Day 3.5 — Don’t Touch the Table

As I sat and watched a small brown cockroach run along the wall next to our table, I had a feeling that this night would be one worth writing about. I couldn’t have been more correct. After leaving the museum on Friday evening, we headed to the Shilin Night Market, which is the most famous in all of Taipei, and possibly even all of Taiwan.

When we first arrived at the night market we did a quick lap of an indoor area where all of the “classic” Taiwanese foods were being sold. The air in the building was hot, thick and full of foreign smells, but the area that was lit-up and full of food vendors was only about 25% of the actual building interior, of which the other percentage was completely dark and ominous.

We kept walking past certain vendors that were cooking something that smelled absolutely terrible. Every time we approached one of these areas, it was like walking into a steaming cloud of cattle flatulence. The smell was so strong and thick in the hot air that it never failed to make me nauseous. Initially, Eason and Hans were referring to this as Sticky Tofu, which was an extremely confusing name. After we walked past a few of the vendors and I had to choke back sickness in my throat, I finally connected the dots in my head. “Wait — do you mean STINKY Tofu?”

The mystery had finally been solved after I explained to them what the word “stinky” meant. While I described the smell as being similar to cow farts, that is putting it somewhat lightly. The smell is so offensive that it actually made me feel like I was going to be sick every time we smelled it. Apparently the process for making stinky tofu has something to do with soaking tofu in a brine of fermented milk, vegetables and meat for weeks or even months, which is a nice way of saying that you soak tofu in spoiled milk with rotting meat in it. Naturally, being that I told the local team that I wanted to eat authentic Taiwanese foods, this was the first thing that we would be sitting down to eat for our evening food activities. And this is also where our story starts to get somewhat terrifying.

We ducked inside a food vendor’s low-ceiling structure inside the brightly lit area of the building that I described earlier. The proprietor of this establishment sat us at a table directly in front of a fan that was hung sloppily from the top of her tent, and turned the power on to help push the steamy, stinky air away from our breathing apparatuses. The table at which we sat was surrounded by low stools and had a copy of the menu underneath a thin plastic layer that was lain on top of the table. A larger of this menu was strung up on the wall, and the only part of the menu that I could discern were the prices, as everything else was written in Chinese characters.

As we waited for the first dish to arrive, I was keeping watch on the area around us.  There were lots of people everywhere even though it was still extremely early in the night for the night market. I was told that usually these markets don’t pick-up until around 10 PM, and it was only about 7:30 or 8 at this point. As I scanned the tables around us and the walls on two sides of us, I started to notice the filth that we had been seated amongst. There were stains on the walls and even the ceiling of unknown substances. I noticed a roach run away from the area where the food was being cooked and along a ledge of the wall, right above one of the tables next to us. I began to question my decision to eat at one of these street vendors, but decided that it would be well worth the experience.

After a few minutes we were finally served our Stinky Tofu along with some shredded cabbage and a red pepper sauce that I took heavy advantage of in an attempt to mask the strong odor that was permeating the hunks of tofu. It would seem that nothing I could do would help to obscure the pungent, fermented aroma of the dish so I was only able to stomach eating three or four pieces. I told the local guys that they could eat the rest, as I was ready to move onto the next dish.

Before we had finished the tofu, we were brought a plate of Oyster Omelet, which was literally just an omelet with a bunch of slimy (possibly raw) oyster cooked into it (pictured at right above the tofu dish). This dish was rather enjoyable, especially with the dark, savory sauce that it came dressed in. And it was a welcome relief after the literally hard-to-swallow stinky tofu. I also made a very important discovery, which also confirmed some of my suspicions from earlier in this meal when a chunk of the omelet slipped out from the grasp of my chopsticks and landed on the table next to the plate. Before I could even consider whether I should pick the food up, Eason stopped me with much concern and told me to “Leave it”. He told me to never, EVER eat anything that touches any surface in a night market that isn’t either a cooking surface or the object that the food is served to you on. I felt that his advice was sound, and thinking back to the cockroach I saw scampering away earlier, I wasn’t going to second guess him.

