Going to Taiwan and not eating at a street market is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower, or heading to the big apple for the first time and skipping Times Square or the Empire State Building.
Some things are just iconic. Calling night markets iconic may seem like a reach, but it’s absolutely the truth.
The night markets of Taiwan are so far ingrained in Taiwanese culture, you’d be seriously missing out on understanding an essential part of Taiwan if you didn’t visit at least one.
That said, I didn’t have high food expectations before visiting Taiwan- I knew bubble tea was a big deal, but hadn’t given much thought to the night markets everyone raved about. I assumed (incorrectly) vegetarian eats at the markets would be sparse, and I’d be left eating at cafes and the likes of Din Tai Fung, which is phenomenal and can not be missed.
I planned on visiting a few night markets, but assumed I’d need to find things to eat and drink elsewhere.
Oh, how wrong I was.
In most of Asia, vegetarian means starchy or fried food, and Taipei is no different. Reaching Bali with its abundance of fresh fruit and veg was a welcome reprieve.
But on a short trip to Taiwan (eight days), I was just excited to find so much affordable vegetarian food. The fact that it was pretty much all unhealthy mattered less to me, because I knew eating that way would be short lived.
Finding a night market to check out will be easy in Taiwan, the hard part will be deciding on one.
Night markets go back over 1,000 years to the Tang Dynasty in ancient China. Some of the ones in Taiwan date back to the 1950s.
Back then, night markets usually developed little by little. They’d start as a small collection of vendors, usually situated on street corners, near universities or in front of temples. Over time, they’d grow and begin to take over entire streets or neighborhoods.
Today, the eats you’ll find at a Taiwanese night market are known as xiaochi, loosely translated in Chinese to ‘snacks’.
Think: Tapas. Items are meant to serve one person, and usually meant for take-away.
Nervous to eat street food?
You shouldn’t worry in Taiwan. Food safety laws are enforced, sanitation is some of the best I’ve seen in Asia.
If you want to be extra careful, only buy from vendors with lines of locals or tourists. A queue is a good sign the food is top-notch.
I’ve heard in Taipei, there are over 30 night markets. And, in all of Taiwan? Over 70.
During my eight days in Taipei, I visited three night markets. I’d meant to make it to one or two others, but ended up returning to some street food spots I loved instead.
The three I visited were Shilin, Rahoe and Tonghua. Of the ones I skipped, Ningxia is the only one I wished I’d made it to. It’s said to be two rows of stalls running alongside Ningxia road, and rumour has it, it’s where you’ll find some of the best mochi in Taiwan.
If you’re a first time visitor to Taipei, don’t miss checking out these three night markets
SHILIN: Easily, the most recognised night market in Taipei, Shilin is the largest. Beginning in 1899 with only a few vendors selling seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables, the market has expanded to hundreds of food stalls.
You’ll find the food section opposite the Jintan Metro Station. And, if you fancy a browse of homewares and clothing, that part of the market begins next to Yang Ming Cinema on Anping Street.
Can’t miss eats at Shilin-
- Mushrooms: I know what you’re likely thinking- mushrooms, really? I was skeptical as well. Even as a vegetarian, I’m not a huge fan of mushrooms- they’re one of my least favourite vegetables. But, at the Shilin night market, when I saw a 15 minute queue for seasoned and grilled mushrooms, I knew I had to get in line to see what the hype was about. After one bite, I was ready to take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about mushrooms. These were coated in a special sauce, grilled, coated again, grilled a bit more and then sprinkled with two seasonings of your choice. I went with lemon pepper and rosemary seasonings and could not believe how incredible the mushrooms tasted. You’ll find similar stalls at other night markets, but the one at Shilin is said to be one of the best
- Papaya milk: You can find this sweet, smooth, creamy beverage at any of Taiwan’s night markets. Papaya milk is to Taiwan what sugarcane juice is to Vietnam- a must try, refreshing treat.
- Sugarcane juice: Especially great if you’re visiting on a hot, humid day.
- Fried cheese hot dogs
- Fried oyster omelet: Almost every night market in Taiwan sells them, each market has its own unique variation. It’s usually eggs, oysters, vegetables and sauces as an accompaniment.
- Fried chicken: Being a vegetarian, I didn’t try this, but it was hard to miss people wandering around with enormous deep-fried chicken cutlets. A friend who visited Taiwan right before I did raved about them, saying the meat was tender and the spices were just enough flavouring
RAHOE: Adored for being big, but smaller and more manageable than Shilin, I immediately understood why others raved about the Rahoe night market.
With one main drag, there are vendors on both sides, and even a few in the alleyways leading away from the market.
Can’t miss eats at Rahoe-
- Fried Milk: Not a big dairy consumer, I was skeptical of trying this fried treat when I spotted the stall right outside the front gates at the Rahoe night market. Upon biting into one of the small balls, I realised it was condensed milk. Immediately, I decided it was too sweet for my liking. But, I can see why others rave about the dessert- the fried shell lends a savoury element to the sweetness of the milk. Worth trying, for sure.
