Taipei is one of my favourite places. There are the usual reasons to love this city : fabulous street food culture, an efficient train system at a fraction of prices in Japan, how easy it is to talk to people. I also love it for how laid-back it is, especially compared to Japan. I love all the buildings that are old and charming and falling apart in places, the faded signs in traditional Chinese characters, the way all these subtropical plants sprout from between bricks and spill over walls and gates in a most haphazard fashion. It’s said that Taipei is like the best parts of Hong Kong and Japan in one city, and I am inclined to agree – visiting Taipei over Christmas and New Year’s Eve made me seriously reconsider my life choices re: moving to Japan. I could be eating beef noodles at 3am…
Living in Kyoto, I’ve come to miss open-air markets something fierce. And I don’t mean farmers markets. I mean the street markets of Southeast Asia, the ones with baskets of vegetables and fruits spilling onto the walkways, vendors peddling all manner of cheap snacks, the air a heady haze of frying oil and spices mingling with the fumes of car engines. And the herbs, the spices, the pickles. Did I mention cheap? I know, the grass is greener on the other side, blah blah blah. Anyway, the night markets in Taipei totally scratched that itch for me.
We spent our NYE evening at Linjiang Street Night Market, more commonly but erroneously known as Tonghua Night Market. There are over a hundred vendors here – Taiwanese pork sausages, boba, tropical fruits of all kinds, stinky tofu, Korean sweaters, leggings that promise to make you skinny, even a Chinese-speaking Italian(?) dude selling servings of tiramisu out of a cooler box for NT50. (The tiramisu was not bad, considering it was only NT50.) And then there was salt water chicken. I’d been putting it off for a few days now, but decided this would be the day to try it, and ducked into the queue for a salt water chicken stall at the intersection of Linjiang and Tonghua Street.
塩水鶏 – yan shui ji or ‘salt water chicken’ – can be found here and there all over the capital, and is as its name describes: chicken parts poached in salted water. Or steamed, depending on the stall. It varies by vendor, but you can expect ordinary chicken and sometimes black chicken parts of all kinds on wooden skewers. This nameless street cart in the middle of the market, manned by three or four people, had wings, necks, skin, butts, gizzards, cock’s combs, unfertilised eggs and fallopian tubes skewered and stacked willy-nilly on a large metal tray. Somewhere in there was a heap of dark, wobbly chunks of pig’s blood. Quail eggs and blocks of tofu braised burnished brown. Heads of broccoli, sticks of celery, and knobbly cucumbers for good measure.
Street food consisting of chopped mixed meat like this always feels like you end up ordering more than you can really eat on your own. One of this and one of that adds up to quite a lot, and it can be an entire meal if you’re not sharing, which is why eating with other people feels more satisfying on holiday.
The procedure is pretty simple: pick what you want, and let them know whether you’d like it spicy or not. The lady thrust a numbered bowl at me, and as the queue inched forward I picked up a pair of tongs and tossed in a skewer each of gizzards, unfertilised eggs, chicken hearts. Some black chicken wings, tofu and broccoli for G, who is not the most adventurous when it comes to offal.
When it’s your turn, the contents of your bowl meet the cleaver briefly for a quick hacking. Then he tosses all of this together with a pour or two of the poaching liquid/chicken broth, a generous shake of pepper, sesame oil, chopped scallions, salty-sour pickles. Hot chilli pepper powder optional but highly recommended. All of this into a plastic bag with a couple of skewers. Quickly hand over a grubby note or two, and take it away for eating. Scarf the whole lot down a few metres away, spitting any bones into a second plastic bag.
Eating chicken this way is all about the textures of all the various parts – indeed, that’s a central feature of Chinese cuisine. The tender, muscular chicken hearts; the bouncy crunch-chew of gizzard, the unfertilised egg that’s smoother and richer than your pedestrian boiled egg. Eating chicken when it’s chilled or at room temperature heightens the gelatinous quality of chicken skin, with a thin jelly-like layer of fat between the outer layer and the meat. That’s also the charm of eating drunken chicken, in which chicken is poached and chilled, left to soak in its own broth and rice wine – the skin has that prized jelly-like bite to it which I’ve come to enjoy.
The chicken at this night market stall was tasty enough – not the best, but still fun to eat nonetheless. I would have liked them to be more generous with the broth and seasonings. Next time I’m in Taiwan – and there will be a next time – I’d love to find a stall that does a better version of this. Taipei, I will be back!
Get there: the nearest MRT stations are Liuzhangli Station (捷運六張犁站) or Xinyi Anhe Station (信義安和站).