Stinky tofu, frogs egg tea, and the raid at the night market

After work today, Cindy, one of my work colleagues, offered to take me out to the Night Market. She promised me that it would be extremely crowded and an authentic Taipei experience, so how could I refuse? I only wish that I could post some photos for you tonight (I have photos, but the software I use for that is on my Mac . . . back at home.)

We took a taxi across town and when we arrived, I could see that she was right about the number of people out. I don't think I've seen that many people in such a small space -- ever. There are three million people living in Taipei and 2.9 million of them were at the Night Market tonight.

Cindy recommended that we eat dinner first, noting that: "the best places to eat always have the most people around them." We walked through a building that had to be as large as a major department store back home, past one food vendor after another cooking up food on grills and griddles: oyster pancakes, pieces of "stinky" tofu (so named because of the smell of the fermentation process it goes through - and trust me, it is really bad), grilled skewered chicken butts, and the biggest sausages I've ever seen - to name a few. Cindy talked me into the pancakes and the tofu -- she said they were special Taipei dishes. I really liked the tofu. It didn't smell stinky after it was deep fried. But the oyster pancake was made with rice flour, making it just a bit too gooey for me.

Our next course was a drink, and the drink vendors were plentiful. Most drinks are made to order with various types of fruit juice or milk, or a combination thereof. Cindy suggested the "frogs egg tea" which had chunks of gelatin in it. I was leery, but . . . when in Taipei, right? Actually, it doesn't contain frogs eggs - but something akin to the bubbles in bubble tea. OK, now here's something different: the drink was topped off with black beans. How's that for a protein drink? The liquid part of it was quite tasty.

Fully satiated, we headed over to the shopping area of the Night Market, where according to Cindy, you can find anything you would possibly want to buy. I saw a lot of purses, jewelry, shoes, and clothing - not my type, but apparently very popular with the young crowd. Prices are negotiable, so bring your haggling skills.

As we fought to maintain our balance on the overcrowded pedestrian street, Cindy pointed out that the vendors with carts in the middle were illegal vendors, and that if the police came, they would quickly leave. I suddenly became aware of the walkie-talkies in the hands of these vendors, and it wasn't long after that something started buzzing. Suddenly, as if part of a performance, the illegal vendors began closing up their carts and wheeling them away. Man, were they organized! In just a few split seconds, one after another, they would disappear down the dark, narrow alleyways. Just as the last one disappeared, we saw the cop, walking up the street in his bright yellow shirt, checking the vendor licenses of the legitimate shops. I asked Cindy what would happen if an illegal vendor were caught and she said he/she would be fined . . . approximately US$10 which may not sound like a lot, but could be a lot to these vendors.

I didn't buy anything until we left the Night Market and went over to the Starbucks on the main street. (The Starbucks near my hotel was out of Taipei mugs, so I wanted to check this store to see if they had any. They did.) As I purchased my mug, the friendly cashier asked me if I was an American. I said yes, and he asked: "What state are you from?" I responded that I was originally from North Carolina, and the cashier, who couldn't have been more than 19 or 20, responded: "Michael Jordan is from North Carolina!" "Yes," I said. "And I went to school with him." Suddenly, I was almost as famous as Michael Jordan. "Really! You know Michael Jordan?" the kid asked. "Well, I had a Spanish class with him," I explained. I went on to answer about a dozen questions. It was the perfect nightcap to a very exciting evening.

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