Story Time

Night Markets in Taiwan: The full sensual experience.

If you ask us what we love most about Taiwan, one of our top three answers will be the night markets, up there with the astonishing mountains and the incredibly hospitable people.  Night markets are just plain insane.  Being from the US, they are like nothing we have ever seen or experienced before.  While walking through, you can go from wide-eyed and mouth ajar to irritated and put off in a split second.  These amalgamations, not best suited for those who claim to have Attention Deficit Disorder, contain the complete sensual experience.  Let us take you on a journey sense by sense.

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Approaching the night market, you pick up the pace of your steps a bit, eager to experience what lies ahead.  Before long, though, your pace slows and you come to a dead halt.  Ahead is a wall of people who seem not to be moving an inch.  You have arrived.  Now you are but a sheep in a large herd, slowly being beckoned through the crammed, meter wide walkway.  You are no longer walking, but instead shuffling along, your feet never really leaving the ground completely.  You feel a nudge behind you, but can barely manage to turn your head 90 degrees to see what had happened.  You bump into the person ahead of you.  More nudges, pushes and shoves  throw your body around, resembling an awkward dance.  People stopping and starting, standing and shuffling, loitering and shopping.  As you look ahead, everyone else is mimicking your awkward dance. You stop to check out the cheap clothing on display and rub the cloth gently between your fingertips to determine its value.  You exchange your crinkled paper for an exchange of cool, metal coins.  You feel the wooden skewers weighted down by a seemingly endless number of varieties of food.  The smooth plastic of the colander and its growing weight put tension on your forearm muscles.  The heat from your food licks your fingers, palms and wrists as you lift it up and feel it at your mouth.  More shuffling.  More stopping.  More starting.  You feel the condensation from the cold juice your hand is wrapped around.  Slowly the crowd thins and the bumping, shuffling and stopping turns into a comfortable stroll.  The dry asphalt of the night market subsides and evolves into the damp gutter of the Taipei street onto which you step.

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Approaching the night market, the sounds of the city play their tunes.  The loud engines of the large buses and equally loud scooters, accompanied by the occasional honking of the cabbies.  As you come to your dead halt, these noises become droned out by louder, overlapping chatters in front of you.  Hundreds of intersecting conversations recounting the day, telling jokes, laughing, fighting, children crying, children playing.  A lively, unique and beautifully natural human symphony taking place in the middle of a concrete jungle.  Shuffling through the market, the conversation tune begins to be remixed with the clanking, scraping, flipping and turning of spatulas on grills.  This intermittent sounds from the spatulas is mixed with the crackling and sizzling of the fire licking the metal below.  The bubbling of boiling soups and deep fryers cackle maniacally and beckon you.  The constant sound of thousands of jaws fervently chewing food and slurping drinks.  The sounds of bargaining and exchanging prices and owners yelling out their daily deals.  The soundtracks of clothing, music and variety stores.  The juices being squeezed from their fruits and splashing lightly in the bottom of paper cups.  Finally, the unique soundtrack of the night market begins to fade and morph back into one of vehicles driving, stopping and honking, greeting you back onto the streets.  

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Approaching the night market, various aromas engorge your nostrils, immediately triggering a slow, deep rumble from your gut.  This budding hunger, though, is thwarted as soon as you enter the market and walk past one of the first stands: stinky tofu.  The curdling, rank, fermented, spoiled, sour smell hits with the full force of a brick wall.  You try to evade it by plugging your nostrils and holding your breath, passing a hopefully safe distance of 3 or 4 stands away, and then breathing out as deeply and as long as possible.  All of the air that filled your body rushes out like a burst tire, leaving your lungs flat and your brain begging for air.  You breath in deeply.  The savory scent of grilled and deep fried meats, vegetables and seafood rushes in to fill the void.  A welcome scent it most certainly is.  You continue forth and your scent glands tingle from the spicy, red, glistening paste (La4) painted on pan-fried dumplings.  The evolution continues, and the tingling spice dissipates, its scent pushed out by the crisp, sweet smell of citrus from the fruit stand next door.  The scents from grapefruits, lemons, limes, and oranges dance lightly in your nostrils before being overtaken by the honey roasting deep into freshly grilled peanuts.  Citrus to sugary sweet honey-glazed peanuts within feet.  Finally, you are enveloped by the ever present smell of boiling tea leaves gently swimming through the thick, wet, humid Taiwan air.  Alas, though, the magic must end and you are again met by the bland sewer, gasoline and smog that is a part of the everyday life in Taipei outside the oases of scent called night markets.

