[Ben sez] One fateful evening prior to our departure from Taipei it was decided that we needed to re-enter the neon/florescent-lit world of the night market and indulge in some of the traditional Taiwanese street foods which we had missed (or avoided) on our first romp through the golden fields of consumption which are the Taiwanese Night Markets.
Stinky Tofu: "Stinky Tofu? That sounds appetizing.." you might say, we found ourselves walking through the markets on our first nights in Taiwan smelling something that is best described as somewhere between extra-potent fish sauce and smelly gym socks (sort of like the kind we get after the fifth day of walking 9 hours a day in the same pair of socks.. ahhh life as a backpacker, but I digress). After talking to some locals we were informed that this smell was Stinky Tofu, or Chinese Cheese as it is sometimes referred to in tourist oriented literature, and the stinkier it is the better. To say that we had eaten Taiwan we knew we had to eat it, so we pointed to a wok of these golden brown blocks of tofu, held up one finger and soon had a plate of stinky tofu, cabbage and onions on a table in front of us.
It was surprisingly unoffensive during the first bite, not something I'd miss if I didn't eat it again, but also not gag-worthy. The outside was a little crisp, yet oily, yielding to a somewhat crumbly interior like dried cottage cheese, and the flavor was of course slightly tofu and slightly gym sock.
([Nate sez] However, when you burp up this flavor over the next 4 hours, you kind of feel the need to kill something. It gets really nasty. The only cure was good old Japanese whisky. And it worked, damn it.)
Perhaps cheese is the best analogy for this substance. When I try to think of something from the US that would be disgusting to an unfamiliar Asian palette cheese comes to mind - oily, fatty, sometimes incredibly pungent - much like stinky tofu does not easily find a place in the hearts of foreigners, but has its passionate devotees among those who grew up with it.
Oyster Pancake: The Taiwanese specialize in these omelet-like devices which are built on a foundation of griddled oysters, topped with a mixture of egg and an unknown potato/rice starch creating a "pancake" which is then topped with a sweet chili sauce. Despite the description the example of this which we tasted was relatively flavorless, tasting only faintly of low-grade oysters. The egg/starch portion of the omelet was gooey and relatively bland.
On the other hand the night markets also have a flat-bread pancake which can be ordered with egg and then covered in soy and chili sauces which makes for a delicious evening snack - though it was not mentioned in the "Night Market Delicacies" pamphlet we were given. Our lovely friend Morgan clued us into this scene.
Fried Chicken: While there's nothing shocking about fried chicken conceptually, the fried chicken available at Taiwanese Night Markets is undeniably out of this world. It's a simple chicken cutlet, pounded thin, breaded in a tasty batter, and then fried until crispy (and optionally run through a slicer at some stands). It might not be rocket science, but it's so good it will make you laugh, cry, and undoubtedly go back for seconds, thirds, or possibly ninths.
Shaved Ice: Thin strips of frozen water in a cup, a good start for dessert. Well, it is when you then add a magical Taiwanese flavor concoction to it. Nate and I finished off our evening with two of these cold sugary treats, one in Yakult (Japanese sweet drinking yogurt flavor) and the other Milk with Coconut Jellies. I'm not sure if milk shaved ice is healthier than ice cream, but with the addition of coconut flavored jellies it certainly is more delicious than ice cream.