The quest for black pepper buns

Black pepper buns in a tandoor oven
Entrance sign
Entrance
Barbequed oysters
Sausages
Raohe Night Market
Steamed pork dumplings
Candied fruit on a stick at Linjiang Night Market
Takoyaki
Food on offer
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Taipei Night Market

Food culture can be enjoyed at all price points, and with that simple directive, we hopped on a plane to Taipei to explore the biting edge of their culinary cuisine – night markets. Taking advantage of a flight plus hotel short-stay package, we checked in and immediately spoke to the concierge about night markets. We were rewarded with a tourist map and circles around four locations, the nearest within walking distance of our hotel.

Linjiang Night Market

I recalled a night market delicacy called Taiwanese black pepper buns, baked in a clay tandoor-like oven from a previous visit to Taipei. It was crispy on the outside, spicey and juicy on the inside. Wanting to taste that again, the hunt was on.

We walked to the Linjang Night Market in the southwest part of the city. Starting from the west end, we walked east along Linjiang Street in Da’an District. Not wanting to stuff ourselves too soon, we browsed the whole market before making our choices.

Lin’s Sheng Jain Bao was the most exciting venue, serving fried and steamed pork dumplings. A team of well-practised people wrapped the dough around a mixture of spiced pork and cabbage. The dumplings were then placed on an oiled platter heated to a ridiculous temperature by three gas burners. They are seared, and water is dramatically poured in; as the steam rises, the pan is covered with a wooden lid, and after a short wait, the cooking is complete, and our olfactory sensors are overwhelmed with anticipatory smells of freshly steamed dumplings and spiced meat.

Two other delectable treats tempted us; the first was fruit balls dipped in boiling sugar water. This colourful dessert on a stick was both seemingly hygienic and appealing to look at. The second was fruit sorbet. The super-friendly vendor insisted we try all her flavours: mango, red dragon fruit and yuzu, lemon, lime, and coconut. She tempted us with so many samples we bought a tub of delicious red dragon fruit with yuzu. Parting with HK$ 15, we completed our “night market” dinner.          

Shilin Tourist Night Market

On our second night, we got serious and went to the Shilin Market, the largest night market in Taipei.

Located on Jihe Road in the northwest of Taipei in the Shilin District, we were not disappointed by the size. The market has a long history; the original was built in 1913 and completely rebuilt in 2011. It is a maze of covered and open-air streets with stalls selling what seemed like everything a local or tourist could desire. Dozens of carnival-like skill games provided a festive atmosphere. But we were there for the food, and we were not disappointed. It took us minutes to find the Cheng Zu shop selling black pepper buns. These dough-wrapped meat and chive delicacies are baked by a brave man risking third-degree burns to attach and remove buns from the inside of a pair of tandoor ovens. They offered black pepper beef, as well as traditional pork and an innovative kimchi pork bun.

Raohe Night Market

On our third night, we found our desired black pepper buns. The Raohe Night Market is located in the eastern district of Songshan on Raohe Street. We entered from the east, and almost immediately, the aroma and queue alerted us to Fuzhou Black Pepper Buns. Walled on two sides by six tandoor ovens and staffed by a uniformed team, they serve only perfected green onion and pepper spiced buns.

Walled on two sides by six tandoor ovens and staffed by a uniformed team; they serve only perfected green onion and pepper spiced pork buns

We went to the Raohe Night Market early, around 5:30 pm on Saturday, so we missed the larger crowds that usually arrive after 7:00 pm. This allowed us to browse the many vendors and their offerings.  

We were fascinated by one vendor who was deep-frying bread and then dropping in an egg which stuck to the bread. He then rolled it up, poured hot sauce over it and handed it to his customer in a paper envelope. Barbeque corn seemed to be another favourite, with different vendors providing sauces that ranged from savoury to sweet. Multi-coloured deep-fried taro balls and any meat on a skewer or vegetables wrapped in meat were also popular.

Ningxia Night Market

As it was early, we decided to visit a fourth night market, Ningxia, in Datong District. We entered from the western end of Naingxia Road. Unlike our earlier visit to Raohe, Ningxia was intense. Seven thirty on a Saturday night is reportedly the busiest time. Kiosks are close together and only allow for a two-metre-wide path for crowds to shuffle the length of the road.

Setting aside those caveats, Ningxia Market provides some exciting food options. Oyster omelettes, cheese egg takoyaki, ornate squid on a stick, deep fried then barbequed chicken and boneless chicken feet, to name but a few. 

After three nights in Taipei, I found my perfect black pepper buns and many innovative food vendors that tempted our tastebuds. My regret is my limited stomach capacity and time. It seems a return visit to Taipei’s night markets will be necessary. 

Text Martin Wray / Photo Cammy Yiu