The Tasty Joys of Midnight Meals in Taiwan
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in Taiwan, you get to eat four meals per day.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
It’s a godless hour and dripping wet in Keelung, a port city off the northern coast of Taiwan. But the narrow alleys are still jammed with people, elbow to elbow, jostling at the closet-size night market stalls to place their orders. Competing for their attention: steaming beef noodle soup, sizzling oyster pancakes, honey-sweet pearl milk tea, fermented stinky tofu, and comically, fat pork sausages or mini sweet potato balls. Welcome to a foodie’s final resting place.
If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Taiwan must be the island that never gets full. Most people have three meals a day, but Taiwan worships food so much that there’s a fourth and final meal: xiaoye (宵夜) or midnight snacks. Combine this late-night eating tradition with renao (熱鬧) — the “hot and noisy” aspect of life that is cherished by Taiwanese — and you’ll get even tiny towns like Keelung serving night market food into the wee hours of the morning. “Taiwanese people love food more than anything … as long as it’s delicious, new and trendy,” says Charlene Yang, a food blogger based in Taipei.
Eating out is so convenient and cheap (usually less than $10) that many don’t bother cooking at home.
But why the determined night-owl hunt for food? There are a few factors according to National Taiwan Normal University professor Chen Yu-Jen, who researches the culture and history of cuisine in Taiwan. Back in the 1980s, Taiwan’s xiaoye scene was mostly a “lively underground economy,” but nowadays, midnight snacking has turned into a more formal affair — even an ingrained part of mainstream culture. Eating out is so convenient and cheap (usually less than $10) that many don’t bother cooking at home.
And the sheer variety on offer — foods with historical Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, American and Chinese roots — is enough to draw everyone from late-working office workers to “cram school” students, says Leslie Liu, a popular Taiwanese food Instagrammer. Plus “people go out not just because of the food, but because the food also creates a lively, one-of-a-kind atmosphere,” adds Liu.
So if you’re coming to Taiwan, open your mouth wide once you arrive, and don’t close it again until your return flight home. The goal here is to fill your body with food and culture until you explode. But do brace yourself for large, noisy crowds. The experience may be overwhelming for those unfamiliar with the hustle and bustle of Taiwan’s midnight scene or the mind-boggling number of choices on every menu.
But we’ve got you covered. Here’s your insider’s guide to late-night cravings in and around Taipei.
Go There: The Night Market That’s Right for You
- For the seafood fanatic: Keelung Night Market. Eat this: wide noodle soup with mushrooms, fried tiger lilies, oysters and shrimp (鼎邊銼)
- For all-around good eats: Raohe Night Market. Eat this: pork pepper buns (胡椒餅), squid soup with fragrant basil (魷魚及九層塔)
- For a sweet tooth: Tonghua Night Market. Eat this: sweet rice balls filled with peanuts and drenched with osmanthus syrup (湯圓), tofu pudding (豆花)
- For the budget eater: Shida Night Market. Eat this: Hong Kong–style pineapple buns with a pat of sweet butter (冰火菠蘿), minced pork–stuffed dumplings (生煎包)
- For the fried food lover: Ningxia Night Market: Eat this: oyster omelet (蚵仔煎), deep fried taro balls with salted egg yolk (蛋黃芋餅)
- For the adventurous: Huaxi Street Night Market (or Snake Alley). Eat this: snake soup (死肉湯), snake bile, snake semen and snake blood shots