It's been said before but it's worth repeating: If you're staying just one night in Taiwan, spend part of it at an evening market. In between finding interesting - and shocking - things to eat, you'll be able to hunt for gifts and souvenirs. Also, you'll likely soak up so much local color that your clothes will carry cooking smells right back to your hotel room.
Natives of Taichung, Taiwan's third-biggest municipality and the economic driver of the island's central region, claim their city has Taiwan's best night markets. The reason usually given is simple: Taichung's prosperity has drawn people from the north, the south and the mountainous interior, and none of these migrants is so far from his hometown that he can't get the unique fresh local ingredients needed to produce distinctive, authentic comestibles.
Taichung's night markets are thus one-stop smorgasbords where gourmands can sample the signature snacks and dishes of places they're unlikely to ever visit. This claim may well be correct, as last summer Taichung County was chosen to represent Taiwan at the 2007 Malaysia International Food and Beverage Trade Fair. Amid all the migrant offerings, at least two of the county's very own dishes are easy to track down in the region's night markets: Qingshui Pork Chop Noodles and Fengyuan Meat Balls.
So, if you're a visitor and you don't know the city, where do you go? Taichung's best-known after-dark gathering spot is the market that sprawls in every direction from the main entrance to Feng Chia University. It's active seven nights a week from dusk till midnight, and is known to every taxi driver in the city.
You'll see the crowds before you see any vendors. And before you've closed the taxi door, you'll understand that when people say night markets have a lot of atmosphere, they don't only mean what tourists call 'character.' By 9 p.m., the air at Feng Chia is thick with smoke from grills loaded with sausages, and with steam from soup vats that bubble like mud volcanoes.
Foods unfamiliar to Westerners (stinky fermented tofu, spicy ducks' heads, chickens' feet boiled in an unidentifiable black broth) have miasmas all of their own. There's often a dash of cigarette smoke, especially around the pachinko machines.
Pachinko parlors might be dying out in Taiwan, but every large night market - Feng Chia is no exception - features rows of these pinball-type distractions, plus other games of skill and chance. There are often coin-operated basketball machines (shoot the balls through the hoop as quickly as you can to win extra time), ring-throwing events (you might go home with a fluffy toy), and shooting ranges (blast away with an air gun).
If business meetings go on till late, don't fret that you'll miss the action. Instead of Feng Chia, head to Taichung's Zhonghua Road Night Market (close to Gongyuan and Minquan roads). Most of the merchants there operate until 4 a.m. every night of the week. Yet another big night market keeps more conventional hours right behind Taichung's old train station (not to be confused with the high-speed station on the outskirts).
Night markets are full of incongruent sights: An oyster omelette vendor may fry up his gooey concoctions right next to someone selling candy floss. And beside a table covered with cheap fashion accessories and other ephemeral distractions, you might come across a fortune teller ready to give advice on life's deeper questions.
Places like Feng Chia are excellent for people watching. You'll see entire families in pyjamas and flip-flops, noshing beside hip young couples dressed for a night on the town. A few of those portering boxes or shoveling food around hot plates sport large, swirling tattoos. They're gang members gone straight. Don't worry about them; microbes in what you're eating are a much greater threat to your health.
Don't expect to see anything resembling a salad, but neither should you assume there's nothing healthy to eat. In every night market, peddlers hawk freshly cut, ready-to-eat fruit. Bags of diced pineapple, peeled apples and sliced mango are sold with large toothpicks or tiny bamboo forks. These utensils are not so much to keep your hands clean as to keep the chicken grease already on your fingers from spoiling your enjoyment of the fruit. Thirsty? Look for vendors who squeeze oranges or guavas into fresh juices, or using high-speed blenders to make papaya, watermelon and carrot milkshakes.
There are traditional local desserts, too: Pineapple sorbet, and a kind of almond pudding made according to an ancient recipe.
Food is central to the Feng Chia experience, but you won't be bored if you're not hungry. Who's that giving a speech to an audience sat on tiny plastic stools? More than likely he's selling patent medicines or aphrodisiacs.
Compared to ten years ago, very few pirated goods are now sold openly in Taiwan. You might see counterfeit handbags being sold at absurdly low prices, but the CD/ DVD vendors have been driven underground. More likely, you'll come across a different sort of knock-off - a daypack, say - that bears a logo clearly modeled on but deliberately different from a world-famous brand. An R changed into a B seems enough to deflect lawsuits. You'd not be the first to find these goods so intriguing as to be almost collectible.
Most night market goods are inexpensive and there's little scope for bargaining. However, if you're buying something priced over NT$500, or if you need three or four items from the same merchant, it's worth asking for a discount. A grasp of Mandarin or Taiwanese helps but isn't necessary. Scribble numbers on paper, or use the electronic calculator most merchants keep at hand.
Often there's a Buddhist monk in attendance, and you may think he deserves a donation. Amid the noise and bustle of the night market, his sales pitch could well be the best. Standing stock still behind his begging bowl, expressionless and silent, you can't help but notice him.
Hong Kong Airlines is the inflight magazine of - it goes without saying - Hong Kong Airlines. The photos accompanying the print version were taken by Chris Stowers, a Taipei-based Englishman who I interviewed for this article.
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