Raohe Ramblings: A Taiwanese Tradition

Take a walk with me as we journey through the Raohe Night Market in Taipei. Feel the crowd closing in, each step you take an effort to push through the busy street. Enjoy the stark contrast of neon against the evening sky. Listen to the symphony of sounds that assault you; a chorus of Taiwanese vendors shouting their wares, titillated tourists giggling gaily, and raw meat sizzling on the grill. Breathe deeply and inhale the unique mixture of smells: fried octopus, stinky tofu, sugarcane soda, and spicy broth. Finally, taste Taipei. Brave the exotic fare and sink your teeth into a juicy skewer of chicken and calamari. Or perhaps you’d prefer corn on the cob.

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No matter your tastes, you will find what you desire at the Raohe Night Market. One of the oldest and largest in Taiwan, Raohe is known for its local delicacies and cornucopia of choice. It opens at 6pm and goes until… they run out of food?

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Of course, the definition of delicacy varies, country to country. While I consider myself to be an adventurous eater, some of the cuisine on display was a bit more than even my stomach could handle. Chicken feet, for example, are famous throughout Asia. Personally, I’ll pass. But I did enjoy my savory fresh-fruit smoothie made of green mango and watermelon.

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If you are generally squeamish about street food, I recommend the night market for its other merchandise. Need a new phone case? Look no further. How about some tennis shoes? No problem. A designer facemask to prevent disease? Why not? And, obviously, everyone needs to bring home a tacky t-shirt. Anything you can imagine, you can find in the night market. Anything, that is, except souvenirs. Taiwan had a surprising lack of plates, shot glasses, spoons, miniature statues, and other tacky items. I guess I’ll just have to settle for some “authentic” jade.

We ventured into the market in search of local flavor, and boy did we find it! This is where tourists and Taiwanese converge. It seemed the entire city was there. Families out for an evening adventure, backpacking tourists whose large packs took up far too much space. And us, a group of good friends hoping to do some shopping and take lots of amazing photographs.

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The market begins just a few minutes’ walk from Songshan Station. The entrance is impossible to miss; alight with color, flashing lights guide your way. But before you step into the chaos of the market, take a moment to visit the Songshan Ciyou Temple. Directly to the right, the temple stands guard over the crowded streets. Its impressive façade like a beacon against the black sky, calling you home.

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Once you enter, you feel an immediate sense of calm. A working temple, it is a place of worship and meditation. Its soothing energy is a wonderful (and much-needed) release from the pandemonium outside. Groups of local practioners gather together for evening services as tourists quietly walk around the enormous complex. The tranquil whisperings of prayer enhance the lavish décor. Not a square inch is left unadorned; a feast for the eyes.

After a brief respite, return to the fast-paced city that is Taipei and ramble through the market feeling refreshed and ready to fight your way through the throngs of Taiwanese. (And I do mean fight!)

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There is too much to see and buy. I wished to stop at every stand and admire the food, to watch their process. Most have been here for generations, their recipes and secrets passed down. And you can taste the experience.

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The vendors offer an enormous variety, but the most famous items are the Fuzhou (pork) pepper buns, grilled squid (a visual delight), fried dumplings, and a local herbal pork bone soup. Pick and choose wisely, because your eyes are certain to be bigger than your stomach.

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I might be wrong, but I imagine the market to be like a giant state fair (there are even a few rides for children under 35 lbs). No, there are no funnel cakes or candy apples, but the dishes on offer have a similar place in the locals’ hearts and stomachs. Fair food: familiar, delicious, and almost certainly unhealthy!

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Sadly, we arrived post-dinner (a mistake I encourage none of my readers to make). But there was still much to do and see. Number one: shopping! Shady stands that offer counterfeit goods intermingled with legitimate stores in proper buildings. Nike and New Balance both have spots along this street, but you can be sure to find cheaply made one-size-fits-all garments, as well. You can even go fishing for goldfish to take home. (See, I told you it was just like the fair.)

If you’ve run out of money from the over-priced restaurants in Taipei, you should still make the journey to Raohe Night Market. For a few cents you can eat like a local. But best of all, the people watching is free. A true bargain.

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