Trolling for Xiaochi through the Raohe Street night market
Me: What should we do in Taipei?
Friends/ Travel sites/ Blogs: Eat!
So that’s exactly what we did (After all, who are we to ignore such fine words of wisdom!).
And eating in Taipei cannot be complete without sampling the most important part of Taiwanese culinary culture – Xiaochi.
Literally meaning “small eats”, these snack-sized dishes are a major attraction for tourists to the city, and can be enjoyed at small casual restaurants or (more commonly) at street-side hawkers in any one of Taipei’s many colourful night markets.
You pick up one (or a few) of these delicacies at a particular vendor, chomp your way through it, and then make your way to another stall whose offerings beckon to you. And so on and so forth, until you have had the equivalent of two full meals in under ninety minutes and are ready to pass out (this isn’t the only way to do it of course… but that’s how we did it).
Here’s a look at our culinary adventure through the Raohe Street Night Market – A mix of the bizarre, the scrumptious, the unexpected, and the intriguing… but not a hint of the mundane.
It can seem chaotic at first, but there is a sort of implicitly agreed to, method-to-the-madness. Stick to the lane on your right, and you should be moving in the right direction.
All kinds of meats are on offer (Some recognizable, some not). Flame-torched beef bites, fried chicken and sausage in sticky sausage bun, are considered local specialties.
We picked the sausages, which were unexpected sweet, but tasty (and quite filling too)!
Lots of fresh seafood too…
Fish ball soup and cuttlefish are especially popular.
However, seafood off the street is still a difficult concept to get used, for me… so this was a pass for us.
The protocol is simple – Just point to what you fancy, or if there are some plastic/ metal plates in front of the counter, use the tongs to load them with whatever you want and hand back to the hawker to “ring up”.
The “biggest draw” of Raohe are the pepper pork buns at a stall located near one end of the market. The snaking queue is testament to their reputation as one of the best pork buns to be had in Taipei. The queue moves quickly, thanks to an efficient assembly line of workers who roll out the dough balls, stuff them with pork and spring onions, bake them in a clay oven and hand them fresh and HOT to their eagerly awaiting customers.
We were greedy and bought 3 (simply because we didn’t want to queue up again. Plus there is something quite enticing about the smell of freshly baked buns)… and then made another mistake and bit into one without giving it sufficient time to cool down. The juicy meat pouring out of the crispy bread made the wait (and scalded tongue) totally worth it, though!
Other vastly popular dishes being enjoyed by patrons were oyster omelette, oyster vermicelli and beef noddle soup.
And of course, the very famous and ubiquitous stinky tofu.
And by ubiquitous I mean, that the aroma of unwashed-after-ten-games-of-tennis-socks would emerge at every 5-minute interval throughout the 600m stretch of the market. I don’t know about you… but I let my nose have a strict veto on what I eat (that’s the reason I won’t even try many kinds of “highly acclaimed” cheeses). I’m sure it all tastes delicious – just that I can’t be tempted to personally attest to it.
Straying away from the “popular and highly recommended” dishes produced some mixed results. The corn-on-the-cobs smelt yummy but despite the intriguing coating of some mysterious sauce and spices, they didn’t have much going for them flavour-wise (classic example how the nose isn’t always right). It didn’t help that the seller cheated and charged us 5x the actual price of his fare. Don’t get taken in for such tactics – most stalls display the prices of the food (which usually ranges from NT 15-50) very clearly. Keep a look out for those.
The simple looking “naan-pizza” (my description, not the vendor’s), on the other hand, was surprisingly delicious. So much so that we had to stop for another one on our way back. The secret’s in the sauce that the flatbread is generously lathered with, before being topped with some cheese and baked in the simple electric oven.
Glazed fruits, bite-sized cookies and cakes, all kinds of bubble tea and soy milk concoctions, fresh fruit, juices, etc., round off the meal well, and ensure that even the most discerning sweet tooth would be sufficiently satisfied. Most peddlers don’t mind you taking a picture of their food, even if you’ve not bought anything, but be prepared for an occasional mean old lady to shout and wave you off, before you’ve had a chance to capture her cute little colorful heart-shaped cakes (because you can only eat THAT much).
All in all, a gratifying meal and a memorable experience – all for a princely sum of NT 175. Not bad, eh?
- Dishes like gua bao (Taiwanese hamburger), braised pork with rice, pineapple cake, bubble tea, etc. are some of the other iconic Taiwanese xioachi. Find a thorough list of must-try Taiwanese eats here.
- There are a number of night street markets in Taipei, each known for different specialties. Some handy lists are here and here.
- If you, like me, can’t read/ speak Mandarin and would prefer to know what you are putting in your mouth before you eat it, try a food tour. While I didn’t get a chance to join their walk, Tina from Taipei Eats was most helpful over email, providing me with a list of helpful tips on good eats and where to find them.
- And though it is not really “xiaochi” or street-food, my vote for a must-try dish in Taipei would definitely go to the Mango Delight at Ice Monster. Think – lots of fresh cut mango, mango ice cream and sweet silken tofu, floating in mango syrup, along with a mountain of mango shave ice… Absolutely delectable!