A sea of sticky, sweaty bodies push against each other as they navigate the crowd huddled outside rows of white tents. Merchants shout in Cantonese and Mandarin, hawking steaming street food and tourist-friendly tchotchkes to curious passersby. A long line stretches outside a food stall selling stinky tofu, its sewage-like stench blanketing the entire area.
It's a scene straight out of Hong Kong or Taiwan - but this is Markham, Ont.
Asian night markets have rapidly grown in popularity, cropping up in cities across Canada. Taste of Asia and the T&T Waterfront Night Market are two recent Toronto-area markets that have started since the founding of Markham's Night It Up! in 2002. Organizers estimate that this year's Night It Up! drew upward of 100,000 people. On the west coast, Vancouver's Chinatown Night Market and Richmond, B.C.'s Summer Night Market, are bustling every weekend of the summer.
It's the electric atmosphere that draws people, many of them immigrants to Canada looking for a taste of home. Close your eyes, take in the smells and it's almost like
you're on the other side of the world.
Five delicacies worth lining up for
Admittedly, this street snack isn't the most aesthetically pleasing item on the list, but its fiery flavour will make up for long, curling tentacles. Cooked on a large iron grill, squid are sliced and diced before being dipped in a barbecue concoction. Markham's Night It Up spicy version was marinated in garlic, red pepper and a "special ingredient," according to James Yu, 45, owner of Barcode Chinese Restaurant food stall. With barbecued squid, it's best to eat it Neanderthal-style - the sauce is finger-lickin' good.
A savoury seafood take on the brunch staple, oyster omelettes are originally from Taiwan, but variations of this piping hot street meal can be found across Asia. Night It Up's Thai Angel food stall mixed egg batter, starch and oysters, and pan-fried the combination on a flat grill. Served in a bamboo boat, this Thai-style omelette, called "hoy tod," is drizzled with a sweet-and-sour sauce. Bean sprouts and chopped green onions add an extra crunch that balances out the soft egg and supple oysters.
Colourful rice crackers
This street snack is one for the more timid of food adventurers (those who eat with their eyes more than with their stomachs). Night It Up's Tornado Rice Term food stall served up rice crackers in a variety of shapes and colours: Flower, heart, moon and star-shaped crackers were available in neon shades of yellow, orange and pink. Pop them in your mouth for a salty, bite-sized crunch of flavour that rivals movie-watching mainstays like popcorn and chips.
Cap off an evening at the Asian night market by cooling off with a bowl of shaved ice. Despite its bland name, this dessert is loaded with refreshing flavours. Available in mango, strawberry and milk, flavoured ice is thinly sliced used a special machine imported from Taiwan. It's an all-natural treat made with real fruit juice and no sugar added, says May Chen, owner of the Taipei Station food stall. For the ultimate combination, try the creamy milk-flavoured shaved ice topped with popping boba, tapioca pearls containing juice that "pop" inside your mouth.
Tofu pudding with toppings
Literally translated as "bean curd flower" in Chinese, this soup-based street food is a spin on a traditional Chinese dessert. Tofu pudding, as its English namesake reveals, is silky soft tofu served in a sweet ginger syrup. It can be eaten hot or cold, the latter of which is perfect for sweltering summer nights. The version from Soy 'n Ice, a food stall run by Frankie Hung and his friends, mixed tofu, ginger syrup and mango-flavoured crushed ice (other flavours included winter melon and brown sugar). But it was the toppings that kicked this dessert up a notch, with a selection of grass jelly, taro rice balls, sweet red beans, tapioca and popping boba.