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Approaching the night market, your mouth begins to water and your stomach begins to grumble as the urges of hunger begin to build.  Unfortunately, though, the first taste to unleash itself onto your tongue is the putrid, trash like smell of stinky tofu that, in the smothering, humid Taipei air, is transformed into mobile waves of taste.  You dodge the area of biological contamination and breathe out to ensure the taste doesn’t reappear.  Danger evaded, you stop at stand after stand to attack your taste buds with the desired arrays of flavors.  First, you stop at a barbecue stand strewn with various meats, vegetables and types of seafood, all skewered thoughtlessly on wooden sticks.  You pick out what is probably too many, but your insatiable need to taste all the delicacies trumps your conscious’s pleas for control.  “Yao da la ma?”  “Yao da la,” you reply as you impatiently wait.  Finally, it is ready as your mouth is has now entered full Hooch mode.  You try to contain your desires and not shove everything into your mouth at once, but the combination of homemade barbecue sauces, spicy seasonings, la, and the juices of the food prove to much.  Ecstasy.  The sea of shuffling sheep move forwards shoulder to shoulder as the juices unceremoniously run down your cheeks to your chin.  Your taste-high causes you to pass up the pan-fried dumpling stand.  “Next time,” you tell yourself.  Then, though, the rainbow collage of fruits peppering a table, and the sign of freshly squeezed juice stops you dead in your tracks.  The perfect ending to the perfect meal.  Cup in hand, straw in mouth, the first gulp fills your mouth with a sweet and sour citrus combination that dance on top of your tongue like a joyful sprite.  The savory of your barbecue and the sweet and sour of your beverage send you into a taste heaven as you exit back onto the street.

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Approaching the night market, you see herds of people towards the flashing lights of a sign that reads, “Raohe Night Market.”  Like moths they swarm and you are beckoned to its light.  You walk under the archway, glancing up at it, and come to a stop.  Ahead of you lies a sea of dark hair, flashing lights and waves of smoke slowly rising towards the darkened sky.  Thousands of shuffling feet and swiveling heads.  You press forth, your curiosity peaked by the colorful lights and foods.  You go slowly at first, but your pace is quickly hastened by all of your other senses telling you the bubbling mess of dark liquid and floating cubes to your side is, in fact, stinky tofu.  The pot of toxic potion behind you, you spot a stand sporting bins upon bins filled with foods of all ranges of colors, shapes and sizes.  Greens, pinks, browns, reds, purples, tans.  It is a crayon-box also known as a barbecue stand.  You quickly grab for the nearby stack of colanders and their companions, tongs.  Your eyes slowly scan the wide variety of tofu, fish patties, squid, chicken kebabs, bacon-wrapped scallions and bean sprouts, fried chicken, and various vegetables as your brain tries to keep up and keep check.  Before long, your colander is heavy with the weight of far too much, far too delicious looking food.  Food in the hands of your barbecuing professionals, you scan your surroundings.  Your food is being brushed with glistening barbecue sauces and sprinkled with spices.  Countless people mull around waiting, like you, for their food and blocking countless other shuffling passers-by.  Finally, after what felt like an eternity but was only about five minutes the laoban hands you your numerous bags overflowing with glistening, beautiful skewers of steaming-hot food.  You press on slowly as you voraciously and gracelessly gorge yourself on your recently acquired meal.  Stands with cakes.  Stands overflowing with boiled and grilled crabs and shrimp.  Stands with shrimp balls and fried Oreos.  Stands with the always delicious, oily dumplings being slowly brushed with the delicate hands of artists with la.  Finally, you see what you were looking for, the fruit stand.  Fruits in every imaginable hue are piled on tables like Earth’s Skittles.  You see the hand-squeezed juices and make a bee line.  The laoban firmly squeezes the fruit as their juices flow until they turn into mere drips in your cup.  Cup in hand and a big smile on face, you press on and see a darkness at the end of the tunnel.  The lights and stands recede as you make your way onto the dark, damp street.  You turn back for one last touch of your feet shuffling on the ground.  One last bit of beautiful night market music.  One last smell of tea leaves in the night air.  One last taste of your savory barbecue and sweet and sour refreshment.  One last sight of the people, the lights and the stands of the night market.

For a video representation, check out Anthony Bourdain’s Layover episode: 48 Hours in Taipei.

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Have you ever had a night market experience? Share it with us below!

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5 thoughts on “Night Markets in Taiwan: The full sensual experience.

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  3. I can’t believe I didn’t read this sooner! This is AMAZING! Such beautiful writing, I love the style that you used. You put us right there with you touching, listening, smelling, tasting and seeing. Love love love! 🙂

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