I think it’s fair to say that while British people do care about their food – we won’t hesitate to twat a seagull should it make a move for our chips – it’s hardly a cultural cornerstone. But in Taiwan, food matters. Meals are often a social event, and small independent restaurants are much more ingrained into Taiwanese society.
My Taiwanese friend, Pamela, tells me that: “in Chinese, when we meet with close family or friends, a common greeting is: nǐ chī bǎole ma?” In English this means something like: have you eaten / are you full?
There’s no more brilliant example of the role of food in Taiwanese culture than the night market.
“Everyone loves a night market,” Pamela tells me. “There are many of them all across Taipei, and in different cities throughout Taiwan. They usually open at around 6pm and can get really, really busy. Regular streets and roads are suddenly occupied by hundreds of shops, usually tiny stalls with just a couple of people at work. Sometimes, it’ll just be the shop owner, taking money, chatting to the customers, and cooking the food – all at the same time! It can get very hectic.”
When I first got to Taiwan, I was stressed, fatigued, and all kinds of confused. I had just started an internship, rented a room in a dirt cheap flat, and came to the shocking realisation that many homes in Taiwan simply don’t have kitchens.
Pamela, who was my co-worker at the time, must have grown tired of watching me frantically wave my arms at bewildered shop attendants. One evening, she decided to help. “I took you to Roahe night market,” she recounts. “Night markets are full of different things. Food to taste and smell, sights to see. It’s a good way to experience Taiwan’s culture and to try new things. In some night markets there are even stalls where you can play games. Catching fish in paper nets or rolling marbles to win prizes. It’s really helpful if you are sad or angry. These things can make you happy.”
When Pamela was young, she lived in Kaohsiung with her grandma. Kaohsiung is on the southwest coast of Taiwan, and about as far away from the capital of Taipei as you can get. It’s an altogether quieter place – wide streets, green parks, a lively port. This was where Pamela visited her first night market. “I remember they had many games. Everyone who played could get a small candy. But, if you played a lot, you could choose a big toy from the wall.”
These days, she has other priorities. “The best thing about night markets, of course, is the food. Many of the shops and stools are similar from place to place. Fried rice, fried noodles, tofu, milk tea. But sometimes you will find a shop with new food. This always makes me surprised. I often buy papaya milk. I often buy banana milk. Recently, I found a stall where the boss mixes both milks together. Papaya-banana milk!”
When it comes to which night market you should visit, Pamela has clear advice. “Not Shi Lin. It’s crazy. Too many people, all the time. So much noise. You can’t browse, you can’t relax. You’re always pushed around and rushed forwards.” Shi Lin is probably the most famous night market in Taipei. It’s the one that all the blogs talk about. And it is a spectacle, for sure. Probably not the best place to try some new food, though.
“My favourite night markets,” Pamela explains, “are Roahe and Ningxia.”
When she took me around Roahe, I tried sweet soybean snacks and shaved ice. I had my first taste of bubble milk tea. Some of it was delicious, and some of it was… Not. But what kept my mind at ease were the sights, the sounds, the smells. “Night markets are important,” Pamela tells me. “They are our culture, our special culture. When you think about Taiwan, you will think about the night market.”