Our final dish for this eating establishment was by far my favorite. Eason called it tamboulah, but searching the internets for that name only turns up the Arabic dish Tabbouleh, which is nothing at all like what we ate. The dish, which is pictured on the left, was described as smashed fish, which is then deep fried. After substantial Googling, I discovered a picture that is almost identical to my own, which was on the Wikipedia page describing Taiwanese Tempura; hoewver that is only a cooking style and not a particular dish. The best I can tell is that this dish is just Taiwanese-style Tempura Fish that just so happens to be smashed before it is fried. It was light and crispy, and the flavor of the battered fish was top-notch. The taste of this dish fully enabled me to forget the flavors of the Stinky Tofu, even though the air was thick with its stench.

After we finished our meal, we decided to walk around outside for a bit. The area immediately outside of the food building was reminiscent of an old run-down carnival. There was a small, creepy train with dirty, cartoonish characters on every car that was slowly making its way around a tiny loop of track. The area was also full of carnival games, that mostly came down to different things that you could shoot with a BB gun. There was one booth where you could throw baseballs at a small board with 9 metal numbered squares, and we decided to give it a go. We each grabbed a box of 12 baseballs and tried to see how many squares we could knock out. I was able to very quickly embarrass myself as I threw six or seven baseballs straight at the ground, with another few balls that came close to hitting Hans’ target next to mine, and then finally ONE ball that actually connected and knocked out a square.

All I can say is that I quit playing baseball for a reason. Luckily I was able to redeem myself when we moved onto the next booth, which was shooting out balloons with air-soft pellet guns. What surprised me the most was that the guns on the table were connected by a simple tether, but were in no way restricted from any movement whatsoever. I could have very easily turned around and started firing these pellets at passers-by had I been a person of malicious intent. Being that I’m not that kind of person though, I simply took up the heftiest looking pistol that lay before me, and set my sights.

I’m not sure how many pellets had been loaded into the gun, as I didn’t miss a single shot. I quickly and efficiently took out every balloon with pin-point accuracy, and before anybody else finished shooting. This made me feel much better after the humiliating baseball throwing kerfluffle, and I even was able to pick out a prize. I grabbed a small wooden set of Chinese Checkers, which I’m pretty sure is actually just a Checkers set with Chinese characters on each piece. I could have sworn that I’ve seen a game before that was actually called “Chinese Checkers” and it both looked and played completely different from the classic Checkers game that I grew up with. While I was riding high on the results from our shooting game, I decided to forego trying my hand at another shooting game: trying to shoot Taiwanese Dollars down from a wooden beam, which were attached by what appeared to be toilet paper, or some other type of thin papery material. The carnies running this booth were devious enough to have  fans blowing right at all of the bills such that the material that they were attached to would start to rapidly turn the thinner that they became, which made it nearly impossible to hit those last few strands.

After moving on from this area we delved into the back alley ways of the night market, which was crowded, frenzied and full of bright neon lights. There were vendors of all kinds yelling at everyone that passed by, and the crowd was moving in a tight, slow shuffle. Every once in a while we would pass a seafood stand that looked like it was selling fish that they scooped out of the sewer, which was usually followed closely by a stinky tofu cart. These carts never failed to make me feel sick all over again, so I was trying my best to get Hans and Eason to head back out towards the main streets.

At one point we passed a Buddhist temple, and Eason suggested that I go inside and take a look around. While we were inside I learned a number of very interesting customs that the Chinese have when it comes to Buddhism, including the notion of burning “paper money” and other gifts that are made out of paper, but not necessarily real items (the money just looks like money, and there are also paper cars, houses, etc). When these gifts are burned, the people in the spirit world will receive them and be able to use them to live a better, more fulfilling life on the other side. I also learned that August was ghost month, and that people typically only perform these rituals for their own family members, but during ghost month they simply do it for all those that have passed on. According to legend, the doors to the spirit world are open during this month, so to appease the spirits the Chinese will provide gifts to the ghosts all month long.

