For nearly five years, Anthony Bourdain worked on an ambitious, quixotic scheme to create a 155,000 square foot international night market at New York City’s Pier 57. The overwrought and ill-fated venture ultimately ended with Bourdain conceding defeat in December 2017, a mere six months shy of his tragic and untimely death. Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened by the news of Bourdain’s suicide. But, if I’m being honest (as unpopular as this opinion may be), I didn’t feel the same way about the demise of his passion project.
Similar to the way that Gordon Ramsay’s upcoming food-travel show, Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, has been mercilessly lampooned for its cultural insensitivity and telltale stink of colonialism, Bourdain’s market smacked of American chauvinism. Though I don’t believe it was his intention, the decision to recruit chefs from overseas appeared to validate the oft-heard criticism that America arrogantly views itself as the center of the world. It insinuated that American citizens don’t need to venture outside of their borders–much less their comfort zones–to visit the cultures informing the various cuisines. Furthermore, it ignored the fact that the bedrock of American society is the immigrant experience. Therefore, the cultures–and by extension, the various cuisines–already existed, organically, within its own borders.
Queens International Night Market
There is a market, however, that not only achieves Bourdain’s ambitions but manages to exceed them. The Queens International Night Market is a family-friendly event located in Flushing Meadows Corona Park behind the New York Hall of Science. It’s now in its fourth year and boasts small-scale cultural performances, picnic areas, and more than 100 vendors selling merchandise, art, and food. The respective diversity of America, New York, and most importantly the borough of Queens is on full display. From Jamaican jerk to Peruvian ceviche, Portuguese egg tarts to Burmese palata, attendees will find a little bit of anything and everything. Even better, the founder of the market, John Wang, instituted an affordability cap, so vendors offer their products for $6 or less in exchange for subsidized vendor fees.
Here are some vendors to check out on your visit:
The Malaysian Project (Ramly Burgers & Kaya Toast)
With Lynn being Malaysian, stopping by The Malaysian Project was a no-brainer. The draw here, among other traditional delicacies, are their versions of the beloved Ramly Burger and Kaya Toast. For the uninitiated, Ramly Burger is a gut-busting satisfier of late-night cravings. Kaya Toast, on the other hand, is a quick breakfast with your morning coffee or a decadent snack with your afternoon tea. Think White Castle and British Marmalade respectively–only better. They are both ubiquitous; you’ll find Ramly Burger carts all over Malaysia and any cafe worth its salt will offer Kaya Toast.
So what are they, exactly? Well, there are many versions of the Ramly Burger, but its signature is a seasoned ground beef patty wrapped in a thin omelette. Like any true street vendor, The Malaysian Project adds a personalized blend of sauces and spices to theirs. As for Kaya Toast, it’s a jam made of egg, coconut milk, and sugar that is spread thickly on buttered toast. The Malaysian Project offers a version infused with pandan. Both are unique, delicious, and definitely worth trying out.
Joon (Persian Stew with Crispy Rice)
I don’t know about you, but when I think about Persian food (admittedly, with little experience), the image of different stews over crispy rice formed in the shape of cups is not the first thing that comes to mind. And that’s exactly why you shouldn’t miss this stall. Joon takes various delicious stews and piles them on a saffron and yogurt flavored mound of rice. It’s crispy on the outside and soft and supple on the inside. Eat it and marvel at the amazing textures and intense flavors.
Don Ceviche (Peruvian Ceviche & Jalea)
Ceviche is Peru’s national dish, and a taste of the wares at Don Ceviche will make you want to book the next flight there. Ceviche, for the more conservative palate, is not raw fish or raw seafood. It is simply fish or seafood marinated in acidic juices and spices, effectively “cooking” them. On that hot, summer day we settled on the shrimp ceviche. It was served on a bed of lettuce, with Peruvian corn, roasted corn, red onion, and sweet potato puree. The combination was perfectly refreshing.
Moon Man (Indonesian Kue Pancong & Kue Putu)
Lynn generally eschews Asian desserts, even those familiar to her from childhood. She gravitates towards western-style desserts (usually something involving chocolate), but her interest was piqued when she saw the fresh take on the grilled coconut pancakes at Moon Man. The taste was a harmonious balance between sweet and savory, while the texture struck a similar balance between its chewy, spongy interior and the crisped, caramelized exterior. You can get them with various delectable toppings, such as roasted coconut or black sesame seeds. But the Java Palm Sugar is the one to beat!
Bliss Street Creamery
It’s summer, and we always save room for ice cream. Bliss Street Creamery is a small-batch, handcrafted ice cream maker. They use in-season, local ingredients whenever possible and offer a small variety of traditional favorites accompanied by a few more unusual flavors. Don’t let their vegan option, Best of Thymes, put you off. It’s an incredible blueberry, lemon and thyme sorbet, and Lynn proclaimed it one of the best she’d ever tasted.
Jhal (Bengali Fuchka and Jhal Muri)
Jhal doesn’t just offer authentic Bengali street food, it also serves as an incubator for Bangladeshi immigrant women who want to transition into higher education and rewarding careers. The women employed by Jhal are mostly stay-at-home mothers, and the opportunity allows them to improve their language skills while they learn how to research, budget and market. The fuchka features a hollow, crispy semolina shell and spiced yellow pea and potato filling. It’s topped off with chilies, cilantro, and a flavorful Jhal tamarind sauce.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body.”
― Anthony Bourdain, from “No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach”
A Saturday evening spent at the Queens International Night Market is not a substitute for a visit to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe or South America. But it will, hopefully, broaden your perspective and give you a deeper appreciation for the incredible diversity of cultures that exist right in your own backyard.
The Queens International Night Market takes place on most Saturdays from spring to fall. For dates, check out our new calendar, which features some of our favorite seasonal events in New York City.
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