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Taiwan’s Traditional Markets: Colourful Cornerstones of Urban Life

‘Does Taiwan still have traditional markets?’ Life of Taiwan’s itinerary planners get asked from time to time. The answer is an emphatic ‘Yes!’

Decades of rapid economic growth have given Taiwan’s towns and cities a good range of supermarkets and hypermarkets. Yet millions of Taiwanese still like to get their vegetables, meat, and fruit from a neighbourhood morning market where they can press and sniff produce to judge its freshness, and buy from stall owners they’ve known all their lives. 

Taiwan’s markets offer a stunning range of vegetables.

It’s hard to say if traditional markets are losing ground to supermarket chains because record-keeping at the former is often ad hoc. Some local people say they prefer to shop in air-conditioned places where the prices are obvious and the merchandise refrigerated. But if you visit a traditional market between seven o’clock and nine o’clock in the morning, you might have to fight your way through the crowd. If early mornings aren’t your thing, consider visiting an afternoon market. You’re sure to find at least one in every town that has 50,000 or more inhabitants. 

Taipei City Government’s Market Administration Office supervises more than 100 markets throughout the capital. Not all of them sell food: A number specialise in flowers and gardening equipment, jade and other semi-precious stones, or secondhand items. (If any of these interest you, do let us know — we’ve been bringing Taiwan luxury tour clients to these places for years.) There are also several informal clusters of fruit-and-vegetable vendors, not to mention farmers’ markets organised by not-for-profit organisations which promote rural revitalization and/or organic agriculture. 

As a tourist, you’re unlikely to want to buy ‘dragon’s whiskers’ (chayote vines, a delicious summer vegetable) or soil-streaked carrots that were still in the ground when the sun rose. But there’s no better way to appreciate the vast range of ultra-local produce that’s available to chefs and home-cooking enthusiasts. And if you’re into taking photos, you’ll find plenty worth shooting.

In every Taiwanese market, the unit of measurement is the catty (pronounced jin in Mandarin Chinese). Since the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule, the catty has been standardised as 600 grammes (1.32 lbs). That said, a lot of food is sold in portion-sized boxes or bags. Nowadays most married women in cities work full time, so ready-to-eat items have become almost as commonplace as raw ingredients. In every market it’s possible to buy handmade dumplings which you can steam or shallow-fry at home and thick soups which just need a bit of reheating.

Squeamish visitors should brace themselves for the sight of chickens and ducks being dismembered and fish being filleted. However, there’s no danger of seeing an animal actually die. The traditional practice of keeping poultry alive until the moment of sale was halted in 2013. Since then, all poultry (like other livestock) is slaughtered at a centralised location under government supervision. 

Addiction Aquatic Development in Taipei

What are those fat brown discs stored in cold water? They’re duck-blood curd. Similar looking but usually rectangular are blocks of pig-blood curd. (Both can be sliced into strips and added to soups.) If your Taiwan guided tour includes a visit to a market, you may also get to see both the common ‘red’ type of sugarcane and the rather special ‘black’ (actually dark purple) wild cane. 

Some fear that Taiwan’s fresh-food markets will dwindle and disappear as their current customer base ages. To broaden the appeal of the city’s markets, Taipei’s Market Administration Office has worked to improve the hygiene and appearance of several locations. Some have been demolished and rebuilt from scratch. In others, new drains reduce odours. Lifts and bathrooms have been added, so as (to quote their website) ‘meet the needs of an ageing society for a safe shopping environment, yet preserve the human touch of the traditional market.’

One market renovation project which went beyond simple modernisation was the transformation of part of Taipei Fish Market into Addiction Aquatic Development (AAD). Not far from Xingtian Temple, AAD’s boutique-hotel decor and high-end sashimi eateries draw large numbers of diners and sightseers. Even if you don’t eat here, it’s a worthwhile walk-through experience.

As you’d expect on an island where millions of people adore seafood, each coastal town has a major fish markets. Some of the most popular ones at are Budai in Chiayi, Kezailiao near Kaohsiung, and Kanziding Fish Market in Keelung.

If you’d like your Taiwan private tour to couple a market-shopping session with a cooking lesson, Life of Taiwan can introduce one of the highly experienced cookery instructors we work with. As a tour operator, we focus on meeting the needs of English-speaking and European visitors by offering a full range of luxury tours and family tours in Taiwan. Drop us a line today!