After learning a lot of fun facts and exploring this temple, we finally made our way out to the street to try out what was described to me as the best combination of all things at any night market. Eason had been talking about this fried chicken and bubble milk tea combination all day, and even though I wasn’t hungry in the slightest, I relented and couldn’t bear to pass up this opportunity. We first went to a fairly well-lit store on the side of the road that specialized in various tea drinks. I had heard multiple times over the past three days about something called bubble milk tea. Each time that I asked about it, they told me it was milk tea with bubbles in it, but nobody was able to actually explain what these bubbles were. I decided to just get one and figure it out on my own, and was fairly impressed with the final product (pictured at right). Milk Tea is a popular drink that is sold in convenience store coolers and in many restaurants. As far as I can tell, it’s really just tea mixed with a heavy amount of milk, so I can tell you that my stomach really loves it. The “bubbles” in the milk tea are also called “Pearls” and are some sort of chewy balls that are made from tapioca starch. I would compare them to either very soft jelly beans or to very thick balls of Jello.

The drink is sweet and creamy, and very delicious — but it’s somewhat of a different experience to drink something and be required to chew at the same time. The straws they give you are pointed on one end so that you can punch it through the film they apply to every cup, and they have a big enough diameter that you’re able to easily suck the pearls up through the straw and into your mouth while you drink. With our drinks in hand, we returned to the streets to obtain the second half of this “best combination”, which was the fried chicken.

We found ourselves at a vendor on the curb who was deep frying big flattened pieces of chicken, which were being taken out of large Tupperware containers that were sitting on the sidewalk for who knows how long, and then dipped, breaded and fried. Eason told the woman who was bagging these hunks of fried chicken to apply liberal amounts of spice to it, which she did before placing one into a small paper bag and handing it over. I took a bite of the chicken and a large gulp of the bubble milk tea to give this combo a shot, and I was definitely pleased with the result. The chicken coating was very crunchy, and the flavor of the unique blend of Asian spices was satisfying without being overpowering along the likes of KFC fried chicken. The bubble milk tea also provided a smooth, milky and refreshing beverage to wash it all down with, which was nothing but delightful.

While I didn’t come even close to finishing either item on account of how bloated I already was from stuffing my face all night, I was at least able to relish in the fact that I tried what was claimed to be the greatest combination of food and drink at the most famous night market in all of Taipei.

We wandered around the night market for another half hour or so before taking off and heading to a nearby Party World, which is a rather large KTV business. KTV is a huge and popular phenomenon in Asian cultures, and is very similar to the Americanized version that we call Karaoke; however the actual KTV experience is nothing like I’ve ever seen.

This particular establishment reminded me of a small mall, with multiple levels of different rooms, each of which had its contents hidden behind a closed wooden door. We made our way to one particular room and headed inside to find a few of our colleagues amidst a classic KTV setup, which includes a large TV, a number of microphones, a small stage, couches, coffee tables and even its very own bathroom.

Basically in KTV you rent out a room like this with all of your friends. Servers periodically come to the room to serve you drinks and food, and you also have a phone should you run dry on beer or liquor and need a refill. There is a touch-screen device in the room for everyone to pick out their songs, and you pretty much just spend the night eating, drinking and singing songs with all of your friends. It was very impressive and made me question why nothing like this exists in the States. Instead we have bars that host Karaoke nights maybe once a week where everyone at the bar cringes and is forced to listen to people they don’t really know who sing terrible songs and usually ONLY come to the bar on the nights where they can sing Karaoke, and sometimes don’t even drink. It seems like we really have it backwards, and a proper KTV business like this Party World would seem like it could do very well in the right hands.

This long and eventful day was full of unforgettable moments and it was hard for me to believe that it had only been the third day in Taiwan. At this point I was really looking forward to the remainder of my trip.