On my recent visit to Taiwan, I was amazed at how much a role food plays in the local culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the many street markets.
Whether it was in the center of Taipei, in the old town of Tamsui on the outskirts of Taipei, or in the mountain village of Jioufen, these markets offered a unique glimpse into life on this Asian island.
Taiwan has an intriguing history, often caught between battling forces of East and West. Originally a Polynesia culture, it was settled in large part by Chinese people from the coastal provinces wanting to escape mainland China. At various times in its history, it has been occupied by Japan, the Dutch, and the Spanish. Since the 1940s, it has had a love-hate relationship with the Republic of China. All of those cultures are pieced together in a modern-day Taiwan.
Walking through the markets is a bit like walking through that patchwork of cultures. The Tamsui old town market on the outskirts of Taipei is a bustling market filled with people doing their daily shopping. People push through, shoulder-to-shoulder, moving from one stall to the next searching for the freshest seafood, Asian delicacy, or exotic fruit.
It amazed me to watch the people maneuvering their motorbikes through the winding narrow pathways, in and out of hordes of people. Watch your toes — the bikes have the right of way!
My favorite market in Taiwan was in the mountain mining town of Jioufen. This picturesque town is at the top of a small, winding road about an hour out of Taipei. Shopping the market on Jishan Street was a great experience filled with unusual sights, sounds, and smells. While all of the locals shop here, there are also many tourists who visit the market, most of them from other parts of Taiwan and nearby China.
I discovered wonderful, toasted black peanuts with an amazingly pleasing charcoal texture at the Jioufen market. I ate more varieties of dumplings than I ever thought possible. I do have to confess that my stomach couldn't quite get over the smell of the stinky tofu. The fermented tofu — served either deep-fried or glazed with soy and grilled — has an aroma so pungent that I can't even imagine how you could get it to your mouth without the gag reflex kicking in first. I was very brave and didn't put my hand over my nose, though, as I passed by the stall and gazed at the rows of smelly squares. I didn't want to appear to be such a weak-stomached tourist. The vendors still laughed at what I was sure was a look of total disgust on my face.
I am an avid tea drinker and tea is everywhere in Taiwan. The markets, particularly the one in Jioufen, were filled with tea vendors. It's easy to sample the various teas before you decide on the ones you wish to purchase. I ended up with two wonderful selections, one of which is a delightful jasmine green tea.
Merchants hawk their wares as you pass each tightly packed stall, freely handing out samples. It was more than once that something landed in my hands and I had no idea what I was sampling. I would look at it, look around, see no one to explain it, hear my son's voice telling me (before I left home) to try everything I could imagine at the street markets, and pop into my mouth. A few of the more gelatinous offerings were interesting, but I honestly didn't try anything I absolutely didn't like. I discovered a few things that I would gladly eat daily if I could get them in the US. I did find those peanuts. They were relatively cheap: less than $8 for a bag, but the shipping was just under $50. Ouch.
The Taiwanese street markets intrigued me. I didn't have enough time there to really wander the streets the way I wanted to explore them. It was such a culture shock the first time through. Next time, I plan to visit longer and try even more unique foods. I'm still passing on the stinky tofu, though.