To protect one’s tongue from burning, tian bu la1 from Taipei’s night markets must be consumed with rapid chewing, sucking in enough air with each bite to cool the surface of the fish paste strip that thirty seconds prior had been deeply submerged in a vat of golden oil, mixed with plenty of lard. This stall, located at the entrance of the market and the appetizer of our little night adventure, is not to be missed. You see, the 75-year-old granny presiding over the oil is a spectacle to behold, her metal strainer angling above the crackling basil chicken bites, fried dough and American-style french fries like a fishing spear. Her offerings, as usual, are this strip’s most popular tonight. An ever-shifting crowd of teenagers and tourists buzzes around us, elbows and shoulders pressing up on one another, as she balances a constant flow of orders amid her precarious stacks of utensils and napkins. Speak to her with tempered politeness and a classic Taiwanese accent and she’ll toss a few extra tian bu la pieces into your oil-stained paper bag; approach her too quickly or too loudly and she’ll press the food into your hands with a glare and send you off into the night.
We’ve arrived at 10 p.m and parts of the market are just now starting to rumble to life. Our niceties have passed the granny’s standards, but chew fast — the night is still young. You’re going to love it.
To our touristy Western eyes, Taipei’s night markets might seem cluttered. Chaotic, even. Streets found relatively ordered and clean in the daytime come alive at sundown, bursting forth with sights and smells and spices which have no rhyme or reason. The white-noise hum of the market’s activities gradually picks up steam as the night ages until speaking directly into your ears is the only feasible way to hold a conversation. A jumbled array of vendors frying pungent skewers of octopus and stinky tofu fill the air with shouting matches, attacking our ears even as their fares assault our nostrils. Boyfriends and girlfriends and non-binary partners2 hold onto each other for dear life, trying and failing to resist the crowd’s circulatory ebb and flow. A mild but increasing sense of claustrophobia sets in. By now, we’re struggling to squeeze through the crowd, our bodies packed into these narrow alleyways like tins of Chinese-style fried sardines, a far cry from the sprawling mind-other’s-personal-space existence of my suburban hometown.
Freshly-fried food in hand, we head next door, where a second grandmother sells raw sugarcane juice pressed from fresh stalks shipped in from India or Thailand.3 Each cup she hands out is crisp and sweet, a welcome contrast to the greasy stinging inflicted upon us by her neighbor. We, along with a crowd of 30 or so fellow tourists, watch as she turns the crank of her machine, a novel performance to our eyes. Her hands are tough and leathery, a result of this repetitive movement she’s been performing every night for three decades, probably taking time off only to attend her daughter’s wedding and her grandson’s high school graduation. The antique juice press creaks every few seconds as it grinds each stalk into a translucent liquid, forming a rhythmic beat that overlays the market’s constant roaring chatter. Don’t order the largest size, and don’t gulp it down too quickly — there’s much more to be had in this little night market tonight, and getting too full too early is a rookie mistake.
Actually, to say that the sugarcane lady is next door isn’t entirely accurate, as neither establishment has any doors, not to mention walls. These women operate their entire life-long livelihoods out of tiny outdoors stalls no more than 10 feet wide. To see a stool here is rare; tables to rest our purchased fare on are even rarer. Instead, we’re expected to join the current of fellow insomniacs4 navigating up and down the street, clutching our food and drink close to our bodies and keeping our elbows tucked in, lest we end up on the receiving end of an angry tirade for jabbing a passing stranger’s abdomen.5 The people around us, no doubt drained from a long work day, feed off of the market’s pulsating energy, the loudness of fluorescent signage prying their eyes open as their feet are compelled to keep moving with the rest of the crowd, deeper into the market. Many of them sip from green bottles of Japanese beer, loosening their shoulders and softening the whirlwind assault of colors and sounds on their senses. We grab a few bottles of our own before allowing ourselves to be re-captured by the flow, surrounded by fuchsias and oranges and dull yellows and all different shades of beige.6
We walk a little further down the lane. I order an oyster omelette from a guy with a griddle. It’s probably been a little undercooked, but it evokes in my mind the attempts my dad has made to recreate his favorite childhood. The food here is not simply for taste or consumption or fulfillment; night market food is more about a memory than anything else. As we approach this next stand, I can vividly remember the time my granddad snagged one of those rare seats. Hunched over our tiny chairs, the conversations of strangers slipping in and out of our ears, we each munched on our ba wan, glutinous rice balls filled with ground pork and slathered with two sauces, one pink and one beige.7 This is definitely one item worth ordering two of; you should use more of the pink sauce. It’s harder to find anything close to it at home.
