Taipei, Taiwan: Exotic Foods at Ningxia Night Market

“We’re looking for Mr. Lobster’s Secret Den,” Mike told the guard at the desk.

Anywhere else in the world, this might have been met with raised eyebrows and a polite escort off the premises. But in Taipei, Taiwan, they knew exactly what we were talking about.

Mr. Lobster’s Secret Den happened to be the name of the high-rise “luxury hostel” we’d chosen for our Taiwanese accommodations. It was not only comfortable and affordable but also — and perhaps more importantly — located just a few blocks from Taipei’s famous Ningxia Road Night Market.

We were on a culinary roll lately with trips to Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, some incredible street food in Beijing, and food tours already booked for upcoming visits to the Philippines and Cambodia.

But Taipei promised new delicacies, and we were excited to try them all.

We settled into our room and waited for nightfall, when the dozens of vendors open their stalls to the hungry public.

From 5:30 p.m. until midnight every day, purveyors of everything from freshly-caught seafood and hand-rolled dumplings to candy-coated fruit skewers and neon-green bamboo juice line Ningxia Road in the Datong District of Taipei City. If you aren’t staying close by, it’s just a five-minute walk from the Shuanglian MRT station.

At first glance, these three-spot crabs look like they have three large eyes. A wild swimming crab, they’re found all over the world, but they are especially well-known in Taiwan, where they’re eaten steamed or used in dishes such as fried crab with chili and black-peppered crispy crab. If you buy one at the night market, some vendors will cook it for you on the spot.

Have you ever had meat cooked by blowtorch? According to Popular Mechanics magazine, it’s about “nailing that Maillard reaction, where cooking and chemistry meet,” and it’s a great way to get a perfect char on the outside without overcooking the inside. Although this steak just tasted like butane.

Lemons, limes, pomegranate, carambola (star fruit), and the bumpy white bitter melon

We chose dumplings for dinner (no surprise there). They were assembled by hand and steamed on the spot in stacked bamboo baskets, then served with soy and chili sauces. Divine.

At the end of the market, you’ll find a mini arcade of games that travel in brightly-colored suitcases. It makes for a fun end to an evening of street food.

The next day found us walking across town to the Taipei location of China’s famous Din Tai Fung dumpling house, where the masters do their work like wonderful, wonderful machines.

There’s even a cute dumpling mascot for true aficionados!

Din Tai Fung is located in a food mall, where you’ll find beautiful cakes and cute cartoon juice cans for sale alongside such delicacies as pork floss.

While we experienced some Taiwanese foods that Westerners might consider “out there” like deep-fried crispy duck heads, we did draw the line at one of Taipei’s most popular culinary novelties: a toilet-themed restaurant.

With menu items that include “poop stuffed pancakes” and “green vomit sauce spaghetti,” it didn’t appeal to us, but it’s been in business for over a decade. To each his own.

Up Next: We meet back up with Ben for a holiday in the Philippines featuring scuba diving, canyoneering, and a street food tour featuring the country’s favorite midnight snack.