April 28, 2008
The Secret of Lotung Night Market
Southern Yilan offers many worthy destinations, which are now more accessible than ever. Suao has beaches, waterfalls and famous cold springs. Up the coast is the Taiwan Traditional Arts Center, and inland one finds Sinliao Waterfall, the hiking trails and monkey arbor of Ren Shan, and the Dong Shan River Park. But mysteriously, the main target of Taipei tourists is Lotung Night Market, which has been drawing hundreds of visitors per weekend since long before the new tunnel shaved travel time to around an hour.
The secret is its superior menu of traditional Taiwanese snacks. People come down on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, visit the beach or hike Ren Shan, and end up around dusk at the night market. They treat themselves to a kind of extended meal from several stalls and small restaurants, pausing between courses to pursue a little bargain shopping and enjoy friendly interaction within the sea of market patrons.
The market wraps around diminutive but elegant Chung Shan Park, across from the Tong Lien Bus Station (connecting to Taipei and other Taiwan cities). The park is a frequent venue for outdoor celebrations and exhibitions, especially in the summer months. Locals meander under tall trees, past turtles and koi fish in several ponds. They chat in elegant pavilions, and visit the park’s small temple. Next door is a little library devoted entirely to children’s books in the English language. (It also offers features free internet access till 5 pm.) At night, the park is safe and well-lit, but also moody and romantic.
Some visitors target a favorite restaurant or stall, such as Wang Lao Ji (王老吉懷舊滷味), a hole-in-the-wall at #199 Chungshan Road, Section 3. Located at the very fringe of the market, where Gongyuan Road meets Chungshan, this well-known shop sells every part of a duck, individually or in soup: feet, head, back, heart. Expect a twenty-minute line outside, during peak dining hours.
Next door to Wang Lao Ji, Dien An Temple is worth a peek. It’s dedicated to Shen Nung (神農大帝), the God of Herbal Medicine and Shen Tien (玄天上帝), who is believed to protect the health of the community by catching evil spirits. Locals have worshiped there since 1851.
At the informal end of the dining spectrum are pushcart vendors selling say, chong-yo bing (蔥油餅), an oily onion pancake shredded for toothpick dining. Another favorite Yilan snack is the peanut and ice cream roll (花生捲冰淇淋), which involves shaved peanut candy and vanilla ice cream, rolled in a soft “cone” that resembles a crepe. These are usually found on Minsheng Road, but the position of pushcarts may vary.
If, instead of ice cream, you would rather have bits of meat, bean sprouts, ground peanuts and cYilantro rolled up in your crepe with a special sauce, try ruan bing (潤餅) at stall number 1101 on Mincyuan Road. Quite a few food stalls are located on Min Chuan. The famous A Zhao Mutton Noodle Shop (阿灶伯羊肉麵) is found at stall number 1094, and there’s a vegetarian noodle shop (素食麵) at stall number 1097. Between the two, a sign with no number features a wild boar, announcing aboriginal pork cuisine (卑南族料理) cooked by members of Taiwan’s Peinan tribe.
Gongyuan Road, which runs along the back of Chung Shan Park, is also the location of some famous dining options. Near the corner of Gongyuan and Mincyuan, at stall number 1086, visitors enjoy o wa jen (蚵仔煎), the famous oyster omelet. To discover one of Lotung’s most popular desserts – bao shin fen yuan (包心粉圓) – look for a sign with two conjoined hearts, one pink and the other white. Starch balls – each containing a single red bean, and floating in sugar water – may not sound appetizing to a Westerner, but this is considered to be the quintessential Lotung dessert. It’s commonly served over dou hua (豆花— soy pudding) or fruit ices. Nearby, at stall number 1075, is a shop selling gao za (糕渣), a deep-fried snack involving desiccated shrimp in chicken-flavored batter. A local teacher tells me that this dish represents the people of Yilan County: apparently cold on the outside, gao za is actually piping hot inside.
Jungjheng Street, located at the back of the market, should not be overlooked. At #98 is a traditional bakery where quite a number of interesting items can be found: ginger candy, winter melon cookies, red turtle cakes and many more. A few doors down, at #82, is a shop selling cow’s tongue cookies (牛舌餅), for which Yilan is quite famous (and which look like, but do not contain, tongues). Besides foods, Jungjheng Street features kitchenware and very cheap children’s clothes.
In fact, the whole market is riddled with unusual shops selling everything from costume jewelry to live bunnies, cartoon backpacks and big-name blue jeans. A shop at #50 Min Chuan Road sells Crocs, the cult plastic sandals. Although knock-offs are available all over the market, American co-owner Jeffery Kafka says plenty of customers still come by for the real thing.
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