Last week we covered the very basics of Taipei night markets in Part 1. Now that the stage has been set, we’re going to talk about getting you prepared. So without further ado, on with the show!
1. Bring: An open mind
Forget all your homeland standards of sanitation, culinary taste and tradition, and human behaviour for that matter. The first-time night market experience is defined by seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, and most of all, trying new stuff. It’s very easy to let that voice inside your head over-react to unfamiliar scenes, such as highly perishable food items just sitting out on a tray for hours on end. Example: night market sushi. If there ever was an unarguably horrible idea, it’s roadside sushi. Just sayin’.
Therefore, don’t fall into the trap of There’s a First Time for Everything. Just because you’re in Taiwan doesn’t mean you absolutely have to try pig’s blood rice cakes rolled in crushed peanuts on a stick, if that’s not your thing.
An open mind will never be more important than when it comes to Taiwan’s number one culinary offering: Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐; chòu dòufu). When you walk into a night market and you immediately think, “What is that godforsaken stench?” That’s stinky tofu, in one of its several forms: fried, steamed, grilled, stewed or cold. And the locals are only half right; stinky tofu does taste better than it smells – but it’s far from delicious.
2. Bring: A friend
Back when I was an intrepid explorer, I would post up by myself in various night markets across Taipei and it got boring, fast. Being with a friend makes the experience much more interesting in a couple of ways. First, you’re more likely to try stuff.
3. Bring: Cash, preferably small bills and coins
The overwhelming majority of snack items are priced below TWD 100, the smallest bill denomination. The problem is most Taiwan ATMs dispense cash in $1,000 bills.
A lot of vendors will take the $1,000 bill, but most won’t be happy about it. They are inherently reluctant to turn you away. The $500 bill is usually OK. The $1,000 solution is to visit the nearest convenience store, which will change the bill for you, no purchase necessary and no questions asked.
When I have visitors in town, one of the first things I advise them is to save their coins and hoard small bills.
4. Consider: Time
There’s really no good time to visit a night market, you just go and deal with whatever is happening. If you go too early in the evening (to avoid crowds), you’ll find that many of the vendors haven’t even set up yet; likewise, if you go too late, many vendors have already closed for the evening.
5. Consider: Behaviour
No haggling with snack vendors
Food purveyors have their prices displayed and these are set in stone. Do not haggle. However, they routinely give discounts for buying more than one item, and feel free to take advantage. So, for instance, some vendors will offer grilled chicken uterus skewers for $50 each; but, if you buy three (3), the price goes down to $120.
6. Avoid Long Lines
A long queue at a particular stall – let’s say, a deep-fried sweet potato vendor – does not necessarily mean it’s good. Sometimes it does, but 25-deep usually means it’s popular for some banal reason like a celebrity once visited and posed for a picture with the owner, which is plastered all over the signage. My rule of thumb in a night market is the longer the line, the greater the disappointment. There are exceptions, of course.
7. Don’t Linger
The longer you peruse a vendor, the more likely you’re going to wind up buying something you don’t need or want. Most Taiwanese vendors employ soft sell techniques; they get in your personal space and stay there until you buy something or leave. Meanwhile, aside from stuffing your face and picking up a new selfie stick, there’s no reason to hang out in the night market for extended periods of time. Do a couple of loops and get the hell out of there.
All in all, the Taipei night markets are one of those experiences you have to see to believe. Unpredictable and mystical as they may be, they’re worth a lap. After all, YOLO, right?