Friday night, I got the chance to check out something new and unusual (which is saying a lot in a city where “new and usual” is the norm). The event was The Night Market, part of LUCKYRICE’s Asian Food Festival. The concept was to try and recreate the food and ambiance of a night market in Asia, here in New York City. Set in the stone archway under the Manhattan Bridge, the location was perfect providing an imposing backdrop onto which music and lanterns painted a festive atmosphere.
Though the decor played off Asian stereotypes, the throngs of people milling about and the open stalls lined up outdoors soon carried my imagination out of the city, onto someplace more exotic. Perhaps the most compelling part of the ruse were the smells. Aromas of garlic, ginger and soy wafted through the steamy air and to add a bit of authenticity, there was the unmistakable stench of stinky tofu punctuating the night.
Chef Jonathan Wright from the Setai in Miami prepares a plate of crispy pork belly with a raw oyster topped with “kimchi”. The “kimchi” was cloyingly sweet and barely recognizable, but naming aside, it was pretty good with the oyster. The pork belly on the other hand was divine. A perfect cube of tender braised pork belly that was deep fried to give it a crisp caramelized crust on the outside, while the inside burst into a pool of sweet and savory pork. It was one of the best things I ate all night.
The Japanese Culinary Center was there with a strong showing of beverages. Presented with a lineup of over twenty different sakes, shochus and Japanese beers, I thought about going down the line and trying all of them. Thankfully, I hadn’t had enough to drink yet were that would have seemed like a good idea, and I opted for a cup of Kikusui Organic Junmai Ginjo instead. It’s made with organic rice grown in the US, which is shipped to Japan for brewing.
This guy really made me wish my camera could take video. He’s making the Malaysian specialty Roti Canai and puts most pizza dough tossers to shame. Through a quick series of strategic pulls and spins, he takes a lump of oil covered dough and stretches it into a paper thin crepe in a matter of seconds which is then fried on a griddle until crisp and flaky on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Dipped in a chicken curry, it’s on the list of foods I’d want in my last meal.
These shaved ice cones with a tamarind caramel syrup from Double Crown were a refreshing end to all the street food.
This was by far the coolest booth. I hung around the Maker’s Mark booth as they mixed liquid nitrogen into vats of Maker’s Mark, making a bourbon slushy. The frozen bourbon was then mixed into a cocktail. It’s a great idea because the bourbon gets so cold there’s no need to add any ice, which would ordinarily dilute the finished cocktail. I hoped that if I stood around long enough I’d get a chance to taste the frozen bourbon straight out of the vat, but sadly it didn’t happen.
To be honest, I wasn’t enamored with most of the food at the night market. A few stand-outs aside, they were mostly forgettable attempts at Asian street food. For me, the magic of street food in Asia rests in its simplicity. Unfortunately, many of the vendors tried to do something elaborate, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with fancy, it just didn’t work in this context.
Food aside, there was an endless supply of alcohol, and no lack of friendly strangers willing to strike up a conversation. I had fun and left with a full belly which is really all you can ask from a night market.