Satisfying an Empty Stomach

A Visit to the Always Busy Shilin Night Market
By Sean O'Bryan
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thought it would be useful, before my second meeting with Shilin (Shihlin) Night Market in Taipei (opposite MRT Jiantan Station), to revisit my journal. I say "meeting" the night-market, because it is less a place than a personality: at once confused and keyed up, sense-engulfing and, yet, somehow very structured in a subtle, at-first-unseen way. However, the notes from my first visit there, a fresh-off-the-boat foreigner literally on his first weekend in Asia, turned out to be a jumble of hieroglyphics. It seems I'd simply been too overwhelmed to write.

For a visitor, the milieu of sights and sounds and smells can be overpowering. That is, until you catch the look of complete calm, even boredom, on a vendor, and you realize this is just business as usual. What seems pure chaos to an outsider is just another work night to a cook who's been tossing omelets together since not long after he learned to walk. Take a deep breath, and take the chaos in stride.

If the night-market is a symbol of Taipei's social scene ? a place where people of all ages and occupations gather to eat, and shop, and play ? then Shilin is the epitome of all night-markets. Comprised of what seems an entire neighborhood networked by vendors hawking everything from computers to kittens, its core is a covered section dedicated entirely to food. That was our destination tonight.

I brought three friends with me, all prodigious eaters, Americans of various backgrounds and culinary tastes. Our task was to satisfy an empty stomach with "just" 10 American dollars (about NT$300). An empty stomach indeed, because at night-market prices, an Alexander Hamilton* could feed an entire Taiwanese family, or the equivalent of two American people. Thus, the question was not if we could fill up ? but, like a wide-eyed 6-year-old given a one-minute shopping spree at Toys-R-Us ? a question of how. With that kind of cash, where did we start?

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To avoid the crowds we went on a Tuesday, early in the evening, before the real action got underway. Still, all of the eateries were open for business. Each one had a person out front, hollering their deals like car salesmen, instantly shifting to clipped English when we walked past.

There are stands to buy drinks or desserts from, and then there are "restaurants," where you can sit down and a waiter or cook takes your order? only these restaurants don't have walls, and the "kitchen" is located right out front. The market is made up of row after row of these places, all vigorously competing for your gastro-attention. Lack of choice is definitely not a problem.

Upon the suggestion of our waitress, who quadrupled as hostess, cook, and dishwasher, oyster omelets and stinky tofu soup were the first two dishes we tried. The label "stinky" tofu is not a malapropism. If anything, it's too modest. "Bitter-brackish-fetid-foulness" tofu is closer to the mark. Maybe I'm oversensitive, but I've sniffed garbage disposals more appetizing than this Taiwanese treat.

At Shilin Night Market, lack of choice is definitely not a problem

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Nevertheless, that old conventional axiom about fifty-percent of taste being determined by smell is put to shame here. Amazingly, the tofu tasted nothing like it smelled. The texture was smooth like soft bread, and it had a pleasant salty flavor. The smooth, shiny black triangles of congealed duck's blood floating in the broth were a nice complement. Overall, it was a solid starter for our first course? oyster omelet.

At Shilin, the oyster omelet is a staple. Every other "restaurant" has the oil-slicked, meter-wide circular stove out front, up to five orders frying at once, steaming gold circles stretched across the whole surface. The cook tosses two eggs out, to thicken up before the oysters are grooved in. The beige splotches on the egg palette are then given added color with a heap of lettuce, and the whole mix folded together, flipped once for a final simmer.

The dish came smothered in a pink and creamy sweet sauce, spiced up with a dash of chili powder. My buddies balked at the first bite, unsure about the slippery consistency of the oysters in the egg. Yet, after taking roughly three minutes rounding up some Taiwan Beer, I returned to find all four plates mopped up. A smattering of sauce was left for me, their host. What great friends I have! Models of generosity, they are.

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Each oyster omelet, filling in itself (two would be a meal), rang up at a whopping NT$50. The tofu and duck-blood cost NT$30 a person, and along with the ice-cold "pijiou" (beer) at NT$40 a pop, we'd spent a grand total of?K4 dollars, US, each. Demoralized, we realized our objective would be tougher to attain than we'd thought. So we headed to a pricier section? BBQ.

We Americans consider ourselves more than proficient at grilling, so Zack decided to don an apron and man the grill for our meats. True to form, the friendly Taiwanese didn't object. They let him in the kitchen and watched in amusement as he struggled to flip the foot-long sausages without dropping them on the floor.

Meanwhile, Sean and Justin surveyed the offerings: mushrooms, pork, lamb, and every part of the chicken, the guts to the butts, skewered and laid out in rows, ready to be thrown on the grill. After some careful deliberation, we settled on chicken hearts and squid, along with an absurdly large sausage Zack had fried up.

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The seafood soup, with great chunks of squid, octopus, and bamboo sprouts, was probably the best deal we got all night.

Our main course would have some variety, we decided, so we ordered some seafood soup, as hearty as any Irish stew I've ever devoured, with great chunks of squid, octopus, and bamboo sprouts in a thick broth. At NT$30 a bowl, it was probably the best deal we got all night. We finished by picking up a "meatball" apiece. The Taiwanese meatball is an interesting specimen, in no way resembling its Italian brethren. Uncooked, it sits in cold water with its friends, a translucent, almost bluish tone, shaped like some alien egg.

Don't let that fool you though? looks can be deceiving. Heavy and slick with sauce, it wasn't built for chopsticks, but the meatball? made from glutinous rice and loaded with chunks of pork and diced vegetables, coated in a pink sauce similar to the one with the oyster omelets ? was a favorite of the night. After our second course, owing to the relatively pricey NT$100 sausage, we'd spent NT$240 each. Our bellies near-full, the goal was in sight.

Next was dessert. Keeping with the rice theme, we opted for the traditional Taiwanese glutinous-rice snack? mochi. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, it was hard to imagine a dish this simple could be so good. Basically glutinous rice mashed almost to a pulp, powdered in ground-up peanut shavings, and warmed just before eating, it was delicious and yet something anyone could put together.

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With NT$30 left apiece, we veered away from all the oily, salty, and spicy stuff we'd been indulging in so recklessly. Something sweet this time, and remotely healthy? Shaved ice was just the thing. This wasn't like the shaved ice back home, saturated with artificial flavorings like "pina colada" and "raspberry sunrise." Ours came with actual mango, strawberry, and white starch balls called tangyuan I had never tried before. The perfect dessert after all the salt we'd consumed.

We left the market just as it was really picking up for the night. A good thing, because our protruding stomachs would have been hazardous to others in the tight queues. Our objective successfully conquered, on a mere 10 US dollars, we had managed to fill up for the next week. If we were bears, someone mused, we would have been more than ready for a winter's hibernation.