venture out into a crowded night market with wide open eyes and mind. You never know when you will find your next new favorite dish. And sometimes it may even be stinky tofu.