An endless street of eating at the mouth of the temple.
While Shilin Night Market in Taipei is arguably the most well known, a lot of its lustre has dulled after moving into a cramped, underground location more akin to a food court.
Most Taiwanese agree that a real yeshi ought to be outdoors, where there is fresh air mingled with aromatic wafts from rival stalls, drawing market-goers hither and thither. It could be a warm night or a rainy one; visitors are exposed to the elements and to fate. That is part of the yeshi experience.
Our favourite yeshi is the Miaokou Night Market in the port city of Keelung, not too far away from Taipei. Named after its location near the revered Dian-ji Temple, the night market is one of Taiwan's most popular. (Miao is 'temple' and kCu is 'mouth' in Mandarin; hence its name refers to the temple entrance.)
As you would expect, given the night market's proximity to the sea, fresh seafood is one of Miaokou's major attractions. It's hard not to resist the urge to immediately grab a table at one of the many numbered stalls and choose from the day's catch.
Spread like treasures on a bed of ice there are king crabs and large shrimp, clams and oysters, mussels and scallops, squid and octopus, and all manner of fresh fish. However, we tell ourselves to save those for later, and to begin with lighter fare. It's a build your own dinner, course by course.
Our friends from Taipei tell us to try Hsing's dCng biAn cuo (potside sticker soup). Found only at Stall 25-1, this is a great belly warmer during chilly evenings. We observe the stall-owner plastering handmade rice noodles on the sides of a heated wok to steam them. When done, the noodles are scraped into a clear broth made with bamboo shoots, tiger lily buds, dried shrimp and vegetables.
If that's the soup course, then perhaps it's time for a salad next? A salad? At a yeshi? Perish the thought. A night market with a salad bar is one step too far towards gentrification. The next best thing, though, is to head to Stall 58 for their yingyCng sAnmingzhi or Nutritious Sandwich.
Despite its cutesy, healthy-sounding name, this street snack doesn't shy from piling on the calories. A deep-fried bun filled with ham, stewed duck eggs, cucumber and tomato slices, liberally drenched in salad dressing: it's certainly 'nutritious'... for the tastebuds.
After our first few dishes recommended by friends, we stop trying to remember the stall numbers and just wander around happily. We even spot a brief lion dance, bringing good fortune to one of the stalls, perhaps. Investigating each stall's offerings on our own, without any clue if it's a tourist trap or an honest-to-goodness local specialty, makes it more fun.
We are tourists, after all. Sometimes it is more freeing to embrace this role. To acknowledge we are outsiders - that we are guests to this country, this city, this sprawling yeshi - is to allow ourselves to enjoy everything with new eyes without the burden of trying to get anything 'correct.'
To delight and to fully savour that delight.
And what a banquet of possibilities lie before us! There are bite-sized, grilled-to-order yA<<kCu chA<< xiAngchang (literally 'a mouthful of sausage') and Emperor's shAomai (consider these levelled-up siew mai). Fritter lovers will enjoy various fried balls such as ma lAo (peanut coated), zhA<<ma qiu (sesame) and diguA qiu (sweet potato).
Porky soups abound, from the starchy 'king pork thick soup' (tiAn yA<< xiAng rou gAng shun) to pig trotter and shrimp soup (zhA<< jiCo xiAren gAng). Over here, a huge platter of assorted innards, ready to be cooked. Over there, a smorgasbord of meat balls, fish balls, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables for dipping in hot broth.
It's easy to snack and switch from stall to stall, table to table. How about some shuC jiAn bAo - pan-fried leek buns that are golden-crispy on the bottom yet moist from steaming? Or the Taiwanese take on oyster omelettes called o-a-chian, made with eggs, sweet potato starch, vegetables and huge oysters?
The adventurous may try the zhA<< xiA dangAo (pig's blood cake), a sticky mix of pig's blood and glutinous rice covered with crushed peanuts. The oiled rice and taro cakes (you guC yu guC) require less nerve. Cool down with local refreshments of bubble ice (pao pao bA<<ng) and citrus-flavoured ai yu jelly.
As our evening out at the yeshi draws to a close, it's finally time to get serious about the seafood. Our friends had earlier listed down the must-try dishes: long-legged crabs, barbecued snails and razor clams grilled over charcoal.
There's always room for more soup, or so we discover. Wu Ji's crab soup (pangxie gAng) at Stall 5 is a thick, bisque-like soup full of crab flavour. It's almost like shark's fin soup, albeit without any of the endangered fish's gelatinous cartilage. Dig into this guilt-free bowl with oil-slicked rice (you fan) from the same stall.
We end the night at Stall 36: The Old Soldier's Butter Crabs. Seafood is cooked en papillote: first wrapped in tinfoil with butter, garlic and lots of onion, and then grilled rather than baked. The creamy butter crabs (nCiyou pangxie) are rich and succulent. Sweet ginseng prawns are prepared in a similar way. Sea snails (hCi wAniu) cooked en flambe are a delicacy, though they require some patience to extract the smoky flesh that tastes almost like cuttlefish.
Our bellies full to bursting, it's time to depart. On our way back to the train station, a stroll along the harbourfront with all its pretty lights isn't too much of a detour. What's more, it helps to burn off some calories after exploring what feels like an endless street of eating!
Miaokou Night Market
No. 20, Aisi Road, Ren'ai District, Keelung City, Taiwan
Open daily 5pm till midnight