- Muah Chee: Think of muah chee as the Taiwanese version of mochi. It’s soft dough wrapped around different flavours (usually black seasme, red bean, taro or peanut butter) and then grilled and rolled in crushed peanuts. Hella delicious.
- Pig Buns: Known as the market’s most famous stall, Fuzhou Shizu Black Pepper Buns is impossible to miss at the entrance. I didn’t try these because, vegetarian but everyone I know who has had them absolutely raves about the taste.
- Ribs Stewed in Herbs: Another famed stall, Chen Dong Ribs are stewed in medicinal herbs. There’s usually a line here, but the crowds say the wait is worth it.
- Grilled squid or octopus: You can find these stands at most night markets, but the queues for the ones at Rahoe were the longest I’d seen, which is always a good thing.
- Other classic night market eats to be on the lookout for here- watermelon juice, papaya milk, onion pancakes and oyster omelets
TONGHUA: Saving the best for last, always. If you only have time to visit one night market in Taiwan, I’d make it this one.
Controversial opinion, since so many people love Shilin, but I liked that Tonghua was smaller.
It felt more local- I didn’t see any other Westerners (although, that probably changes depending the time of year you visit- I was in Taiwan during the rainy season). Even if there are other tourists there when you visit, the food is still hailed as the most traditional of all the night markets in Taipei.
It’s less touristy with more authentic food. That’s my kind of market experience.
Can’t miss eats at Tonghua-
- Stinky Tofu: You’ll smell this before you even get close to the stall. Found at night markets all over Taiwan, locals can’t get enough of this smelly, savoury treat. I held off on trying it until I found myself at the Michelin starred stall at the Tonghua night market. Here, the tofu was slightly less stinky than other varieties I’d come across. I found the taste interesting- sour, tart, and oddly smooth. I don’t think it’s something I’d eat regularly, but didn’t necessarily dislike it. Truly, I think the best way I’d describe the taste of stinky tofu is confusing. Something you need need to try for yourself.
- Egg Tarts: Another street food eat that came highly recommend to try at the Tonghua market. I was skeptical, mainly because I’ve had egg tarts in Portugal and Hong Kong, so I know what the real deal tastes like. But, I was pleasantly surprised by how good these were- the eggs were fluffy and creamy, and the outer graham shell was toasted to perfection.
- ‘Dumbass’ Noodles: If you’re not a vegetarian, you need to suss out the best beef noodles. But, for my vegetarian friends, you’ll find incredible noodles at the Tonghua night market. Look for the Sha Gua Mian stand. Here, order your noodles plain. When they’re brought to you, piping hot, you’ll be directed to a variety of sauces and chilis to add flavour. The name of this stall translates from Chinese to English as ‘dumbass’ noodles. That translation isn’t the official name, but is more so meant to reflect that the noodles you order here are simple- you customise them however you want. They may be served plain, but the noodles are so delicious, you don’t really need anything else. They’re chewy, but firm with a garlicky flavour. Absolutely excellent.
- Purple rice milk:
- Filled, Hot Cakes: Don’t miss popping in Catpaw, where these hot cakes are adorably, shaped like baby cat paws. Fluffy cake wrapped around gooey fillings? It’s a winning combination. I was particularly fond of the egg, custard and chocolate varieties, but there are usually several different types on offer. Places like Catpaw in Tonghua Market make it easy to try several with tiny buns. There are also a few vendors selling these cakes in different animal shapes throughout the market, but I liked Catpaw’s appeal to cuteness.
- Here too, you can find other classic Taiwanese eats like green onion pancakes, pineapple cakes, papaya milk, fried chicken, bubble milk tea and oyster omelets
Convinced to visit a night market in Taiwan? Great!
A few other tips to keep in mind–
- Most night markets are very close to MRT stops, making them easy to get to
- Many open at 4 or 5 pm, but the show really gets going until 7 pm. Come 9/10 pm, the vendors start to shut down their stalls
- Every night market has a unique flow of traffic- watch which way people walk and follow suit
- Keep your money somewhere easy to reach- you don’t want to be digging around your bag when it’s your turn in line
- Don’t haggle for food- if a price is posted, that means it’s fixed cost
- Use the toilet before you leave the MRT- most night markets don’t have one. And, if they do, as is the case at Tonghua, it’s going to be a pretty unkempt squatty potty
Final bit of advice: Don’t just come to eat. Beyond the goods for sale, night markets in Taiwan are a serious source of entertainment. There are game booths, arcades and sometimes even street performers.
Don’t rush your time at any of the markets. Soak it all in. You’ll leave full and happy, and likely eager to do it all again.
The good news? Taipei’s got more night markets than anyone could possibly fit into a single trip.
Have you ever been to one of Taiwan’s night markets, or a night market in another Asian country you loved? What made it so special?