I used to find the entire country8 cluttered. Each and every surface in my relatives’ cramped fourth-floor9, two-room-max Taipei apartments is covered with random assortments of things collected over years and years of daily life — books, rosary beads, plastic bags, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys10, yesterday’s groceries, incense from temple or church and packets of decade-old coupons. None of it is necessarily dirty; it’s just a lot of stuff. These people are by no means poor, and are in fact solidly middle-class, yet lead lives that look nothing like the clean mowed-lawn open-floor-plan existences of the American suburbanites I’m used to in my Texas hometown. And this isn’t just a family thing — the average Taiwanese Joe just seems to live a bit like a hoarder compared to his American counterpart. More generally, Taipei’s culture is cluttered, influenced haphazardly by pre-communist era Chinese traditions, western democratic sensibilities and waves of Korean and Japanese pop fads. The architecture here is a hastily-created palimpsest as well, with shining new developments constantly being plastered into place next to blocks cluttered with buildings of various decades, from the old post-war growth of stocky, utilitarian structures to the early dotcom technological boom that brought into the city a kind of retro feeling one gets from opening windows vista or using a fax machine.11 These night markets, for all their liveliness, are the most cluttered of all, with their randomly placed rows of stalls selling jackfruits and dragon fruits and and porridge and mussels and rice cakes and skewers of tornado potatoes12 and youtiao13 that would probably fail most any American health inspection and definitely fail every known axiom of urban design.
The drinks, plus a never-ending stream of townies and tourists descending on the night market, are making it hard to breathe. By now, you might feel suffocated by the space, a tightness building in your chest as you yearn for a gasp of fresh air. But alas, we press on.
Dessert, anyone? There are taiyaki14 filled with custard and nutella and matcha to be had, or the chua bing stand where we can get fresh mango or strawberries and condensed milk and a gazillion other toppings drizzled on huge mounds of man-made snow. By now we’re about four drinks in. We should pace ourselves, but the roar of the market keeps us captive, begging us to fall victim to its kaleidoscopic pulse. A couple shots of kaoliang liquor15 and we’re on our way. Keep in mind, we’ve already visited about eight establishments and have spent $15, maybe $20 tops.
Who are we really, though, to be arbiters of what is considered clutter? Yes, this place is exceedingly messy and difficult to navigate and probably not the most hygienic, but it feels like we — maybe just me, you’re a little more culturally sensitive — are often judging daily Taiwanese existence through an arbitrary lens grounded in standards that have little influence over the inherent beauty of the market or the adventure we take through it.. There is little value in viewing the night market, or any foreign space, from an American mindset – dear friend, don’t let this kind of comparison inhibit you from really entering into the market’s experience. That’s why you’re here with me, someone who can keep you from falling into the traps that tourism creates, just as my parents did for me. Don’t be that tourist.
The market finally begins to wind down. Sugarcane granny is on her last bundle of sugarcane, and that vat of oil is browned with bits of burnt rice flour. It’s fun to have new cultural experiences, isn’t it? I hope you’ve enjoyed your time here as much as I did. Anyways, it’s 4 a.m. and finally time to head home. You can finally breathe — slowly now. In. Out. In. Out. Wave and shake your arms around a bit — we’ve finally escaped from the cluttered alleys of the night market and survived the eclectic whirlwind of color and sound and smell. Really though, you and I both know that deep down inside, all we want to do is jump back into the market and do it all over again.
1 Tian bu la, for some odd reason, translates as “sweet, not spicy” in Mandarin. During my first trip to Taipei, this was quite the struggle for my eight-year old mind to understand — after all, each piece is coated with a savory, peppery powder that enhances the stinging power of hot oil on your tongue. Not once, however, have I let this contradiction inhibit my enjoyment; two minutes are all it takes to empty an entire bag and reach my hands out for more.
2 Taiwan is the only country in Asia to have full protections for LGBT+ people.
3 Somehow, the Asian shipping industry network can ensure that a mango picked this morning in Batam, Indonesia can be at the market by tomorrow night. It’s like Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping, but for fruit.
4 Taipei, unlike New York City, is a city that actually never sleeps.
5 Trust me when I say that the Taiwanese dialect is very much suited for infuriating dialogue. It takes so few words to inflict such deep verbal wounds.
6 Drinking age here is 18 (though it’s more a suggestion than actual law). I know it’s a Tuesday, but bottoms up. We’re on vacation here.
7 Garlic and beef bouillon, I think? They’re both kind of vague.
8 Yes, I’m referring to Taiwan as a country, for reasons that are too long and politically fraught to properly explain in a footnote but which boil down to misplaced patriotism for a country I wasn’t born in.
9 For whatever reason, the vast majority of Taiwanese residential buildings are exactly four stories high. Building codes, maybe? It’s hard to imagine that these tangled streets could be governed by such things as building codes.
10 I swear to you that the McDonald’s in Taiwan, and Asia-at-large, are about a gazillion times better than their American counterparts.
11 Not that I’ve ever used a fax machine.
12 A more-recently imported phenomenon from Korea, or maybe Japan. They provide little shakers of spices so you can customize your spiral potato with cheese or garlic or chili or parsley or artificial butter powder, not unlike the elotes you’d find in a Tex-mex joint. It’s popular on TikTok now. Google it.
13 Also known as fried crullers.
14 Japanese fish-shaped cakes.
15 A local favorite brewed from sorghum. I couldn’t really tell you what sorghum is, though.
Isaac Yu | email@example.com