The beguiling little restaurants of Taipei's night market
You must exercise considerable ingenuity in bustling, modern Taipei if you want to capture the elusive beauty and evanescent atmosphere of an older China. Unfortunately, my own ingenuity did not take me very far during my first visits to the city. Eventually, though, a Chinese acquaintance suggested a simple way to escape the temporal and physical perimeters of modern Taipei. His proposal required neither guides, buses, nor any other paraphernalia. You simply hail a cab any evening and tell the driver ''Lung Shan Tsu.''
This is a landmark, a 200-year-old Buddhist temple, and your cabbie will know the place (which counts for a lot in Taipei, where few drivers understand English). More important, it is the center of an intriguing night market and old-fashioned amusement area where the traditions, the sights, and the tastes of old Chinese street life survive.
My Chinese informant recommended, as a start, a visit to Lung Shan Temple itself, for what he called ''moon-viewing.'' What is there to say about moon-viewing? That I have since learned of its ancient place in Chinese and Japanese court life? That the somewhat garish additions to the temple's roofs are agreeably softened in the moonlight? How long does one engage in moon-viewing? Probably longer than the 10 or 15 minutes I devote to it. I am distracted from this refined pleasure by the sensuous aroma of Chinese food, which mingles with the incense of the temple courtyard.
The source of this aroma is a large covered market directly across the street from Lung Shan Temple. In one corner of this night market stands a cluster of some two dozen stalls and small restaurants that serve hearty Chinese fare to the market people and their customers. Later in the evening a sprinkling of more sophisticated diners and even a few foreigners begin to arrive. By midnight the scene and atmosphere suggest a Chinese version of the old Les Halles in Paris.
It is easy to cope with ordering once you know the system here. Most stall owners spread an opulent display of raw materials in front of their stalls. At a seafood stall, for instance, oysters, clams, shrimp, eels, octopus, sea bass, flounder, and red snapper nestle together in unaccustomed harmony on their common bed of ice. Directly behind the display you'll see the simple kitchen consisting of a hefty chopping block, a two-burner cast-iron stove, a shelf for supplies, several heavy woks for stir-frying, and a few other utensils, both exotic and commonplace. Don't underestimate this austere kitchen.
Customers, to a maximum of perhaps a dozen, are accommodated at little tables next to the kitchen and sometimes at a narrow counter facing the display area.
There is no menu. The owner-chef cooks only a few dishes and these are prepared in the Taiwanese way or, if he is from the mainland, from the traditions of his home province. Those traditions are very diverse, and you will enjoy peering into the kitchens of chefs from Shanghai, Peking, Szechwan, and Canton to see how they practice their arts. Your best approach is to leave several thousand years of culinary tradition intact by merely pointing at the particular fish (or piece of meat or poultry) you want. In five minutes or so the patron will place a savory platter before you.
Of course, this will all be more fun if several people are in your party and each orders a different dish so you can sample a variety of platters. It will be more economical this way, too, but in any case, it is hard to spend more than $3 a head here.
Several stalls specialize in ''hot pot'' cooking, where you cook meat and Chinese vegetables at your table in boiling stock. Another stall, identifiable by the huge copper vats it uses, prepares only one dish, a vegetable curry Singapore-style, but this is superb and costs less than a dollar. Some stalls serve selections of Chinese hors d'oeuvres and one prepares Cantonese barbeque dishes.
My favorite place here is Hung's Oyster Stall. In my personal ''Michelin,'' each of the three dishes Mr. Hung prepares, in the style of Fukien Province on the mainland, is worthy of a journey, or at the very least a detour. His oyster stew, made without milk, and his fried oysters achieve their excellence by a rapid and austere preparation which does not presume to interfere with the taste of the fresh shellfish. Hung's third dish, an oyster omelette, borders on the exotic for Western palates, and will no doubt draw scorn from Maryland oyster purists though it may not seem unreasonable to travelers from Louisiana.
Two blocks from these beguiling little restaurants, and branching off from the street which Lung Shan Temple dominates, you enter Hua Hsi Street through a great red gate. Actually, it seems more like a midway at a county fair than a street, particularly at night when it is garishly illuminated and thronged with strollers .
Here you will find calligraphers working on scrolls, while chefs cook with incredible intensity in open kitchens and waiters carefully arrange displays in front of little restaurants. You may also see a live tiger pacing in its cage, advertising some obscure product. It is a pageant of Chinese people, country folk, Taipei businessmen, visitors from Hong Kong, and local family groups spending an inexpensive evening out. So far, no busloads of tourists.
Clusters of metered cabs gather at either end of Hua Hsi Street and around Lung Shan Temple. They can return you to the dull, modern, though reassuringly familiar precincts of your hotel in a few minutes.