Taiwan is second to none for its astonishing variety of delicious homegrown fruit
For all the culinary delights on display inside, however, the visitor's first impression on entering is always one of the most memorable: several stalls right at the front doors are piled high with fruit (plus a few vegetables) of all shapes, colors, and degrees of familiarity, ready to be whipped up into delicious fruit shakes or smoothies, and there's no better start (or finish) to an exploration of Shilin Night Market's culinary delights, particularly on a balmy summer night.
There's a dazzling selection, from bright-red apples and juicy oranges to deepest-green lemons, coconuts, and huge, sweet pineapples. Then there are the stranger fruits that never fail to catch the eye of new arrivals to Taiwan: round, red rambutans covered with course, curly hairs, tomato-red persimmons, yellow starfruit, custard apples (colloquially known as Buddha's-head fruit), and delicious, big purple grapes. And amazingly, almost all of this bounty is grown right here, on this small island.
With summer upon us, the variety of fruits available on Taiwan is greater than ever, and few are as eagerly awaited as that most Chinese of fruit, the lychee. With such a short season (in Taiwan about two months, from the end of May until July), you'll have to hurry to enjoy these succulent, juicy, and uniquely flavored treats, which taste far, far better than the familiar preserved, canned lychee on the shelves of Chinese supermarkets and takeaways back home. Several years ago a new variety named yu he bao was introduced, featuring even better, juicier flesh and? smaller stones. This is the variety to get.
Another eagerly awaited summer fruit is the glorious mango. At least five varieties of mango are grown in Taiwan, among which the softest and sweetest are the jinhuang and aiwen varieties. Try eating them on their own, or as part of"mango ice," chopped into bite-sized pieces, laid on a bed of finely shaved ice, and covered with a creamy topping of condensed milk. This scrumptious dessert has become extremely popular in Taiwan in recent years, and can be found at shaved-ice bars all over the island, although one of the best places to eat it remains the store at which the confection was invented: Ice Monster in Taipei city's Yongkang Street.
Among the many more unusual summer fruits to look out for in Taiwan's fruit markets are wax apples — small, bell-shaped blush-pink fruit with a crisp, refreshing, and very juicy flesh, and the aforementioned custard apples, which despite the similar name are quite different. This fruit looks very distinctive, best described as looking a little like a large, green hand grenade. Despite their bizarre appearance, custard apples are absolutely delicious. The kind to especially look out for is the variety known as"pineapple custard apple," a variety with luscious, fragrant white flesh developed in the southeastern county of Taitung, but now available from markets all over the island.
Even as the weather turns colder with the approach of winter, there's no shortage of fruits to enjoy. The sun continues to shine on the fertile plains of Taiwan's western side throughout the winter, providing perfect conditions for one of the most beloved of all fruits, the strawberry, which is in season between December and April. Strawberries are cultivated commercially everywhere, from the suburbs of Taipei southwards, but the generally recognized"strawberry capital" of Taiwan is the town of Dahu in Miaoli County. Famous for pick-your-own strawberry farms, Dahu has come up with some imaginative usages for the fruit in recent years, and is the place to pick up everything from strawberry-scented soap to strawberry wine and delicious strawberry sausages!