Night Markets: Taiwan's Most Popular Dining Source

Can the Taiwan CDC preserve the tradition while improving the many health risks of night markets?

By Vivian Chen

Night Markets: Taiwan's Most Popular Dining Source - Nutrition for the WorldIn Taiwan, a cultural social activity is dining at the local night markets. A “night market” is a long street in which vendors (majority of them being food vendors, but also vendors who sell clothes, accessories, and provide mini carnival games) sell their goods in stalls, canteens, or carts on the sidewalk and asphalt road, while the consumers dine and shop between the columns of vendors. The night market is most well known for their food, referred to as Taiwanese Xiao-Chi (台灣小吃), literally meaning “Taiwan's Little Eat”. This name refers to the small portions of the food. Contrary to its name though, in the recent years, as the vendors compete with one another for business in a particular night market, portions have grown larger and larger, as consumers want to get the best deal for their money.

Some of the traditional Taiwanese foods found at night markets include:

Oyster Omelet
Oyster Omelet / 蚵仔煎(O-a-chien)

This dish contains eggs, oysters, and green vegetables, stir-fried with corn starch. The combination of the ingredients gives the omelet a "gooey" feel but is chewy in the mouth. The sauce on the omelet has a sweet-and spicy flavor.
Stinky Tofu
Stinky Tofu / 臭豆腐(Chou Do-fu)

This is one of the most notorious dishes in Taiwanese foods due to its "stink". The infamous smell is the distinctive characteristic of the dish, as the tofu goes through a fermentation process. Despite the "stink", for people who love the food, the stronger the smell, the more delicious the vendor's tofu is. Served with the stink tofu is a spicy soy sauce along with pickled lettuce.
Oyster Vermicelli
Oyster Vermicelli / 蚵仔麵線(O-a Mi-soa)

This dish is a mixture of oyster, vermicelli, and cornstarch, mixed together to make a thick soup. The soup is mixed with vinegar and a little bit of soy sauce, along with Chinese parsley to bring out the flavor.
Fried Chicken Cutlet
Fried Chicken Cutlet / 炸雞排(Ja-Ji-Pai)

The fried chicken cutlet is one of the dishes that has taken the competition of portion size between the vendors to an extreme. The largest ones amount to almost three adult hand palms put together. What distinguishes this chicken cutlet as Taiwanese versus any other American fried chicken is the pepper the vendors put on the cutlet after it's been fried. Instead of using ground black pepper, the Taiwanese vendors use white pepper. White pepper has less of the "taste" of pepper we are familiar with in black pepper, but instead has a spicy taste.
Big Sausage Wrapped Over Small Sausage
"Big Sausage Wrapped Over Small Sausage" /
大腸包小腸(Da-chong Bao Xiao-chong)

Although the food's name literally means "big sausage wrapped over small sausage", it is actually a meat sausage wrapped in a sausage made with glutinous rice. In addition to the two sausages, customers have the option of adding different sauces to their wraps. The most common being a thick soy sauce or sweet-and-spicy sauce. Some of the more creative vendors in the past few years have attracted customers with their collection of innovative sauces, such as chocolate, peanut butter sauce, even honey!
"Sweet Not Spicy" / 甜不辣 (Tien-bu-la)

While the name of the dish literally means "sweet not spicy", the dish is fried fish cake (often known in Japanese cuisines as "tempura") with sweet-and-spicy sauce over it. The reason the dish was named this way was because the fish cake has a sweet taste, so although the sauce is meant to be a little spicy, the entire dish comes off as "sweet" not "spicy. Another reason for the peculiar name is because the Taiwanese wanted a play on words with the Japanese name of the fish cake "tempura"; the Taiwanese name tien-bu-la sounds synonymous with tempura.
Pearl Milk Tea
Pearl Milk Tea / 珍珠奶茶 (Jen-ju Nai-cha)

What is referred to as "pearl" in this drink is known as tapioca (or boba) in the United States. The tapioca tastes like a round ball of jelly, often cooked in sugar water, so that the jelly itself is sweet. Mixed with milk tea, this is as often a dessert as it is a drink.
Vegetarian Gelatin with Pearls
"Frog Laying Eggs" with Vegetarian Jelly /
青蛙下蛋加愛玉 (Ching-wa-xia-dan Jia Ai-yu)

The name "frog laying eggs" is another name for tapioca (or boba), as the Taiwanese believed it looked like frog eggs. The tapioca is mixed with vegetarian jelly, sugar water, and lemon juice, to make a sweet drink with a slight lemon taste. (the lemon juice also prevents the drink from being sickly sweet).
Mango Ice
Mango Ice / 芒果冰(Mong-guo-bin)

One of the best desserts found in the night market, this dish is shaved ice, with mango syrup, condensed milk, and fresh mango pieces to top it off. This dessert is the perfect ending to a night of hot and humid weather in the night market!
Candied Gourd
Candied Gourd / 糖葫蘆 (Tong-hu-lu)

This dessert was originally started with gourd pieces, dipped into molten sugar, and left to cool so that the sugar would harden over the gourd. Today, as the dessert's popularity grew, vendors began adding different fruit and vegetables; now, there are also candied strawberry, candied tomato, and candied plum. The dessert tastes crispy on the outside, with the hardened sugar, but soft and warm when you bite into the fruit or vegetable.

Despite these delicious foods found at the night market, there are many people who are apprehensive about dining there. The first issue is the weather condition in Taiwan; being considered a tropical island, the weather in Taiwan is very hot and humid. One of the main health concerns about the foods at night markets is their preservation. Many vendors used to cook batches of food at a time, and have the food displayed on their carts until the customers bought them. This meant a lot of the dishes were already spoiled by the weather when it was sold. To put the customers more at ease, the vendors slowly began changing their business system; instead of making multiple dishes all at once and wait for the consumers, they would make the dishes with each order. This ensured that each dish the customers received were fresh.

A big issue with Pearl Milk Tea stands five or six years ago, was that in order to preserve their tapioca for longer periods of time, they were using toxic preservatives. This caused uproar in Taiwan, as it was one of the most popular drinks in the country. For months, citizens refused to buy the drinks. To improve the situation and also to ensure the health and safety of citizens, the Taiwan CDC began inspections of every single stall and restaurant that sold Pearl Milk Tea. Those who passed the inspection and were proven to have non-toxic tapioca were given certificates.
Night Markets: Taiwan's Most Popular Dining Source - Nutrition for the World

The most recent health issue with night markets was in January of 2009, when the Taiwan CDC began inspecting the immunization of Hepatitis A among vendors. Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter. This includes contact with objects, food, or drink contaminated by the feces of an infected person. While most adults would have immunity if they were infected as children, many of the children and teenagers today do not have the antibody for Hepatitis A, due to the sanitary improvement in Taiwan. This leads to about 200 new Hepatitis A virus infections every year. Since night markets are such a major part of the Taiwanese social life, for both family and social gatherings, the Taiwan CDC believes that vendors could be one of the leading sources of the virus. The Taiwan CDC is currently inspecting every single vendor throughout the Taiwanese night markets, to check if they have received their immunization shots. The public health bureaus cooperate with the night markets’ administrative committee to collect blood samples from the night market food vendors and screen for the immunity against Hepatitis A. For the vendors who have not, the CDC has arranged for them to receive the vaccine. This plan is not only to improve the health condition of citizens in Taiwan, but also to build customer confidence in the food served at the night markets.

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