Visiting Tong Hua Night Market in Taipei

Last week I was in Taipei on business. One of my rules of business travel is, whenever possible, to explore the city and eat at least one meal out and about, so I come away with at least some sense of the city. Thankfully, Taipei is a familiar city and I was fortunate to have two friends join me for a trip to the Tong Hua Street Market in Da’an District.

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The objective of this visit was to locate a popular restaurant that serves gua bao, the steamed buns filled with braised pork belly and other goodies that I’ve previously tried making¬†and have enjoyed at Little Bao in Hong Kong.

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Thankfully, one of the local HR team members did some research for me and found a helpful article on the Lauhound food blog. The target restaurant was Shi Jia Gua Bao, a local chain famous for their gua bao.

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The menu is limited: basically there are steamed gua bao with a few different types of fillings, a baked bagel-like bun with a more limited selection of fillings, and the Taiwanese version of xiao long bao, a steamed pork bun.

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The shop manager was friendly and more than happy for me to take pictures. Vats of steaming buns and all the ingredients sat at the ready, ensuring us of a freshly-made, high-quality meal.

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The basic gua bao features both slices of fatty belly and slices of leaner meat. The size of the bao is larger than I have seen at some places: about the size of a McDonald’s hamburger. While a little messy to eat, the flavor was rich and satisfying.

Prices range from 50-65 New Taiwan Dollars, or less than US$2. Quite a bargain for the quantity and quality of food.

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The baked version, somewhat akin to a bagel, was not as enjoyable. While filled with the same tasty ingredients, the baked bun was dry and brittle, leaving me thirsty. Better to stick with the steamed version.

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Another interesting item was the xiao long bao. The Shanghainese version with which I am familiar (think of the ones at Din Tai Fung restaurant) feature as paper-thin noodle skin and the filling includes not only pork but a cube of flavorful gelatinized stock that melts when the bun is steamed, producing hot soup that will gush all over if you do not eat it carefully.

In contrast, the traditional Taiwanese version is made with a thicker bread dough so there is no stock inside, as it would only be absorbed by the bread. This was much less satisfying, although the pork filling was tasty enough.

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Wandering through the rest of the market, we encountered a stinky tofu vendor. The tofu was stinky, not the vendor! Made by fermenting the tofu in a brine that can contain all manner of ingredients, the smell of stink tofu is as strong as that of blue cheese. It sparks similar responses, with some people loving it and others repulsed by it. Also similar to blue cheese, the flavor and the smell are different.

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Here, the tofu is served lightly deep fried with a healthy dose of chili oil and pickled cabbage as a garnish. It was a very satisfying dish to try, although the bottom pieces, thoroughly soaked in the chili oil, were blindingly spicy.

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My friends Nathan and Andrew (aka loserstepaside here in WordPress) join me at the Tong Hua night market. The stinky tofu was Andrew’s idea.

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At the far end of the market was a vendor selling sheng jian bao, a pan-fried bun that I fell in love with in Shanghai, where I ate several times at Yang’s Buns.

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The skins are moderately thick, not as much as the gua bao but not so thin as gyoza. However, like gyoza they are fried on a cast iron pan that is filled with a generous amount of water, covered, and allowed to steam. The cover is removed after about five minutes and the remained of the liquid boils off.

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The sheng jian bao are served in a box of ten or a bag of five, sprinkled with sesame seeds and, in some places, chopped green onions.

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The insides are still steaming hot and the pork, ginger, and green onion filling is juicy and salty. These are a mess to eat but worth it, as the combination of crunchy bottom, pillowy soft wides, and warm, juice filling is too much to resist.

All in all, the Tong Hua market will give you many great things to see, do, and eat!

Also known as the Linjiang Street Night Market, located near Xinyi Anhe MRT station.

Shilin Night Market – Taipei

The food adventures continued on Saturday night when, after a day wandering around the malls adjacent to Taipei 101, we rode the subway to the north end of Taipei to visit the Shilin Night Market.  This is the largest night market in Taipei.

Foods we enjoyed at the official food section of the market (as opposed to the endless rows of street vendors scattered throughout the rest of the market) included these dishes:

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What did we eat?  I’m afraid I didn’t take careful notes, especially while we were inside the food portion of the market.  But from the upper left, clockwise, we have fried noodles with a ground pork mixture, a fried “pancake” that seems to be mostly made from corn starch with pickled cucumbers on top, an omelet with shrimp and greens with a thick sweet sauce, and steamed rice with another ground pork mixture.

The food in the indoor portion of the market was, honestly, a bit bland and a lot oily.  Corn starch and oil were two of the main ingredients.  The food was certainly interesting but the blandness, combined with the overwhelming smell of stinky tofu (a fermented tofu the smell of which some compare to death boiled over) from adjacent stalls, drove us back outside where we continued our hunt for food from the street vendors.  Full story in the video.

Focusing my energies on video, I ended up not shooting pictures of the wide variety of interesting food available at the food court in Taipei 101’s shopping mall.  See Andy’s entry to enjoy those pictures.