Why is the Shilin night market one of the best night markets in Taiwan? Cheap, yet DELICIOUS, eats would definitely be at the top of the list of reasons. It is also one of the biggest and most famous night markets in Taiwan--encompassing many little alleyways, buildings, and even a newly constructed indoor food court. I have never been inside the indoor food court although it seems to be a very successful mix of modern amenities and traditional street fare. There are more than enough street vendors outside to keep me occupied and satisfied. I would say no trip to Taiwan is complete without a night at the Shilin night market. It really is quite an amazing experience.
I also love the Shilin night market for sentimental reasons. There is a stand that sells every imaginable kind of hair tie, hair clip, hair band...basically all hair accessories under the sun. I've been using hair ties from that stand for who knows how many years. When I go, I buy enough hair ties there to last me a year. Are they better than the ones you can get anywhere else? Maybe not, but I refuse to use ones NOT from that stand. There are stores here that I always walk into. There are ones that I never do. I've been to this night market so many times, there are places that I walk to compulsively.
I have so many childhood memories here. I remember one especially humid summer night. I had been begging my mom to take me to the night market--I had wanted to look at all the little trinkets there (This was before my obsession with food, but not before my obsession with little things that are cute) Finally, my mom caved and we drove all the way from our house to the night market. Five minutes after stepping outside the car I was dripping with sweat from the heat and humidity. Five more minutes of pushing through the huge crowds of other sweaty people and I looked at my mom and said, "I think I'm ready to leave now."
I supposed most of my memories regarding the Shilin night market are with my mom. I know that she also has many memories of being at the same night market when she was younger. Most of her memories are from her college days of hanging out with friends at the night market. Nowadays, the crowd is still mainly young adults, out for a night of good, cheap eating. The Shilin night market is very light on the wallet :) However, there are also many tourists. But the crowds of bumbling tourists only adds to the ambiance of a night market. The more the merrier. Although, luckily I can navigate this night market like a local, and not an overwhelmed tourist ;)
There is, without a doubt, a plethora of sights and smells and raunchy looking foods to try at the night market. I am not about to claim that I have tried them all. Heck, there are still some parts of the night market I have not yet explored. However, the following food stands that I'm about to disclose are a few of my favorites--the stuff that I absolutely HAVE to eat each time I'm there...the stuff that YOU absolutely have to have if you're ever at the Shilin night market.
Shilin Night Market Favorites
hours: around 4pm until well after midnight
metro station: Jiantan Station on the Danshui line
Blurry, I know, but it was difficult taking a picture of it while walking during nighttime. I couldn't waste time stopping and finding appropriate lighting. I had to attack it before it got cold!
Pig blood cake. Pieces of pig's blood and glutinous rice on skewers pulled from a wooden steamer, dipped in soy sauce pasted and brushed-on hot sauce, takes a tumble in some peanut powder before a sprinkling of cilantro. If no one told you this was pig's blood, you wouldn't know. You'd preoccupied with how delicious it is.
Following something hot and salty, we need something cold and sweet. Time for some "snow flower ice" or "snow flake ice." I have no idea what to call this in English. Essentially it's shaved ice, but shaved much finer into "sheets" of ice. Also, it's not really ice made with water...it's more like frozen blocks sweetened milk. Thus, the resulting bowl of shaved ice is a creamy, sweet pile as light and fluffy as freshly fallen snow.
They offer flavors other than milk (the original) including coffee, peanut, green tea, and some others. I always go with the milk flavor topped with some condensed milk and stewed red bean. This is the best bowl of shaved ice you'll EVER have. I have yet to have better anywhere else.
Look for the shop with the line out the door. Trust me. Stand in that line. The shop across the street with essentially the same menu and absolutely no line might seem tempting but don't do it. Always go where the line is. I feel bad for the shop across the street but there is a reason why one is packed and the other is essentially empty. It just doesn't cut it. My mom and I went in there one time and were so disappointed, we had to eat another bowl at the better shop right after.
No time for breaks at the Shilin night market. There's too much to eat. After that icy bowl of milky sweet goodness, I'm ready for something salty again. This time, in the form of a GIANT piece of fried chicken. GIANT. This thing is the size of my face. On busy nights, the line for this stand overflows on to the street, potentially impeding traffic. This is definitely one of the most popular and well-known stands at the Shilin night market.
Although it's size might be a little intimidating for some, me included, once you take a bite, it'll be hard not to consume all of it. Who knows how many pieces of chicken, breaded in some mysterious concoction that results in a ridiculously crispy, yet chewy crust, is deep fried until golden and dropped into the waiting hands of customer every night. A sprinkling of chili powder adds a spicy kick that only makes it even more addicting. It's delicious and I've never had fried chicken like this anywhere else.
Okay, even my bottomless-pit of a stomach gets pretty full by this point in the night. Luckily, there is an endless amount of things to see and places to shop at the night market. I love dogs and there's a row of pet shops that we usually walk by. It's sad seeing them caged up but they're also incredibly cute at the same time. At least they all have street-facing views in their cages I guess. Even if you don't go in the pet shops, you can see them from outside. For those looking to buy a little puppy, these little poodles and maltese are actually pretty expensive.
I saved the best for last. This is one stand you CANNOT miss if you ever visit the Shilin night market. They make scallion pancakes they way they should ALWAYS be made--deep-fried, topped with an egg, and drenched in a delicious sauce. There is nothing better than taking a bite of the crispy pancake, breaking open the runny egg yolk of the fried egg it was topped with, and then taking ANOTHER bite WITH the runny egg yolk. It's amazing how something so simple can be so good.
They have trays and trays of dough waiting to be rolled out and immediately dropped into the hot oil along with an egg. I don't know how they get the dough so chewy. It's amazing. I don't know how long they've been using the same pot of oil and I don't want to know. However, the deep golden brown they get on the pancakes kind of indicate that the oil has been around for a while.
I have no idea how long this stand has been here. All I know is, my mom loved these when she was young too. They've been featured in newspapers, magazines, etc. Although they were probably dirt cheap a few years back, they are currently about $0.50 for one fried pancake without egg and almost $1 for one topped with a fried egg. Go for the one with the fried egg. You'll thank me with you see the runny egg yolk.
As a child, my mom and I made a pact every time we went to the night market: we could eat whatever our hearts desired but we were not, under any circumstances, going to admit any of the eating we did to my slightly more cautious dad. Who knew what kind of bacteria-ridden ice was used to make that delicious, pillowy mound of shaved ice? Who knew how long that cauldron of oil has been frying up crispy, golden disks of dough? I like to think of the night market as an adventure for your taste buds, and a challenge for your stomach. The food is amazing, the mixture of smells is intoxicating and nauseating at the same time, and while it's origins may be questionable, in the end I say it's worth it.