Something special happens when the sun goes down. Night markets, whether in Southeast Asia or in the heart of Queens, inspire a thrill — we call it a sense of wonder — that brings boundless childhood summers to mind.
We still feel it, on warm-weather Saturdays, when we ride the elevated 7 train to the Queens International Night Market. (It’s a pain to park anything bigger than a bicycle near the market; we always take public transportation.) Many of the other passengers seem to be headed our way. Surrounded by fellow pilgrims, our anticipation builds as we descend from the train platform and march south. As we near the market grounds, and as the wind freshens and comes about, perhaps we catch the scent of sizzling meat. Nearer still, we hear the buzz of a larger crowd, then see the illuminated ranks of food-vendor tents – some four dozen in all. Instinctively, we quicken our pace.
John Wang, who founded the Queens International Night Market in 2015, spent his own childhood summers in Taiwan. Although the fabled night markets of Taipei are a touchstone — during our own weeklong visit to that city we rarely spent dinnertime, or after-dark snack time, indoors — for Wang they are, in one important sense, merely a point of departure. Most traditional night markets in Asia are centered around a single, local, long-established cuisine. In Queens, make that “cuisines,” plural – on any given evening we would go dizzy if we tried to count them all, let alone taste them all.
Indonesian sate, Peruvian salchipapas, Ukrainian piroshki, Japanese takoyaki, Bolivian anticuchos, Taiwanese wheel cakes, Brazilian tapioca crepes, Chilean hot dogs, even Italian pizza — all are fashioned before our eyes in ad hoc open kitchens. We watch as Burmese flatbreads are flipped, stretched, folded and griddled, as the dough for Romanian-Hungarian chimney cakes are wound about their spools, as quick-hardening syrup is laced into Chinese sugar paintings. Of necessity, some items are prepared in advance (who would want a quick-cooked stew?), but à la minute spectacle is the essence of the night market. It’s true that each Saturday the market also gathers for our pleasure a dozen or so art vendors, a series of live musical acts and diversions to occupy kids and their companions — but, to us, they pale beside the edible entertainment. Granted, occasionally we pay a call on the beer and wine garden (even if you don’t drive to the market, remember to bring an I.D.).
We never get too settled, however; there’s so much more food to try! The best strategy is to go in the company of several friends who are equally adventurous and willing to share. Together consult the night’s roster of food vendors (many are regulars, but some do come and go from week to week); split up, and line up at separate stalls; then reconvene to share the booty. Barbadian fish balls might be swapped for Vietnamese summer rolls, Nigerian puff-puff for Bangladeshi jhal muri, a taste of Puerto Rican mofongo for a forkful or two of Valencian paella. Can we possibly have room for dessert, perhaps as individually portioned Persian sweets, perhaps as one big rainbow-colored bowl of Hong Kong snow ice, with many spoons? Only our appetites know for sure.