Why Aren't There Any Night Markets in New York?

20110901-charkuay-primary2.jpg

A Malaysian noodle hawker cooking up some char keuy teow. [Photograph: Carey Jones]

At Serious Eats HQ, we've been talking about night markets a lot of late. We're pretty stoked about the Lucky Rice Night Market on May 5th, and we had a good time at last weekend's Taiwan Night Market. We've even seen some night market-like sights on Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, with communities gathered under sodium lamps to eat tacos at trucks and carts along the street. And the Dekalb Market in Brooklyn has made some definite suggestions of events combining night food and culture.

But we don't really have night markets in this city, which is a big shame, as they're pretty much the most fun you can have with your clothes on while eating.

For the record, when I say night market, I'm talking about the moonlit bazaars of food, commerce, and entertainment that you'll find in Singapore, Taiwan, and other parts of Asia. I'm talking about dozens of local vendors gathered in streets and pavilions hawking produce, noodles, dumplings, skewered kabobs, fried snacks, and more—all to the rhythm of scraping woks and sizzling meat and loud calls advertising special deals. (Of course there's no reason New York's night markets would need to feature Asian food, but it's a tasty place to start.) These are places where food, culture, and society collide and make gorgeous noise.

Fourth Stop: The Stand Outside Rodriguez Grocery

A late night vendor outside a grocery on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. Close to a New York night market culture, but not quite. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

So in a city with arguably the most vibrant, nocturnal nightlife in the U.S., with robust immigrant communities that make awesome food, with hungry hordes of gastro-devotees lining up outside the doors of special food events week after week, why don't we have night markets to call our own? What gives?

I talked with Danielle Chang, organizer of the Lucky Rice Asian food festival, who's trying to create a permanent night market in the city. Danielle has night market eating in her blood: "I was born in Taiwan, and whenever I go back, that's just how we eat. You go to markets with your family after dinner and have a little skewered meat or a shaved ice." She thinks New York is itching for a night market, but her problem so far has been real estate. She has yet to find an affordable, available space in the city that could accommodate such an event.

She mentions are other problems as well. The Health Department has painfully strict rules about vendors cooking outdoors, and the types of food typical of night markets—high flying noodles in flaming woks, or bubbling pots of oil ready to deep fry anything—aren't the most conducive to winning permits from a bureaucracy with a tight grip on the city's street food culture. But that's hardly to say this is the government's fault; it's worth noting that we also just don't have especially large or dense communities of the cultures that do this sort of thing. New York is hardly a huge center of Singaporean, Malaysian, and Taiwanese immigrants. Without that kind of critical mass to generate the need for such markets, it doesn't matter how much space is available or how little red tape stands in the way. The whole concept of a night market is pretty far outside most New Yorkers' culinary and cultural consciousness, and if we don't have a grassroots community to spur on such an endeavor, it'd be difficult to explain the idea and get it going.

Hong Kong Street Cart

Events like last weekend's Taiwan Night Market have drummed up incredible enthusiasm. New Yorkers are chomping at the bit for something like this. [Photograph: Erin Zimmer]

But think about how much fun such an event would be. In Danielle's ideal world, a New York night market would combine the best of what you see in Asia with what is quintessentially New York—a combination of specialists brought over from Asia and local vendors. "An ideal mix would be some concepts from Asia like Singaporean noodle hawkers and other classic street food, but also entrepreneurs like you'd find at the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg. It'd be a breadth of offerings that's also tightly curated."

And in my ideal world, a night market wouldn't stop with Asian food. There's no reason noodles and dumplings can't join tacos, Middle Eastern kebabs, and American ice cream under one umbrella. Imagine if, as the Union Square Greenmarket folded up for the day, skilled cooks from all over the city set up stands to sell delicious food from across the world well into the night. I can't imagine a more dynamic, exciting way to eat, and I can't imagine anything more New York.

If you want to stay informed about Danielle's efforts to get a night market running in New York, or learn more about the night market happening this May, check out the Lucky Rice website for more information.