If I was granted anything I wanted for my last meal, I would choose, with no hesitation, Taiwanese street food, the best thing I ever ate.
I was born in Taiwan and lived there until I was 7 so it can be said that Taiwanese street food was an integral part of my formative years. The Taiwanese believe in small eats, with a philosophy of eat often and eat well. Maybe that’s where I got my habit of eating small meals all day long. Or maybe I just like to eat all day long.
Taiwan is home to the best street food markets in the world. Besides the night markets, there are streets dedicated to food carts selling all sorts of delicious (and sometimes scary) food at any time of the day. Taiwanese food is not like the Chinese food you know. Not even close. I crave it. I dream about it. I would give my right arm for it (I’m left-handed). I am drooling right now thinking about it. I sound like a dog.
The last time I was in Taiwan was in 2002. The only thing I wanted to do was eat my way through Taiwan, starting with my favorite soup for breakfast. I don’t know the English name for it and I can’t describe it except to say it is the best thing I ever ate. Seriously. The. Best. Thing. I. Ever. Ate. That’s how much I love it.
See how happy I am with a bag of the best soup in the world in hand. After the most heavenly breakfast (I could seriously eat about 5 bowls of this), it was time to plan what else I was going to eat. My relatives asked, Don’t you want to visit temples and see sites? I said, sure, if we can fit it around my eating schedule. I had to fit almost 2 decades of missing Taiwanese food into a 2 week visit.
The number one thing I wanted to do was the night markets. You have to experience a Taiwanese night market to believe it. There are stands, stalls and carts lining both sides of the street selling the most mouth-watering foods you can imagine. There are people everywhere and it is a chaotic, happy, loud scene, almost overwhelming in all the choices.
I found this picture on the internet from Neil Wade Photography of a Taiwanese night market that says it all.
From fish balls on a stick, stinky tofu, oyster pancakes and vermicelli, cuttlefish, blood rice cake, ba wan (a Taiwanese mega dumpling), Taiwanese sausage, Taiwanese breakfast of fried Chinese donut (you tiao) wrapped in a sesame flat bread (sao bing) and dunked in soy milk (dou jiang), ….. I better stop this list or you’ll get bored and stop reading. I forgot where this paragraph was going anyway. All I can think about is Taiwanese food. My stomach is growling and I am drooling again. I’ve got to stop drooling before I short out my laptop.
That’s my mom and me about to enter a night market and start our night of eating like a Taiwanese pro. If you are not familiar with Taiwanese food, check out this list of 45 Taiwanese foods. In the meantime, I’ll tell you about some of my favorites.
As the name implies, this tofu is stinky.
Andrew Zimmern, from the show Bizarre Foods described it as “a sour, spoiled flavor … that tastes like rotten nuts mixed with rotted fish.” This is a guy that has eaten the craziest things around the world and he couldn’t stomach this. I believe his taste buds are all messed up from eating things like baked muskrat and pig testicles because stinky tofu to me is heaven. It is crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. And the fragrance only adds to the experience, the stinkier the better.
I know most of you are now cringing but when you’ve grown up eating stuff like this, it seems as normal as a hamburger to you. But I won’t show you a picture of this because I don’t want you to run away before I can describe this.
My parents and I once took Jim to Flushing, NY (home of Taiwanese restaurants) and had him try intestines. He was a good sport and dutifully put a piece in his mouth and when asked how it was, he mumbled, hmm good. But he later whispered to me, “I think they forgot to clean the inside of it. It was full of s*@!” Enough said.
If that soup I can’t name or describe is my favorite soup in the whole world, then shaved ice is my favorite dessert in the whole world. It’s basically a big mound of shaved ice that you top with whatever you want and the whole thing is doused with a sugary syrup. The topping choices are endless.
Here I am with my aunt and cousins trying to decide which toppings to go on our shaved ice. As you can see, we take this decision seriously.
This shaved ice has tapioca pearls, coconut jelly, taro balls and mango. Doesn’t that look better than a chocolate cake? Well, maybe not to you but it beats a chocolate cake in my book any day! I know, I’m weird.
I’m sure you’ve seen people sucking down on these teas with tapioca balls. It was invented in Taichung (where I was born) in the 1980’s (which means I am older than bubble tea?!) and has become very popular in the US. Bubble tea to me is almost as good as wine. I could almost give up wine for bubble tea. Notice I said almost.
When I need a bubble tea fix, I go to Chinatown in NY. My new thing is passionfruit green tea with bubbles.
Taiwanese grilled corn.
Every street fair has its own version of grilled corn but the Taiwanese version is the one that gets my taste buds salivating (there I go drooling again). I can smell a Taiwanese grilled corn from streets away and can lead you right to the corn stand.
I figured out how to make it and have served it to many happy friends and family. I use soy sauce paste and a chili garlic sauce. You can find these in any Asian grocery.
Mix together in a bowl. How much you use depends on how many ears of corn you are grilling and how spicy you like it.
Brush the marinate on the corn on the grill and keep rotating so all sides get cooked. You can brush on a second coat if you like it more flavorful.
And voila – my version of a Taiwanese street food here at the lake.
If only I can figure out how to make my favorite soup. Or a way to zap myself to Taiwan whenever I get the craving for Taiwanese street food.
While my friends are dreaming about chocolate and cookies, I’m dreaming about stinky tofu and shaved ice. While my clients are talking about pizza and fries, I talk about fish balls and blood cake (but only in my head. Otherwise they might run away). While my neighbors are discussing grilling steaks and burgers, I’m discussing grilling intestines (again discussing only in my head).
Taiwanese street food is in my blood. And until I can make that almost 24 hour flight back to visit, I sit here at the lake and dream about the next time I can visit a night market and eat my way through all that wonderfully delicious and exotic foods I can’t get here at the lake. Til next time Taiwan…