Sadly we weren’t able to take our usual cooking class in Taiwan as it was surprisingly expensive and we simply couldn’t justify it given that we’re fairly broke these days. After doing some research the cheapest class I could find was 100USD per person which was so far out of our budget we may as well have been flying to the moon to learn how to cook. I mean, it’s not cheap here by South East Asian standards but it’s hardly the most expensive place we’ve visited so we were kind of shocked at the prices and sad that our cooking class challenge seemed to be coming to an untimely end.
So we had to get creative and find a way to learn about traditional Taiwanese food without spending our weekly budget for accommodation on one meal in the process. This is where Tour Me Away came in. Discovered via a leaflet in our hostel we realised that they don’t just offer free City walking tours, they also run a weekly ‘Hunger Games’ street food tour every Sunday. It seemed like the perfect compromise and at only 15USD each for a guided tour of a night Market and tastings of 12 local delicacies it offered great value.
When we met our lovely tour guides Tanya and Rya, who are students at the local university in Taipei, we found an even better excuse for not spending our hard earned cash on a cooking class. Turns out that home cooking is pretty unusual in Taiwan and the prevalence of cheap tasty food at various market stalls and restaurants means that most people eat out for the majority of their meals. Eating street food is basically a way more authentic way to learn about the local cuisine than taking a cooking class. With this discovery making our decision even more valid we were pretty excited to get eating.
The market we visited was Jing Mei Night Market, which runs daily and is located just outside Jing Mei MRT station (exit 2). It’s a great one to visit as it’s pretty much solely used by students and locals and there aren’t too many tourists about. Everyone we met on our culinary journey through the market found it pretty hilarious to watch a bunch of westerners trying out Taiwanese street food which added to the experience! And it seriously was an experience.
I’m not sure if everyone is familiar with the kind of delicacies you’re likely to encounter at a food market in Taipei but it is not for the faint hearted. Rob’s pretty adventurous with his food these days but I can be a bit of a wuss and was pretty sure I’d be going home hungry. Let me start by warning you that stinky tofu is called stinky tofu for good reason… and if you’re hopeful for veggie or vegan options now you’ve heard the word tofu do not get your hopes up. You might want to look away now actually.
So here are the exciting and sometimes downright bizarre things we sampled on our Hunger Games adventure!
1. Traditional Tea
Our first stop was for a warm up drink at a local tea stand. How intimidating can tea be, I hear you say… but just you wait right there as this was no normal tea. We were treated to a choice of 3 popular Taiwanese teas, all said to boast different properties to help your health. The first was herbal tea – great if you’re ill or need to lower your temperature and was relatively inoffensive.
The next option was where it grew a little more adventurous however. Sadly most of us misheard ‘bitter’ tea as ‘beta’ tea and decided we’d give it a try. It’s supposed to help if you’re hungover or tired but tastes like chewing an old cigarette butt if I’m completely honest. Finally Rob plumped for beauty tea (made from a flower I didn’t catch the name of), which is designed to help balance and general health and was by far the best of the three.
2. Fried Chicken (but not as we know it…)
I love a bit of fried chicken so wasn’t too worried about this one until I realised the stall featured literally all parts of the chicken fried on skewers. A little intimidating to say the least – especially when it turned out we were going to draw straws and each select a mystery skewer at random which we had to eat before guessing at the contents. Lucky me for chicken gizzard which was dreadful chewy but didn’t taste THAT bad. I still haven’t looked up what a gizzard is and don’t particularly want to find out. Rob enjoyed some chicken hearts which I couldn’t bring myself to taste and some lucky people got to eat skewered chicken butts – delightful!
3. Pigs Blood Cake (starts to get worse at this stage)
Our next treat was actually voted the most disgusting food in the world by CNN – our guides looked over the moon as they told us this. It consists of some weird pate textured chunk of pigs blood doused with soy sauce, sprinkled with peanuts and garnished with coriander. It’s as bad as you can imagine but black pudding loving Rob claims he quite enjoyed it. It was by far the biggest test of my gag reflex that evening.
