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Take a big bite

Let your tastebuds run riot at the Shilin night market. With some tasty treats and a few questionable eats to choose from, they're sure not to have a single dull moment

travel Updated: Mar 23, 2010 17:29 IST

There was buzz about me -- I was experiencing a heady cocktail of anticipation and trepidation. I felt like a culinary Captain Cook about to go forth and discover the huge kitchen that is the Shilin Night Market.

Shilin was the last of a series of gourmet discoveries I made in Taipei. Some of these had been outstanding -- like the egg roll stall near the KJwang Hwa computer and components market. Egg rolls are pastries that are made by dropping a dollop of batter on a flat plate that is pressed against another plate on top -- akin to an industrial press -- for just a second or two. The intense heat bakes or fries the batter, when is then rolled into a tube before it hardens. The end product is light and sweet, and available in a variety of flavours including ham and vanilla.

Then there is moiji, a sweet meat that you simply have to taste. It has a chewy, marshmallow-like outer covering with a sweet, red bean paste within. The paste tastes like the chana dal filling inside a puran poli. The dish is incredibly tasty as a whole.

In the countries of the Orient where any creature on earth, the sky and under the ocean is fair game on the dining table, an interpreter is an essential gastronomic GPS. Words lost in translation can lead to nasty culinary surprises: you could relisha bowl of thick soup only to find at the bottom of the bowl, something that would warrant the pest control service back home.

Lost in translation
My co-traveller, for instance, gushed over a red-coloured, garlicky fish dish that he chewed on and relished -- until he saw a ghastly looking cousin of the creature lazing in a tank at the aquarium. "See, see" pointed the interpreter, "that is what you just ate."
I have never seen a person go so rapidly from bright and talkative to green and where-can-I-barf-please.

So, I kept all channels of interpretation open -- sight, smell and speech -- to avoid any such mishap. Then I set forth to enjoy the culinary delights that Taipei offers, from fine dining restaurants to a unique eating house called 'Modern Toilet' where customers sit on WCs and food is served to them in miniature WCs. There has to be a rationale behind this idea, but I just didn't understand it.

But the headiest of all Taipei gastronomic experiences can undoubtedly be found in the Shilin night market. Let's be honest, you have to be a meat eater to enjoy it. If you're the kind who will avoid Mahim Causeway for the slight whiff of fish in the air, then you'd better take a few washing line clips along with you to Shilin. Here, you can choose what you don't want to eat and even avert your gaze from unappetising foods on display, but you simply cannot escape the omnipresent olfactory aura. Some smells are pleasant enough to make you drool, while others are so sharp that they make your eyes water.

But this sensory overload should by no means dissuade anyone (except, maybe vegetarians) from visiting the Shilin night market. It is a fascinating place to visit. There is plenty of tasty -- and normal (namely chicken, beef and pork) -- food on offer too. If you're in Taipei, this is one taste you mustn't miss out on.

Rishad is a travel writer who is happiest behind the wheel of a car in a new country.

Getting there
By air: There are direct flights to Taipei from Delhi on China Airlines. From other cities you can use Hong Kong as a convenient jumping off point.
If you have a UK, US, Australian, New Zealand, Singapore or Schengen visa, you can apply online for a Taiwanese visa and it is a 10 minute process.

Getting around: Taipei's metro transport system is pretty good, but there really aren't any signs in English. Taxis are also efficient. Just remember to get the name of your hotel written in Mandarin so that you can show it to a cab driver and get back.

Shopping: Computers, cameras and electronics are at a bargain here.

Don't miss: The Taipei 101 building. The super fast elevator travels at 16.83 meters per second. It's like diving in the reverse: you have to keep on equalising the pressure in your ears as you shoot up to 1250 feet.

One Taiwanese Dollar NTD = Rs. 1.4

First Published: Mar 23, 2010 17:29 IST