It’s the humid, sticky feeling you get from standing shoulder to shoulder with equally sweaty bodies in queues that seem to go on for miles. It’s also the inevitable stench from smoke that drenches your clothes and gets tangled in your hair. No, it’s not a night club lineup or an outdoor concert – it’s for meat sticks.
Since the inaugural Night It Up! back in 2002, the Greater Toronto Area’s food scene has seen a boom in outdoor night markets modelled after those found in Taiwan and Hong Kong. This weekend’s edition promises to be lively, showcasing the best in Asian street food culture including unique street snacks, merchants hawking a hodgepodge of curios, more than 80 stage performances and sports tournaments.
With upward of 120,000 attendees expected to descend upon more than 100 food booths at Markham’s Civic Centre, finding the tastiest bites in a cornucopia of options can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Avoid the disappointment of missing out on these five delicious recommendations that are guaranteed to leave you feeling satisfied.
One more thing: Go early to avoid long lineups.
Barbecued squid on a stick
It might look like an alien impaled on a stick, but the flattop grilled, then soya-chili sauce licked squid taste like an umami bomb of sea sweet flavour. Unlike crumbly overcooked fish, the squid comes in two pleasing textures: a fleshy body that’s got a tender jerky tug; and curly caramelized tentacles with crispy charred tips. But be forewarned, there’s a slight chance that a loose tentacle dripping in sauce could graze your clothes, so try not to wear white.
Find it at Zhong’s BBQ Squid.
Grilled lamb kebabs
There will be no shortage of grilled meats, fish balls, fruits and vegetables on a stick, but don’t miss the charcoal grilled Uyghur lamb kebabs. Each chunk of lamb shoulder is blanketed with a mouth-numbing blend of Xinjiang chili powder and earthy cumin. Each bite will send you into MSG-spiked heaven.
Find it at 167 Lamb Skewers.
You can’t, nor should you, miss this night market stalwart. Just look for the longest, snaking line, or follow the noxious smell. Affectionately known as the Chinese equivalent of blue cheese, the brine-fermented tofu prompts the same love-hate relationship as its veiny counterpart. Fried to order, the bricks of tofu develop a golden skin that yield to reveal a wobbly brie-like interior. Although the pungent aroma is really only surface level, any offending taste lingering in the curd is quickly quelled by the copious amounts of chili sauce it’s doused with and its pickled vegetable side.
Find it at Wei’s Stinky Tofu.
Taiwanese shaved ice dessert
One of the most popular desserts exported out of Taipei, bao bing is also one of the most refreshing ways to stay cool during summer. Traditionally made by heaping a bunch of sweet Asian ingredients – everything from red beans to grass jelly – on a mountain of fine crushed ice, the icy treat has since been reincarnated into a milk ice dessert. Known as xue hua bing (snowflake ice), this modern variation features shaved piles of feathery light flavoured ice ribbons that are embellished with juice-filled popping bobas (best pushed to the side).
Find it at Cha.Me.Cha.
This Osaka specialty is no stranger to the city’s many casual Japanese restaurants. Akin to Danish aebleskivers (a Danish what?), the griddled dumplings (think Timbits but creamier and starchier) are filled with tempura bits, pickled ginger, green onion, and chopped octopus. The addictive savoury snack is garnished with generous drizzles of Worcestershire-ish Takoyaki sauce, tangy Kewpie mayo, dried seaweed, and ‘dancing’ bonito flakes – which are just the fine shavings of smoked fish swaying to the steam rising from the takoyaki below.
Find it at Naniwa Taro.
10 other noteworthy tastes:
1. Taiyaki: a fish-shaped griddled cake with red bean filling (Akasaka Japanese Cuisine).
2. Oyster omelette: a savoury Taiwanese street snack that’s chocked full of small oysters (Wei’s Stinky Tofu).
3. Japanese-style crepes: hand-held sweet and savoury crepes (Harajuku Crepes).
4. Stuffed fried rice balls: cheekily named arancini packed with pan-Asain flavours (Me.n.u. food truck).
5. Tornado potato: deep-fried spiral-cut potato on a stick originally from Korea (Tornado Fry).
6. Japanese-style hot dogs: hot dogs christened with Japanese-flavours and condiments, a riff on the dogs served at Vancouver-based Japadog (Two Good Dogs).
7. Filipino-style barbecue pork skewers: A bit more sweet due to the marinade often made with calamansi juice, banana catsup and soda pop (Marcellina’s Filipino Cuisine).
8. Winter melon tea: a cold sweet punch made from winter melon that can be made into a snack by the inclusion of tapioca balls (ZenQ Desserts).
9. Hainan noodles: a unique flavour, since there are no restaurants focused on cuisine from this southernmost province of China in the city (fun-tastic).
10. Fresh coconut water: not from a tetra pack, but from a young green coconut (Concessions Canada).
Night It Up runs July 11-13 at Markham Civic Centre, 101 Town Centre Blvd. Admission is free. Nightitup.com