By Julia Werth, Student Participant ::
The Taiwan night market, filled with food carts, small stores and crowds of locals and tourists alike, is an experience all visitors to Taiwan are told is a must. Although they are most lively and exciting after 11 p.m. according to local recommendations, they do open up as soon as the sunsets. Since I was barely able to stay awake while watching the changing of the guards at the Sun Yat-Send Memorial at noon time my cousin Matthew (and tour guide for the day) decided that we would aim to arrive at the start of the festivities.
The Shilin Night Market, the largest and most well-known in Taipei, was already filled with the smells of frying dumplings and steaming vegetables when we arrived at 5:30 p.m. The main street was filled with flashing lights and bright colored signs indicating the start of the market, but the heart of the activities lived in the winding, narrow alleys. Some alleys were filled with small shops selling scarves, stuffed animals, hundreds of garish socks, miniature Buddha statues, calligraphy tools and everything in between. Others were crammed with food stands where the owners were frying up not the customary hamburgers and hotdogs seen so often back in the US, but whole frogs, tentacles and every sort of dumpling or pancake imaginable.
We started off through the crowds with the idea to snack through a little bit of, not everything because there was no way I was trying the pigs’ feet or stinky tofu (a fermented tofu delicacy), but on anything that caught our attention as delicious. We quickly established the rule of buying from a vendor only if locals were also buying from the same one. Although some of the carts frying up indistinguishable meats looked intriguing…if the Taiwanese weren’t willing to try it I wasn’t too sure I wanted to be the first victim.
After working our way through an enormous pork and cabbage dumpling that’s crunchy exterior yielded to a burning hot meatball, extremely chewy vegetable skewers wrapped in something resembling bacon that left a sweet taste in our mouths and the most delicious egg, scallion, cabbage and who really knows what else pancake wrap we were on the lookout for a very specific delicacy Matthew said I could not leave the night market without.
Dragon balls. A dumpling filled with soup.
We wound our way through increasingly crowded streets peering at every potential cart for the characters indicating this must-have food.
By this time it was getting close to 7 p.m. and I was really starting to lose it. My feet were dragging and despite the loud chatter of the market around me I could barely keep my eyes open. Despite not having found the dragon dumplings and it definitely not being the 8 p.m. that I had wanted to stay up to, we decided to start heading back toward the subway station.
Suddenly Matthew stopped and shouted out something in mandarin. I looked up at him, he was grinning and pointing at a sign.
“What?” I said.
“It’s them, it’s the dragon- “ before he could finish his sentence a short, middle-aged Chinese man wearing a face mask over his mouth was standing in front of us and holding my cousin’s arm.
“Yes!” he said. “It is. Follow me this way, you must have them.”
We looked at each other curiously. Was this too weird? Probably. But what choice did we have as he practically dragged us up a stair case to a second story restaurant. He pointed us to a table at the far end of the restaurant.
“Sit there,” he said. We sat down and moments later he returned with menus, trying to convince us to buy different dishes that he insisted were delicious.
“We just want the dumplings,” Matthew said, resorting back to English. The man refused to talk to him in mandarin although he had tried many time.
“Just one dumpling?” he asked.
“No, a few for each of us.”
“We sell 8.”
“Okay. We will buy 8 dumplings.”
“Okay. Follow me. You pay now,” the man said as he began to turn away from the table. Both Matthew and I stood up and started to follow him toward the register. Suddenly, he turned around and stared directly at me.
“No,” he said loudly. “You must occupy the seat!” He was pointing back at the table where we had been sitting. “It will be taken. You must occupy the seat.”
There were dozens of open seats and no one appeared to be rushing up to this odd little restaurant attempting to steal our spots.
“Ah, okay,” I said as my concern mounted. I walked slowly back to the table, sat down and watched the man lead my cousin to the counter.
After my cousin returned to the table the man came back with two small bowls, spoons, chopsticks and a little dish filled with a vinegar-soy sauce combination.
“You must dip the dumplings in this vinegar,” the man said as though the very idea of eating a non-vinegar dipped dumpling was outrageous. “It release the acid. You must dip the dumpling in vinegar.”
As the man walked away Matthew and I could barely contain our laughter.
“We will die if I do not occupy this seat and dip our dumplings in vinegar,” I said, unable to keep a straight face.
When the dumplings arrived steaming in a round wooden basket, they were in fact delicious, although quite the challenge to eat.
“Well,” Matthew said as I struggled not to laugh, cheeks bulging with an entire dumpling, “this is certainly one for the books. I think we have really been taken in by the Shilin Night Market.”