I plonk onto a low stool at the first food stall that catches my olfactory attention. It stinks so much that some passers-by cover their noses with handkerchiefs. My guess is correct: This is a stinky tofu stall. Every market has at least one, serving thoroughly fermented tofu deep-fried in pig fat.
Until then I had been wandering aimlessly through Taipei’s crowded Raohe Street Night Market, an institution of street food and heavy-duty shopping since it opened in 1987. Night markets are designated areas in Taiwanese cities where locals go to eat and shop until the far side of midnight, and so I had an inkling that’s exactly where I needed to go to sample their best street fare. Taipei, the capital city, boasts some ten of the country’s hottest night markets, and Raohe Street, known for its mind-boggling variety of cuisines, is the first on my list. Passing through the welcoming portal at the corner of Bade Road, I squeeze my way through teeming masses of junk and street food aficionados. Instantly, I knew I was in the company of friends.
Chou doufu (as stinky tofu is called in Taiwanese) is perhaps the most emblematic of local street foods. Due to its somewhat unbearable stench it cannot be served indoors, so it is doomed to remain a roadside delicacy. Its odour is often compared to rotting garbage or decomposing meat, or even… putrid manure.
Next to me a petite young lady devours a plate of four large tofu cubes, while a white designer lapdog drools in the crook of her arm. Both appear to be enjoying the moment. She looks 16 but could well be 26, and has the general appearance of having emerged out of an anime cartoon, which is quite the fashion in Taiwan. When the stall owner and I are unable to understand each other, she comes to my assistance and clarifies his question: Do I want spicy or extra-spicy sauce?
“Extra,” I say without hesitation, and while I wait, I ask her if she comes here often.
“Once or twice a week,” she replies.
“That often?” I exclaim. “What is it you like so much about chou doufu?”
“The smell is so nice,” she says, grinning.
I compliment her excellent English and she commends my skill at shredding the tofu with chopsticks. Then, she’s off.
I relish the chewy snack, served with pickled cabbage and a drizzle of fermented garlic soy sauce. It really is yummy. My fears that the flavours would be too subtle for an idiot like me to perceive are comprehensively quashed. To my nose, it is something like a fine, rich, matured European cheese. While tofu by itself is bland, the process of fermenting brings out flavours I never knew tofu was capable of, and the deep-frying gives it a complex texture—a hard crust and soft centre. Additionally, the spicy sauce adds sting, making stinky tofu a cultural bridge between European and Asian food sensibilities.
Afterwards, I continue down the market, a narrow 600-metre-long street packed with people and two rows of food stalls running down its centre. Thousands of shopaholics drift up and down the street, browsing, eating, and shopping—clothes, shoes, toys, hi-tech gadgets, and so on and so forth, plus suitcases to carry everything home in.
Often I have to battle my way through the crowd when lines form in front of popular snack stalls that grill Taiwanese sausages, or char steaks with blazing blowtorches in spectacular pyrotechnic displays. There is duck’s heads, boar cooked in bamboo pipes, pig’s blood cake, frog’s eggs, and octopus balls. All the food isn’t bizarre. There are also plenty of steamed, meaty dumplings and wholesome noodle soups. I spot a stall selling ice-cream-stuffed pancakes with frozen peanut halwa shavings.
Chefs go about their tasks with face masks and disposable plastic gloves, and everything seems very hygienic. I just need to find a seat, and indulge. My next treat is an oyster omelette, Taipei’s most famous snack, a starchy pancake fried with lard, fresh oysters, and herbs, and topped with a sweet-spicy sauce. After finishing my second gourmet meal, I catch the smell of stinky tofu again—at another competing stall—and spot a familiar figure with a cheerful designer puppy on her lap, gorging on yet another plate of stinky. Twice a week, did she say?
The gourmand in me demands that I head to Shilin Night Market the next evening. It’s the biggest of Taipei’s night markets. Apart from the multitude of outdoor stalls, it has at its epicentre a covered market with one of the biggest basement food courts I’ve ever seen. Seafood is being dished out in a steady stream and luscious steaks sizzle on grills.
It’s easy for a foodie to go mad here, and frankly I’m euphoric and do go a bit around the bend. The first stall I spot offers bacon-wrapped greens and scallops. A little later I come to a stall that grills Chinese kebab skewers, in essence not very different from the Indian variety of kalmi kebabs (like the ones I love at the Shivajinagar roadside food stalls in Bengaluru) except that the flavours are milder, somewhat sweeter, more Chinese. There are three options: chicken, pork, and beef. Unable to decide which to try, I order all three.
I go on eating well into the night, until there are only a few items I haven’t tried. I can’t stomach some dishes, such as the penis-shaped sausage cakes called gayke, also known in English as “fruity big cock popsicles,” that are peddled in several shops.
The other no-go for me is “chicken butts on a skewer”, although I briefly contemplate trying them. However, I conclude that after consuming skewered bum holes I won’t be able to face myself in the mirror the next morning.
Instead, at a shop nearby, I discover a mild mango beer with just 2.8 per cent alcohol. It seems like the perfect beverage. I buy a few cans, find myself a perch to people-gaze and enjoy the rest of the glorious Taiwanese night.
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “Kick Up A Stink”.
Raohe Street Night Market is located near Houshanpi MRT, and Shilin Night Market is near Jiantan MRT. Night markets may be open in the day too. Food stalls generally pick up after dark and go on until the early hours of the morning. They also have shops for all manner of knick-knacks and knock-offs and everything else between heaven and earth.
Rates range from New Taiwan Dollar or NTD10-12 (₹20-25) for Shanghai-style pan-fried pork buns or greens wrapped in bacon to NTD35 (₹70) for kebab skewers. Oyster omelettes and grilled chibaoku mushrooms seasoned with pepper, cost NTD50-60 (₹100-125) and gayke is NTD75 (₹150). English-language menus are rare, but luckily most eateries specialise in just a few dishes, so check what other customers are eating and point to what you want.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).