4. Deep Fried Stinky Tofu! (That’s actually what it’s called)
I was the only one in the group who hadn’t heard of this and everyone else seemed suitably nervous about trying it given the name. Surprise surprise – it was actually delicious and I ended up ordering it from the next night market we visited on our trip to Taichung! Whilst it cropped up in different guises later in the evening that weren’t quite so pleasant this tofu wasn’t bad at all.
We were told that it was basically the entry level of stinky tofu and really only for stinky tofu amateurs but hey, I’ll take that. It’s basically squares of fermented tofu, served with slices of sour cabbage which are like a Taiwanese version of kimchi, together with garlic and sometimes spicy sauce or soy sauce. Everything’s better deep fried and we got stuck in to our servings with most people finishing them off and really enjoying them.
5. Chicken Feet (Probably as bad as you imagine)
Midway through our tasty stinky tofu we were presented with a treat – some chicken feet! By this point I was feeling brave and got stuck right in, only to ring that the feet were so chewy I couldn’t actually make any progress with eating them at all. Not only were chewy, they seemed to have been soaked in oil so despite best intentions I had to dispose of them elegantly into a napkin. Just couldn’t do it in the end!
6. Oil Rice & Oyster Noodles (With surprise bonus intestines)
There’s some good tradition associated with oil rice in Taiwanese culture – after a baby is born if it’s a boy then oil rice with chicken legs are gifted to relatives, where if it’s a girl two red eggs are given. We had it on its own and it tasted pretty good, so no complaints with this one. The oyster noodles were also tasty although the idea of eating oysters from a Night Market was a little nerve wracking! Finally we also tried some pig intestines with soy sauce at this stand, although we didn’t find out what they were until we’d finished. This was probably for the best as I wouldn’t have tried it otherwise and surprisingly it turned out to be one of my favourites of the night and also one of the most popular street food dishes in Taipei.
7. Duck Blood and Steamed Stinky Tofu (Yeah… almost gave up at this point)
By this point we were all braving everything without too much concern, and tucked straight in to what we thought was top level stinky tofu – of the steamed variety. Apparently the steam makes the fermented smell and taste even stronger and this type of stinky tofu is only for seasoned professionals. Sadly we were mistaken and it turned out we were actually eating some kind of jelly like duck blood. I nearly vommed after a mouthful but some of the group insisted they quite enjoyed it. We then discovered the stinky tofu was under the duck blood nestled in the bottom of the bowl. Another surprise – yes it was pretty fragrant but it really wasn’t that bad, tasty enough for a second helping in fact.
8. Dessert (…finally)
Finally it was time for dessert and we were secretly confident that our lovely guides would give us a break and treat us to some icecream or perhaps some chocolate cake, both of which we’d spotted on our rounds of Jing Mei Market. Sadly this was not to be but our desert and last dish of the evening turned out to be delicious – tofu pudding served with boba, yellow jelly, shaved ice and sweet tofu. It’s not as sweet as you might imagine but it’s actually really good and we were all left wanting more once we’d finished up. Never thought we’d eat tofu in so many forms but this was probably the best one we tried!
Once we finished eating Tanya and Rya guided us back through the market to a secret last spot, which turned out to be a temple where we learnt some more about Taiwanese culture. It turns out that Night markets are usually built around temples – due to their nature as places to gather people and neighbourhoods together. Food is always a great way to get people together and it was no different for the communities based around Taipei where street vendors vendors congregated around the site of local festivities. The best food would be found nearest to the temples, where puppet shows etc would take place and the tradition continues today with stalls built around central temples.
It was the perfect way to round off a brilliant evening of street food and whilst not everything we tried was necessarily to our tastes, it was one of the best foodie experiences we’ve had. Getting the opportunity to try so many different dishes with friendly help, guidance and explanations was the best way we could have learnt more about Taiwanese food and we’d 100% recommend taking a street food tour in Taiwan. I’d say it was one of the best things we did on our three days in Taipei. It’s incredibly cheap for what you get to eat and experience and our guides were amazing – friendly, professional and speaking almost perfect English we learnt loads about everything we got to try.