Once upon a time Formosa was a poor place, and the majority of the island's inhabitants were farmers, merchants and craftspeople. In those days, a meal out for those lucky enough to afford such an extravagance, was often taken al fresco, and consisted of a bowl of rice with some vegetables, and maybe some pork or seafood. But nowadays, Taiwan's humble roots are a thing of the distant past, and in the capital of Taipei, restaurants catering to all social and economic classes can be found in great abundance. But at the night market, meals are still eaten in the open air, and all class distinctions are transcended in the national pursuit of gastronomic pleasure.
Taipei is filled with night markets, some bigger than others, but even the smallest of these boasts food carts in the dozens. There’s scant room for parking in the blocks surrounding a night market, so cars, along with class distinctions, are left outside. On any given evening at the Shita Night Market, named for the nearby Shita University, the casual observer is likely to find harried mid-level salary men bumping elbows with taxi drivers at the metal counter of a stand serving stinky tofu, a national delicacy the flavor of which is both distinctly Taiwanese and definitely an acquired taste.
Further down the street you might see students slurping down bowls of bing sha (sweetened shaved ice with fruit) alongside secretaries from nearby office blocks letting their hair down after hours.
Across the river in Shilin, home of Taipei’s oldest and most well known night market, it isn’t surprising to come across a group of well-dressed CEO types sitting alongside denim clad scooter mechanics at a greasy counter eating greasy oyster pancakes smothered in sweet sauce. To the outsider it may seem odd, this convergence of dissimilar strata of society, but to a Taiwanese there’s nothing at all strange about seeing the elite rubbing shoulders with the hoi-polloi. The night market does not discriminate; it is the closest thing to an egalitarian meeting ground to be found on this island of 21 million, an oasis of authenticity in an increasingly materialistic, face-based society.