Ahhh, have I ever mentioned how much I love street food? In China and Taiwan, these delectable treats are called xiaochi. Loosely translated in English, it means snack foods. It’s something you can find at the hundreds of thousands of small food carts all over Taiwan and China. But if you crave a conflagration of tasty snacks, you don’t have to go any farther than the nearest Night Market.
Night Markets are a fairly old concept. The story I was told was that they grew up around the various temples in old China as places for people to gather, socialize, and more importantly shop and eat after the services were finished at the local temple. Over time, they took on a life of their own and have been a staple in Chinese culture for well over 1000 years. Today, Night Markets are a popular tourist attraction, and still a loud, brightly lit place for the locals to gather, talk, laugh, eat and shop.
Some Night Markets in Taipei, like Shilin Night Market and the Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market, also known as Snake Alley, are usually very packed and draw tourists from all around the world. The smaller Night Markets are still crowded and busy, but less so due to the fact that tourists generally over-look them. But no matter where you end up, the xiaochi is plentiful and delicious! Most are open just about every night of the week.
You can find all sorts of snacks at the Night Markets, from fried and steamed dumplings to chicken legs to fried fish and snails. Each market has a variety of eats to choose from and each market also generally has a specialty it’s known for. Stalls hawk clothing, gadgets, accessories, shoes, gifts and all manner of trinkets and doodads. Also available is a veritable plethora of sweet treats from fruits and fruit juices to pearl tea, pudding, ice cream and baked and fried sweets of all types. Of course, you can also find one of my favorites as well, pork products.
Let’s face it, the world would be a better place with more meats on sticks, and none of those reign supreme like pork. From sweet to spicy, sausages on sticks has to be one of the greatest combinations of wood skewer and tender flesh ever invented. Corn dogs, hot dogs, sausages, chunks, bits and bobs, it all goes on sticks and is cooked over open flame until delicious and done. One of my personal favorites in Taiwan is a sweet type of sausage. It doesn’t have a ton of flavor on its own, but combine it with bites of fresh garlic and you would be amazed.
The distinct clash of flavors between the sharp, tangy garlic and the sweet, savory sausage is something akin to magic in your mouth, two seemingly opposite forces dancing in harmony across your taste buds. And best of all, these amazingly good sausages can be had for as little as 30 Taiwan Dollars, or about $1 US.
Another treat to try is tofu in various forms. I will admit that I’m not the most ardent fan of tofu, but fried and dipped in a sweet pepper sauce, or simmered in a spicy sauce, tofu can be quite tasty and makes another great, inexpensive snack while you’re wandering around the various stalls and carts buying those gifts for the people back home.
Another local favorite is the oyster omelet. You are almost guaranteed for find someone selling a take on this quintessential Taiwanese xiaochi at every night markets. The oyster omelet is just as it sounds. An egg omelet with oysters as the stuffing. Some may include garlic, scallion cilantro or other additions. Some may just simply be egg and omelet, usually fried in pork lard and sometimes presented with a gravy or fish sauce. Either way, they are surprisingly good and have been called addictive.
The whole idea of xiaochi is similar to the idea of tapas style dining. The portions are deliberately small making the act of eating a social experience. Buy a couple of each and share with your friends. Walk, talk and eat while you browse or watch the people coming and going. Sample a little of everything and leave satisfied but not stuffed. For each serving, expect to pay between 20 and 50 TWD and for a full meal, you’ll pay between 200 and 300 TWD if you really show up hungry. It’s a great way to dine and always an entertaining way to spend an evening.