Grab-and-go plant-based street food is somehow a rarity even in countries like Thailand or Singapore where the landscape is extremely vibrant. That is, however, not the case in Taiwan.
One place that projects interesting pictures of how vegan street treats should look like is Shilin Night Market. Located in the Shilin district of Taipei, it is easily accessible by underground public transportation and is recognised as the largest night market in the capital city of Taiwan. It is also probably one of the best-known, most-visited night markets for locals and tourists alike.
Food business in Taiwan is huge. According to 2023 data from statista.com, Taiwan recorded having over 130,000 restaurants, cafés and other types of food-serving businesses last year which generated an estimated $NT723 billion (almost 800 billion baht) in gross revenue. Compared to 2021, Taiwan's revenue from food business rose by nearly 19%. In the first half of 2023 alone, the revenue exceeded half of the previous year's, totalling around $NT424 billion.
Taiwan is globally known as a vegan paradise and this is not just an overstatement. Given the fact that Taoism took root in the nation over 70 years ago, a relatively large portion of the Taiwanese population is vegan. According to World Atlas, Taiwan has the world's third highest rate of veganism, preceded only by Israel and India. Approximately 12% of the Taiwanese population is vegetarian, which is also due to a belief in Buddhism practices that have cultivated a merciful, meatless culture.
All this statistical data is solid proof of why veganism in Taiwan is popular and why vegetarian delicacies are available in great diversity, even in form of grab-and-go street food.
Night Grilled king oyster mushrooms. (Photos: Arusa Pisuthipan)
As the Sun goes down, Shilin Night Market becomes illuminated with fluorescent lights, neon signs or even traditional Chinese lanterns that adorn many shops that open around 4pm and close at midnight. The market sells clothes, accessories, shoes, souvenirs, snacks, IT gadgets and more. There are games similar to those played in Thai temple fairs where revellers shoot stuff with a plastic gun and win prizes on offer.
Local street food is the highlight of the market, which was inaugurated in 1913 and marks its 110th anniversary this year. But for practitioners of veganism, Shilin Night Market is a fun place and truly interesting local experience because meatless grab-and-go treats are widely available unlike at other markets. Moreover, everything has an affordable price tag.
Life visited Shilin Night Market on a recent Friday evening and presents some popular vegan street treats worth trying. Please note that the ratings are based on queue length in front of vendors.
Stinky tofu or chou doufu.
1. Grilled king oyster mushrooms
This stall had the longest queue the evening Life visited. It is one of the most popular stalls at Shilin Night Market and the line is always almost endless.
Large-sized king oyster mushrooms are slowly charcoal-grilled with a sauce that keeps them moist. After being cooked, the mushrooms are sliced into big pieces before being sprinkled with seasoning powders such as mustard, pepper, seaweed, curry, cumin and rose salt. A generous amount is served hot right from the grill in a round-shaped paper dish that is easy to carry while enjoying a stroll at the crowded market.
One serving (around 240g) costs $NT120 or around 135 baht. At this price, visitors can choose two seasoning flavours.
2. Stinky tofu
Stinky tofu is a quintessential Taiwanese comfort food and you'll either love or loathe.
Basically, it is a Chinese form of fermented tofu or soy bean curd that has a strong, pungent odour with a hint of saltiness and bitterness naturally caused by the process of fermentation.
Practitioners of veganism must be extra vigilant when opting for stinky tofu at Shilin Night Market because there are vendors that sell a non-vegetarian version too. The stall Life visited is located on Zhongzheng Road which is around 10 minutes walk from the market centre.
Fermented tofu is slowly fried until the crust turns slightly crispy, yet the inside is still soft and tender. Sliced into pieces, the stinky tofu is then topped with Taiwanese-style pickles made mainly from cabbage. Those who love spicy flavour can ask for chilli sauce.
One serving costs $NT55 or around 60 baht.
Tanghulu or sugar-coated fruits.
3. Grilled corn
In Thailand, grilled corn is a widely-available cheap street treat that you can find on the roadside. But here at Shilin Night Market, grilled corn is one of the favourites. Vendors here usually use black pearl corns which have a mix of black and yellow kernels on the cob. They are slowly charcoal-grilled before being served. The sign in front of the shop reads "Please tell us if you are vegetarian" so it is safe for herbivores.
One cob costs $NT14 or around 16 baht.
Shilin Night Market is vibrant with shops and visitors on weekdays and weekends.
The country's iconic drink, boba or bubble tea has become synonymous with Taiwan. Basically it's milk tea with soft, chewy, pearl-shaped, tapioca-based boba originating in Taiwan in the 1980s. In recent decades, boba has taken over the world.
Having bubble tea is a must in Taiwan. Visitors need to order the level of sweetness and whether they prefer an iced serving or without ice. Also, ovo-vegetarian or people who avoid dairy products can switch to other types of plant-based milk.
Among the famous bubble teas at Shilin Night Market is Tiger Sugar, one of the hottest boba brands in the country. Brown sugar boba milk with cream mousse is the best-seller, followed by brown sugar boba and pearl with cream mousse as well as black tea latte with cream mousse.
Prices start from $NT40 or around 45 baht up to $NT55 or around 60 baht.
Shilin Night Market marks its 110th anniversary this year.
5. Fried sweet potato balls
Also a familiar sight in Thailand, vendors selling sweet potato balls are present at Shilin Night Market. The bite-sized snack is made from sweet potato and rice flour which, when deep-fried, makes it crispy on the outside and chewy inside.
One serving costs $NT50 or around 55 baht.
6. Glutinous taro and sweet potato ball dessert
A classic Taiwanese treat, this dessert has become a more familiar sight among food enthusiasts in Thailand after it was first introduced by a chain dessert shop many years ago.
The dessert mainly features glutinous rice balls -- a perfect mix of taro and sweet potato and rice flour. It can be served hot or cold, or topped with other cooked beans.
Tanghulu is sugar-coated fruit which is available in various types including grapes, strawberries, tomatoes and so on. The snack is also widespread in China.
Prices range from $NT50-100 or around 55-110 baht.
How to get to Shilin Night Market
Take the MRT (Tamsui-Xinyi or the red line) to Jiantan Station and get off at Exit 1. It's only a five-minute walk from the MRT station to the night market.
Taipei is around 30km from Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport. It could take up to 40 minutes to an hour or so by car from the airport to downtown Taipei depending on traffic.
Glutinous taro and sweet potato ball dessert.
Fried sweet potato balls.