Mobile Night Market
Shilin Night Market (Shìlín yè shì, 士林夜市). More chillin’ with Rock.
Feast. Hot Star XXL Fried Chicken (háo dà dà jī pái, 豪大大雞排). Stinky Tofu (chòu dòu fŭ, 臭豆腐). Sausage wrap (dà cháng bāo xiǎo cháng, 大腸包小腸). Peanut shaved ice.
We stepped off the Taiwanese MRT (Taiwan’s equivalent of London’s Underground subway) at the Shilin stop, which was home to the largest night market in Taipei, cleverly named…the Shilin Night Market. Rock had previously identified and visited the plaza where we were supposed to get delicious noms, which he described as a “smorgasbord of packed stalls and stories of food fun that was absolutely chaotic and irresistible…a sight to behold…fantastic.” It was kind of like a spoken movie review. With that description fresh in my head, we were definitely excited about the prospect of squeezing shoulder to shoulder with fellow Taiwanese folks to get a chance at some of this hometown fare.
Rock eventually led me to the rendezvous point, but instead of bright lights and infinite nonsense, we stepped into a dark, empty parking lot that was under construction. Rock was somewhat amused, somewhat horrified; the expression on his face was pretty hilarious. We decided that staring vacantly at the deserted construction site wasn’t going to return the “market” to its former glory, and instead, waved down a random stranger in the street to inquire where the night market went. The man chuckled and pointed down a busy light-bombed street and said, “Yeah. It’s right there. It moved.” We were relieved, but Rock had insisted that the scene inside the parking lot would have been a spectacle itself. I’m inclined to agree with him. I guess there’s not many open air markets with a shit-ton of shops jammed packed in a parking lot, all serving different sorts of edibles and merchandise. Shame, it definitely would have been one for the books; perhaps another time, but definitely not the same place.
We toured around the underground isles and floors full of crazy eats around the night market before Rock started playing tour guide, filtering out the foods that could be skipped . There were probably up to around 100 stands, some with repeat small eats, and some that were purported to be absolute “must-trys” in Taiwan. The food, obviously, was practically infinite. Everything was offered at cents on the dollar. Our stomachs, unfortunately, were not infinite, so wise decisions were ahead of us.
First stand we opted for was the Hot Star XXL Fried Chicken stand. This place made me chuckle a bit. I’ve never seen a stand so on top of it. It was like watching a modern car production line on crack. There were two guys in flour-oil-splattered aprons working up a frenzy, pumping out fried chicken steaks at breakneck speed. The third guy at the end of the line, was dealing with what looked like an endless stream of receipts flying out of the register. He used a headset to scream out orders and probably changed a roll of receipt paper every couple of minutes. This was a serious three-man stand, taking over the world with face-sized fried chicken patties. This was serious business. Can’t think of any better way to utilize time, honestly, unless it’s eating the chicken.
Right next to the Hot Star Stand was the peanut shaved ice, which at first glance, didn’t seem too crazy. However, the final product was a rather interesting mixture. Before I go on and describe the taste and texture, I used the “standard” two types of shaved ice in order to describe what I ate. One type is coarsely shaved ice, which we like to refer to as Hawaiian ice. The granules are sort of big; it’s usually plain ice scooped into a cup with lots of colorful flavorings splashed on top. The second type of ice usually is a mixture of water and condensed milk, sugar, and maybe some additional binders, all frozen into a block, and then thinly shaved into a small cup. The consistency is almost like ice cream. Peanut ice from this particular stand in Taiwan was a hybrid between the two classes of shaved ice. There were small chunks of peanuts, and the flavor was full-bodied, not crazily cloying like ice-cream shaved ice, but not watery like Hawaiian shaved ice. You could say that the flavor was microscopically pocketed throughout the ice, as if the makers were able to figure out a comfortable equilibrium of ice to water to sugar to flavor, with a right amount of blending and wait time before serving. The texture and taste was palatable and highly pleasant, especially post-fried chicken.
Sausage wrap. This was a smooth translation from the original Chinese name, 大腸包小腸, which quite literally means “big intestine wraps small intestine.” The large sausage is white. The smaller sausage is red-maroon (with different flavors; garlic, black pepper, wasabi). Before you jump off your seat and assume it’s a chicken/veal sausage wrapping a pork sausage, and think it’s sausage fest time, you’re wrong. Put it away. It’s a rice sausage wrapping a Taiwanese pork sausage- quite literally, an Asian hot dog. This is topped with scallions, pickled sour cabbage and a brush of what I think is some sort of combination sauce made of soy sauce and/or oyster sauce. Couldn’t get enough of this, really.
Stinky tofu was found in a small alcove on the way back to the MRT subway station. There was a small sitting area, chopsticks, and a stout, loud Taiwanese lady cooking in a big ol’ wok half filled with floating, fried stinky tofu. If you can overcome the smell (I couldn’t when I was a kid), the tofu itself is fairly delicious, a result of months of fermentation, if done right. I recall my previous experiences with stinky tofu, which usually involved scrunching up my noise, turning my head, and in one instance, excusing myself to use the bathroom, and then subsequently hanging out in the corridor for ten minutes. First-time consumers of stinky tofu usually ask two questions: “OH-MAH-HEAVENS, why does it smell like VOMIT?” and, “How can you eat this stuff?” I’ll answer these two questions right now. What stinks is basically the products of alkaline fermentation. I/we eat it because once you get past the smell, it tastes DAMN good.
According to Wikipedia, fermentation begins by soaking normal tofu in a brine that consists of “milk, vegetables, meat,” and sometimes “dried shrimp, amaranth greens, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and Chinese herbs.” The subsequent mixture is left to “ferment,” or in layman’s terms, to allow bacteria to multiply and “pre-digest” the tofu, imparting their by-products (vomit smell), and in doing so, creating hundreds of additional compounds (more smells and delicious flavors).
It seems that the best stinky tofu is fermented for long periods of time. This article features a man named Mr. Liu who ferments his tofu for at least a month, with an additional week of marination afterwards. The ingredients are obviously kept a secret, but you can surmise how the addition or deletion of an ingredient in the brine, combined with fermentation time can provide a novel stinky tofu experiences.
I said before that alkaline fermentation is the reason why stinky tofu stinks so much. This fermentation can be divided into three steps.
- The beginning stages of fermentation favor an acidic medium, due to the production of lactic acid.
- The middle stages of fermentation allow microorganisms such as Bacillus sp. (and/or Enterococcus sp., Lactobacillus sp., and Streptococcus sp.) to outgrow others and secrete proteases. (suffix tease(s) = cutter(s), prefix pro = protein, protease(s) = protein cutter(s)).
- Those bacterial proteases cut proteins and release ammonia. Ammonia causes olfactory distress.
Currently there is no standard starter culture for creating stinky tofu, due to safety concerns of open fermentation. However, current research has already begun testing a standard brine, employing specific strains of lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus sp., Weissella sp.) and weight/volume adjusted amounts of bamboo, amaranth, salt, and shrimp. I appreciate this sort of standardization, but this would obviously make all stinky tofu taste the same. Nevertheless, I’m sure one could learn a great deal from performing such an experiment.
Perhaps one day there would be a “fermentation shop” where one could pick and match different strains of bacteria, buy fermentation ingredients in an one-stop-n’-go shop, and make homemade stinky tofu/anything else fermented. Sounds a bit like laboratory-inspired food.
We saw this guy’s motorcycle at some point during the day. The danger factor for this job must be pretty high. Brave souls keeping the propane coming, and the night market stoves alive. Serious props.