'Don't miss the night markets!'
These words of advice fall upon the ears of every Taiwan-bound traveler. The island's night markets are legendary: big and bright, loud and crowded (in a good way), packed with vendor after vendor selling sweets and savories, to eat sitting down or nosh while shuffling along with hundreds of fellow marketers.
If you're new to Taiwanese street food a visit to a night market offers a convenient, one-stop-shopping sort of introduction to what's out there. And rubbing shoulders with Taiwanese, who are unfailingly welcoming, is always fun.
But frankly the quality of night market food is inconsistent. Most markets include one or several lauded food vendors, but that's among many dozens. In other words, eating at a night market can be a crap shoot. If it's dependable deliciousness that you're after, head to a morning market.
While most night market food is half about flavor and half about entertainment, morning market food is about goodness, period. Morning market diners want to do nothing but eat, and their focus is on what's on the plate (or in the bowl) in front of them. Vendors don't get points for novelty, a flashy stall, or proximity to a seller of inexpensive, terribly hip handbags.
And their food must pass muster with customers ranging from twenty-something newlywed housewives and hunched-over aunties who know their way around a kitchen to macho butchers and ancient fishmongers. If it's not good, they won't be around for long.
We dined at morning markets up and down Taiwan's west coast and never once came away disappointed. On the contrary - often what we ate bordered on revelatory.
In Tainan were lucky enough to lodge - purely by accident - a two-minute walk from the Number Two Market, a small covered affair that early in the morning doubles in size as vendors of fresh and prepared foods spill out into lanes spoking out from the main building. Much of the prepared food there is takeaway only, sold by vendors equipped with nothing more than a wheeled cart.
But tucked away in the market's rear - outside of it really, in an area where small trucks disgorge crates of greens, live chickens, and styrofoam coolers filled with bounty from the sea - are two food stalls and a few tables. The room, if you can call it that, is hot and smoky from the charcoal fires over which the vendors cook, filled with appetite-rousing aromas, and noisy with conversation.
An inviting space, in other words.
Take your seat and sandal-clad gentleman with a runner's lean physique hustles over to take youe drink order. You have a choice of iced tea, iced tea, or iced tea, ladled from a cart in another corner of the market and priced at seven and a half Taiwan dollars (US$ 0.21) per glass.
Two dishes are on offer. The pork noodle - dished up by a rather burly and initially gruff woman - are served dry or in soup and features hearty wheat noodles, stewed minced pork, meat balls evincing an admirable bit of 'Q', and copious leaves of sturdy lettuce cooked just long enough to wilt.
On each table sits a tub of Sichuan-style la jiao (roasted chili flakes in oil). It's the real thing, fiery, a little charred tasting, and sandy-textured. Every diner adds it by the mounded spoonful to their noodles, and so did we.
Also available, a dish as basic as they come: broccoli florets and sliced squid, boiled and served in a pool of oyster sauce mixed with soy sauce, sesame oil a bit of sugar, and heaps of black pepper.
(Too late, we see customers handing bags of just-purchased rose-hued shrimp to the vendor; she boils and adds them to the broccoli and squid.)
The broccoli is a bit crunchy, its cabbage-y bitterness giving way to a sweetness echoed in the cooked-just-right, tender squid. A simple dish made with ingredients that shout their freshness.
And why not? We are, after all, eating at a wet market.