Jill Stafford and her husband sold their Minneapolis home in 2015 to travel and house sit around the world. You can read more about their travels on their blog, visa-vis.com.
I’ve been on quite a few food tours across several different cities over the years, and one thing I’ve learned is that every tour lives and dies by the guide.
Sure, eating amazing food can salvage some of the tour, but if your guide is lacklustre, well then that’s just going to be a boring trip to filling your belly. Luckily for me, on my recent Taipei food tour with Urban Adventures, our guide Tung had energy and charm to spare — a goofy ball of energy who is super quick and keeps the conversation light with plenty of jokes. She clearly loves what she does and is passionate about showing people how amazing Taiwanese street food can be.
Her smile was radiant when my partner and I first wandered up to her at the MRT station. There were two other people on tour with us that night (Americans like us) and Tung was ready to show us what makes Taipei’s street markets some of the best in the world.
I had my heart set on eating street food, so when our first stop was to a restaurant, my heart sank a bit. I looked to Tung. “We’re going to be going back out there, right?” I asked, motioning to the street carts just out the window.
“Don’t worry. We will eat lots tonight.”
My fears of restaurant ennui were assuaged and I dug into my first oyster omelet and fried rice. Both were fantastic. Tung explained that she prefers the oysters at this place more than any others; I could see why she started the tour here. With our appetites whetted, we descended the stairs and found ourselves back on the street amongst an ever-growing number of people eager to eat as much food as possible.
Food carts lined both sides of the street. This night market closes off the street to all car traffic so all we were navigating was a sea of hungry people. It was hot and humid and there was a crush of bodies around some carts. You could tell the popularity of certain places based on the number of locals lined up and waiting.
As we wandered past stall after stall, I wondered when we might stop and try some things. I spotted veggies lined up at a stall and called out to Tung.
“You pick what you want and they’ll grill them for you,” she explained. “Would you like some?” My answer? Hell yes!
Tung picked up a red basket and deftly started filling it with whatever veggies our group wanted. I seemed to be driving this veggie desire so asked for mushrooms, cabbage, green beans, tofu, more mushrooms and an ear of corn. Tung handed our basket of veg over to the vendor and said, “We’ll come back in a while.” And off we went down the strip of vendors while I wondered when we would be back to claim these beautiful veggies.
I didn’t have to wait long. We picked up some beverages — watermelon juice for our new friends and bitter melon for me — and headed back to the veggie stand. Sure enough, they were ready and in a bag. They had been grilled to perfection and brushed with a subtly sweet and mildly spicy sauce. This was heaven. I downed the wedge of cabbage and we were off again.
One of the things I liked best about this tour was that while Tung had an agenda of where to take us and what she wanted us to try, she also was flexible with indulging us in whatever we saw that intrigued us. I saw some sweet potato balls that I wanted to try and, like magic, they were ours. (Sadly, they weren’t that great which is probably why they weren’t on Tung’s original list. Oh well, at least I tried.)
As the night wound down, Tung’s energy and enthusiasm did not. She was eager to see how we would like (or not like) one of the more polarising foods of Taiwan: stinky tofu. All night long we had smelled this farm-y, dirty scent drifting to our nostrils on a strong wind.
When you’re standing right in front of it, stinky tofu assaults your nose on whole different level. It’s as if you’ve stepped into a barn. Tung ordered ours with a little spice and we all sat down at a table, while a nearby eager local man told us he was happy to see us trying it.
We each skewered a piece of tofu and dug in. The smell is far more affecting than the actual taste. It’s light and airy with a little funk, but nothing worse than a strong goat cheese. The dish divided our group; my partner and I were on the “not bad” side and the other couple were on the “umm, no thanks” side. Tung was firmly in the “I’ll eat that if you’re not going to” camp.
Tung’s giddiness at our experience said everything to me. Here was someone who absolutely loved her job and loved seeing how other people interact with her culture. It was fantastic that she joined in the eating as well, and made it more like we were sharing food with a friend than being studied by a random stranger.
We were all pretty much done by this point and ready to roll ourselves home. While the other couple took off in an Uber, we realized that Tung was head the same direction as us. Now a trio, we headed to the station and hopped on the train as new friends, discussing travel, tours and the food we had just ate.
Come on this Taipei food tour with an open mind and a ready stomach, because once you catch sight of Ningxia Night Market, you’ll be drooling! Have your taste buds at the ready for this Asian food adventure with a local, the perfect opportunity for you to learn all about Taipei food (as well as eat plenty of it, of course).