I love visiting night markets in Taiwan for a variety of reasons. There is always so much to see, smell, eat and buy! A large part of Taiwan’s food culture is characterised by its night markets.They are so vibrant and constantly bustling with activity! For many, a visit to a night market in Taipei is often the last event on one’s tourist itinerary. And in the country’s capital city, there are indeed many to choose from. From the very popular ones which tourists flock to like Shi Lin Night Market 士林夜市 and Rao He Street Night Market 饶河街夜市, to the more 在地人 “known-only-by-locals” ones like Yan San Night Market 延三夜市 and Nan Ji Chang Night Market 南机场夜市, there are easily close to a dozen joints to choose from. Many of these night markets have their own “specialities” which draw crowds from near and far every night. Some go for deep fried chicken cutlets 炸鸡排, while others are there to feast on oyster mee sua 蚵仔麵線 or crispy steamed buns 生煎包. One of the foods I am always game to try whenever I see it at a night market is 刈包 Gua Bao. Also scripted as 割包, it is often called a “Taiwanese hamburger” 台式漢堡 by tourists. And there are many good versions around as well! There are those who maintained the tradition of making 刈包 by serving thick slabs of braised pork belly sandwiched by a piping hot and fluffy steamed bun, like 源芳刈包 at Hua Xi Street Night Market 华西街夜市 and 石家刈包 at Tonghua Street Night Market 通化街夜市, while others like 蓝家刈包 at Shida Night Market 师大夜市shred the meat into bitesize morsels for the convenience of diners. I prefer the former as it seems more hearty and visually appealing to have a whole piece of meat encased within. Whichever the case, the 刈包 offered at these joints promises a delightful palate experience. But the truth is, 刈包 is so easy to make at home and a sure favorite amongst many be it the young and old, especially during family gatherings and events.
Welcome to Taiwan! Our 10th instalment of Asian Food Fest brings us to this beautiful country which was once called “Formosa” by the Portuguese, the first “foreigners” to set their eyes on it about 500 years ago to mean “Beautiful Island”, and beautiful is truly an understatement. Rarely would one would be able to find another place on Earth where one could be enjoying the warm sea breeze by the coastal regions and within less than an hour, scale altitudes of more than 2500m above sea-level to confront the majestic mountain ranges. Having the Tropic of Cancer cutting right through the island nation, one can be chewing sugarcane in Tainan or Pingtung in the morning and in less than half a day’s drive, be admiring the majestic cypress and cherry blossoms on Alishan or even playing with snow on Yushan. It is through this complex and often strategic juxtaposition of geographical factors that brings about the rich natural and social history Taiwan has, as well as its anthropology and culture. So join us in this month-long adventure to discover the interesting aspects of her food culture, the nuances which make her distinctively different from her proximal neighbours, to become what we now know as being uniquely Taiwan!
When we were in Tokyo for the first time back in 2009, everything was literally a culture shock for us, despite having prepped up for it a couple of months before that with internet research and guidebook reading. Although both being very built-up Asian cities with a strong urban infrastructure, Singapore and Tokyo are vastly different. So almost everything was interesting, intriguing, puzzling to the point of being bewildering. This perpetuated through every aspect of our brief glimpse into the lives of the Tokyo people. It starts with the morning mad rush at JR Shinjuku station, where everyone moved with such fast pace in a concerted clock-work fashion, yet with immensely high levels of artistry and rapport no one knocks into each other. Yet the peak hour trains are so jam packed, the train companies need to call upon a special “task force” employed specifically to nudge and push passengers onto the trains to make sure that everyone gets to work on time. This is when being squished and squashed, jostled and pushed is inevitable! There are times when the trains are so congested it seems like in comparison, sardines in a can could breathe better! A world of ironies…
Yet at night Shinjuku transforms into a totally different world, a complete paradigm shift and reveals its Mr Hyde. Along the streets of Kabukicho, Ni-chome and San-chome lie every thinkable ounce of carnal pleasure and worldly decadence. Sex shops, pornography parlours, izakayas, nightclubs, gay bars, sleazy saunas… bearing strong and powerful juxtaposition to the buddhist temples and shinto shrines we’d visited in the daytime.
The food culture in Tokyo was also quite intriguing. We are accustomed to buying canned drinks and occasionally packets of snacks or snicker bars from vending machines over here. Yet in Japan, practically everything, from a fresh organically grown apple, to a hentai soiled panty could be peddled in vending machines! More commonly, vending machines in Tokyo serve a greater purpose. One could order a meal through vending machines placed outside an F&B establishment, and customise everything in accordance to one’s preference from adding of toppings on a ramen, ordering an additional side dish, to upgrading a miso jiru to a ton jiru that goes with the 牛丼 Gyudon. This saves the hassle of the already busy shop staff who could now concentrate on handling the food and not the money!