Generally speaking, in the west, if you’re in a hotel room and hungry at ’round eleven o’clock, the best you can do is some kinda convenience store junk food, maybe a slice of warm pizza. There’re a few restaurants that stay open late. In Montreal there’d be La Belle Province, but they’re primarily famous for concerningly inexpensive hot dogs. These are steamed hot dogs. Steamed. Have you ever had a steamed hot dog? Hot dogs that have been steamed are upsettingly honest about what they are; in no way do they let you pretend that they have ever been real meat. They look like ice-core-style samples extracted from an enormous mound of grey-ish pink reconstituted flesh.
Steamed hot dogs—cutely referred to as “stimmé” in Quebecois—are revolting.
But that’s the kinda thing you’re left with when late night hunger strikes in a North American hotel room. So, you lay there in bed, wondering if it’s worth leaving your hotel room for a tepid, tube-shaped specimen of sorta-meat in a bun, or if you can simply sleep through your hunger.
Luckily for me, the last time I’d been faced with such a dilemma I was in Kuala Lumpur and happened to know that, blocks from my hotel, spread a varied and busy night market. Dilemma solved. I pulled on a shirt and shorts and headed out the door.
There is no true North American equivalent to the Asian night market. The closest thing I can think of is the county fair. Just swap out the rides and games, replace them with Adidas knock-offs and off-brand electronics (Sonyo??), but keep the food.
Remember the food at a really good county fair? Actual grilled hot dogs with a slightly crispy skin and dark grill marks, maybe even a blackened blister or two through which escapes a trickle of still-sizzling juice? Y’know, hot dogs that look and smell and feel and taste like they had once belonged to something living? Remember homemade desserts served from card tables? How about cans of pop and beer sold straight out of a cooler, tiny chunks of ice still clinging to the perspiring aluminum? The food at county fairs is great. Not necessarily healthy or of the highest quality, but absolutely goddamn great.
Well, friends, as best you can, imagine the Asian version of that and you’ve got a vague idea of what night markets are like. Grilled meats are in abundance, but not just hot dogs and burgers, oh, ho ho, oh no. Over here you find whole freakin’ chickens, flame broiled and somehow flattened to the size and shape of a frisbee; over there you get to choose between about six-hundred-and-thirty-eight different types of pig meat, each grilled and served on a stick; around the corner you see a woman selling squid for the price of a Belle Province steamed hot dog but without the psychological damage inherent in eating something with no discernible origin. Tired of meat you can recognize? The night market has you covered. How about a hard-shelled scarab that may very well have escaped from craft services at the Temple of Doom? Or maybe something that looks a hell of a lot like a prawn but is closer in size to a lobster and—how did they get it onto a stick, anyway? And all this, without mentioning the staggering variety of available noodle dishes and soups, often served in a plastic bag, like you half expect to find a goldfish swimming around in there (and, if you did, it’d certainly be a delicious delicacy).
Drinks? Those glistening cans of beer and pop are here too, smothered in beds of crushed ice. But Asian night markets also serve up an endless variety of iced teas and coffees, the latter often prepared using full-sized espresso machines, steel behemoths teetering atop metal folding tables as they spit clouds of steam into the night air.
Desserts will include various cakes and county fair classics—candy floss is surprisingly common—but night markets also offer up an astounding selection of tropical fruit, from pineapple and mango to papaya and coconut.
The food at night markets is great. Not necessarily healthy or of the highest quality, but absolutely goddamn great.
Best of all, unlike a country fair, night markets are a regular and frequent occurrence, typically taking place once a week, often on weekends, but, in very special places, they hold a night market every goddamn night! Imagine the pleasures of a county fair, the kinda shit you usually wait months for, but here you wait only a few days or, sometimes, just a few hours.
And, like county fairs, no matter where you go, Asian night markets are just alike enough to create a sense of familiarity but different enough to have their own feel and character.
In Chiang Rai, they close multiple streets for the weekend night market while small parks nearby are covered with plastic stools and tables. In Kanchanaburi, a parking lot near the bus station services a strip mall and ludicrously big 7-Eleven by day, but gives itself to dozens of food stalls by night, like some kind of parking lot superhero. In multicultural Sibu, half the night market is devoted to Muslim Malay food stalls serving Halal satay of every color and flavor, while the other half is taken up by Chinese merchants and their fragrant pork buns and dumplings. In Yangon, 19th Street—more an alley than a street—is crammed with BBQ grills heaped with sizzling meats of every sort, rickety tables and stools clustered in the resulting clouds of smoke, while roving merchants push their carts of roasted insects.
It’s become a habit, upon my arrival in a new Asian city or town, to find the nearest night markets. I have even chosen hotels based on their proximity to night markets. Night markets are not only a great place to sample local foods and satisfy a nagging hunger, they also provide a quick overview of local life. Night markets certainly benefit from tourism, but the best ones in no way exist for the sake of tourists. People love their local night markets and it shows. It’s the social heart of a city or town or neighborhood. Even if I’m not hungry, I’ll still make my way to a night market, at least once, just to wander around. To visit an Asian city without having seen its night market is, in my opinion, not to have been there at all.
So, I left my hotel room and, with something between a fast walk and a slow jog, made my way to the nearest night market, in Masjid India. Though many stalls were already being taken down, while other merchants had clearly given up for the night, playing on their phones or chatting amongst each other, within seconds I was chewing on a bun filled with shish taouk and overflowing with shredded lettuce and pickled turnips. I leaned against a light pole as I ate, quietly reveling in the perfect blend of familiarity and the exotic.
After a few moments I rejoined the flow of humanity that streamed through the market, seemingly non-stop, and made my way back to my hotel room. Fed and satisfied, I slept very well, knowing La Belle Province could go screw themselves with their horrifying steamed hot dogs.