February 05, 2014

Taiwan food markets - a little piece of heaven

Taiwanese food markets - a little piece of heaven for foodies like myself

Dadu traditional market, Taichung City
When you arrive in Taiwan one of the first questions you will hear is "Have you been to the Night Market" – and then the person who asks will ask what you think about it.

And the night markets are fascinating, at least a few times – packed with people and stand after stand after stand with various cooked dishes and snacks, not the least the famous pigblood cake, zhuxue gao -豬血 - and 臭豆腐 - chou doufu, stinky tofu, as well as the special, slightly sweet Taiwanese sausage, often served in what looks like a bread but turns out to be another sausage, a white one.

But what I really love about Taiwan is the traditional markets! The traditional markets that may be on the way to die out as the people of Taiwan cook less and less at home – read more on my post about that worry in this post – the traditional markets that are equal to what we recognise as Farmer's Market in the English speaking world; The market where you go to get your ingredients to cook yourself, normally or often an open market full of little stands where fresh products, very often locally produced, are sold.

The first months in Taiwan I didn't have a kitchen, but I would still go to the market to get fruits and maybe a snack, and after I moved to a place with a kitchen I would go more or less every morning, or at least several times a week, to get my inspiration and my ingredients for the meal(s) of the day.

There are few things that are as interesting to me as strolling through the open market, looking what is available, what looks fresh, and what inspires me – and in Taiwan, a country where close to everything grows it is very easy to get inspired.

Special about the traditional markets is that unlike supermarkets the traditional markets are keeping open only a certain time of the day. Many markets with fruits and vegetables are open only in the morning (meaning from early to around noon), while yet other ones are open towards the afternoon/evening.  If you go there outside of the opening hours, well, then you may not even be able to find the market; At the morning market the sales men come in early, start setting up and then open up for sales; And when the market closes for the day they are equally fast at cleaning up everything and removing every trace that there was once a market. It's quite impressive – a whole market leaves without a trace, only to be set up again the morning after. 

I swear even the onions have more flavour here than in northern Europe
One of my favourite markets happens to be up in Dadu (大肚)in the outskirts of Taichung, towards Shalu 沙鹿 area. Bus 106 as well as 147 stops outside. What's so special about the Dadu morning market/farmers market isn't just the excellent selection of foods – fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and so forth – but the fact that it is very local, many products are locally produced. 

The people in the area come to this market and you rarely see any westerners up here, there are simply very few of us living in the area, so the market has been kept very local; There are no adjustments for tourists, it's just genuinely nice and what you find is what is in season – just like most traditional markets in Taiwan, mind you, but here it is even more obvious – and the show that some shop owners put on to get us to buy their products is the same for everybody. The products have to be good because everybody knows everybody and the customers do come back. The people in the market are also generally very friendly and curious, and if you just keep an open mind they are happy to chat with you and guide you around the products.

Seafood from the local market
Personally I find especially the fact that the shop owners and people working in the market are so happy to talk to you about their products very useful, not the least when buying fish; Having lived too far from the coast for too long, in Germany, I had gotten away from cooking fish, and also, even if I could recall all that I learnt when I was little, the fish you can buy in northern Europe is generally not the same as what you can get in Taiwan, on the other side of the world.

Taiwan has a whole different range of fish, both farmed (tilapa being one of the more common) and other fish, sweet water as well, but mainly from the ocean – I have said it before and I say it again, Taiwan IS an island and it IS surrounded by deep sea!

Even if you are a tourist in Taiwan and even if you don't have a kitchen, I can only recommend you to make a visit to the traditional markets a part of your trip. Don't stress it, take your time, wander around, watch what's going on, maybe buy some fruits. Buy a little snack from one of the many stands – because of course, it IS Taiwan after all, so it goes without saying, there are some special dishes made at the market – sit down, look at people, smile, relax. Here you find a piece of the real Taiwan.

This is the Taiwan I love.

View Spots in Taichung and in Taiwan in a larger map

Read more about the Pig Blood Cake here, at the web page "Food Culture in Taiwan", run by the government.
Chou doufu, Stinky Tofu you find here.

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