When traveling to Taiwan, it’s a good idea to pack a bottomless stomach—the volume of cheap, tempting street food you’ll encounter will require it. Essentially, any comestible that can be purchased and consumed without setting foot into a brick-and-mortar building can be called “street food.” Hot dogs, pretzels, tacos, and ice cream, for instance, reign in large parts of the U.S.; the selection of portable foodstuffs increases dramatically when you go to a county fair or carnival, although at this point said foodstuffs are now termed “fair food.”
Carts and open-air food stalls are everywhere in Taiwan, hawking steamed buns, pillowy filled cakes, shaved ice, bowls of slippery noodles, and grilled or deep-fried goodies that you eat from a stick or out of a waxed paper bag. No need to decipher a menu or exchange words with the vendor—you can see and smell exactly what’s being offered. Just point at what you want and indicate how many.
Of course, just because you can see the food doesn’t mean you’ll know what it is. The vast array of Taiwanese street food can be overwhelming, especially if you didn’t grow up eating the stuff, don’t know the language, or haven’t dissected a fetal pig in years (internal organs are everywhere). This is when an adventurous palate comes in handy.
Night markets offer the most street foods in one place. Stinky tofu is perennially popular, and lines snake around particularly pungent stalls. Other staples include runny oyster pancakes, pig’s blood cake (known in Western cultures as blood sausage) dusted with peanut powder, crispy scallion pancakes, fried duck tongues, sweet tofu pudding, grass jelly, and—my favorite—taro dough balls. The latter are squishy and chewy like tapioca balls, but denser. The Taiwanese have a word for this specific texture that I don’t believe exists in Mandarin: “cue cue.” These “cue cue” dough balls also come in yam, sweet potato, and black sesame varieties—they’re a real party in your mouth.
Now, if only some place in the Bay Area could fulfill my Taiwanese street food cravings….