For the love of jajangmyeon: Korean-Chinese noodles to comfort lonely hearts

Chances are you’ve eaten some Chinese food in your lifetime, and likely some Korean food as well, but have you ever had Korean-Chinese food? Originally developed in the port city of Incheon where the majority of Korea’s ethnic Chinese population historically immigrated, it’s basically Korean adaptations of popular Chinese dishes, using local ingredients and flavours. This hybridization through immigration is what Peter Meehan refers to in the current Chinatown issue of Lucky Peach as “Chinese-hyphen cuisine” – “dishes that evince a Chinese influence without completely surrendering to the soup dumpling and roast pork canon”.

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Jajangmyeon at Seoul Restaurant

Unsurprisingly, Chinese-hyphen cuisine often manifests itself in the form of noodles. You can see it in the char kuey teow of Malaysian-Chinese cuisine, Caribbean-Chinese jerk chow mein and the Indo-Chinese Hakka noodles. Even ramen, a now iconic trademark of Japanese cuisine, is a product of Chinese influence and is often still referred to in Japan as chūka soba – literally Chinese soba. And when it comes to Korean-Chinese food, there’s none other than jajangmyeon – boiled wheat noodles smothered in a thick gooey black bean sauce studded with nearly-melting morsels of braised pork and onions.

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Stir it all together with your chopsticks

It’s a derivation of the popular northern Chinese dish zhajiangmian, literally fried sauce noodles (jajangmyeon is the Korean pronunciation of the same name). The Korean version however, is quite distinct; it’s sauce is made of a local black bean paste that tastes very different from the Chinese variety and it’s also much sweeter and saucier (the Chinese version gets its flavour from a savoury ground meat sauce that’s more meat than sauce). A heaping bowl of jajangmyeon is typically topped with some fresh cucumber shreds and served with a side of raw white onion chunks doused in vinegar and slices of yellow pickled radish, all of which cut nicely through the the thick sweet sauce.

Side dishes + scissors for cutting up unweildingly long noodles

Side dishes + scissors for cutting up unweildingly long noodles

Jajangmyeon is immensely popular across Korea, and even recognized as one of the country’s national dishes. Beloved by young and old alike, apparently it’s common for parents to take their kids out for jajangmyeon on special occasions such as birthdays and graduations, thus making it a dish that’s embedded in most Koreans’ childhood memories. It’s also the most popular fare for home delivery, akin to pizza delivery in North America. For these reasons, many regard it as the ultimate Korean comfort food. In the ever-popular melodramatic Kdramas, for example, rather than turning to a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, broken-hearted young girls will drown their sorrows in a bowl of black bean- sauced noodles. It’s also the informal dish consumed by lonely singles on Black Day – in Korea, (hetero-normative) tradition holds that Valentine’s Day (February 14) is for women to buy their men a gift, White Day (March 14) is for men to buy their women a gift and Black Day (April 14) is when all those lonely hearts who didn’t receive gifts in the preceding months get together and commiserate their singledom by wearing black clothes and slurping down bowls of black-sauced (tear-stained) noodles. In other words, this is some downright comforting stuff.

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Jajangmyeon at Ding-Ho on Bloor

Want to try some jajangmyeon? Here are a few places in Toronto to get your hands on some, regardless of whether you’re single, coupled, poly-amored or otherwise.

(1) Song Cook’s (Yonge and Steeles)

A bit out of the way for downtown dwellers, and practically hidden at the back of a non-descript plaza on Steeles, this place is definitely worth seeking out (and many do – though quite a large space, it’s often teeming with groups of young people and families). They serve up some of the best jajangmyeon in the city, which is in large part due to the fact that their noodles are handmade. The best part, especially for indecisive eaters like myself, is the jajang combos: half order of noodles + half order of another Korean-Chinese style dish like seafood noodle soup, sweet n sour pork or sweet n spicy chicken.

(2) Ding-Ho (Bloor and Christie)

This place specializes in Korean-Chinese food, as indicated by the red paper lanterns strung outside. They also do combo platters to share. Their jajangmyeon is immense, with soft rather than springy noodles (which some people are really into when it comes to jajangmyeon) and heaps and loads of sauce. Also, their kan pung gi (sweet n spicy chicken) is seriously to die for.

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In the words of Guy Fieri, “winner winner chicken dinner”

(3) Seoul Restaurant (Bloor and Palmerston)

A little secret: amongst the bazillion seemingly indistinguishable restaurants in Koreatown, this one is my all-time favourite. Not only does it remind me of super fun outings with my sister (who now lives in Tel Aviv and yearns for their bulgogi stew) but their service is aces and their food consistently tasty. Though they don’t specialize in Korean-Chinese dishes in particular, they still have the beloved jajangmyeon on their menu (as do most places) and it’s delicious.

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Toronto ramen roundup: where to get your fix in the 416

My very first bowl of ramen (the fresh stuff, not the packaged instant kind) was about five years ago in Toronto. My super cool cousin Alan, repatriated after a brief sojourn in Japan and well aware of my penchant for Asian food, was eager to introduce me to the dish that was all the rage in that gastro-centric island. The only ramen restaurant, to our knowledge, that existed in Toronto at the time was a little Korean-run spot called Kenzo, located in an unassuming blink-and-you’ll miss it strip mall near Yonge and Steeles (just south of glorious Centrepoint mall, for those of you, like us, who lived in the area). One bite and I was converted. But it certainly wasn’t easy convincing friends that it was worth trekking north of the subway line’s end just for a bowl of noodles. For awhile, despite the rising popularity of ramen in other food-savvy North American cities like New York, Vancouver and San Francisco, that first outpost of Kenzo remained the only spot in Toronto to get your slurp on. Within the past year though, and the past couple months in particular, our ramen landscape has drastically altered, with a surge of new spots popping up all over downtown. Indeed, we’re (finally) in the midst of ramen mania (or ramenia, for the portmanteau lovers out there).

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Santouka’s shio ramen, with pickled plum garnish. Go get yourself a bowl asap.

Raijin's shio ramen

Raijin’s assari toridashi shio ramen, made with chicken broth

In Japan, ramen is not just the newest food trend, but a fundamental element of contemporary food culture – consumed by everyone, obsession to many, and for some, a way of life. Across the country, there are over 4000 shops turning out bowls of these beloved brothy noodles, which means an immense range of style and quality. People wait in hour+ lines to try the work of a legendary master or of a new innovator. There are scores of blogs, both Japanese and English, dedicated to documenting the best ramen shops, along with ramen magazines, mangatv shows etc. There is even a ramen museum (not to be confused with the Cupnoodle Museum of my inaugural post) where visitors can learn about the history of the dish and sample bowls from some of the country’s most famous purveyors (I obviously made a special trip there while in Japan, where I had my first ever encounter with ramen coma). And of course, ramen movies, like the1985 critically acclaimed Tampopo, a hilarious and extremely well-made “ramen western” which you should totally watch. I know it looks hokey, and it is, but trust me – watch it.

As for the composition of the dish itself, preparations can vary immensely, particularly between regions, but there are generally four basic elements: the broth, the tare, the noodles, and the toppings. The broth is usually pork and/or chicken (+ vegetables), though some use seafood, with each shop developing its own blend. As the element that gives the dish most of its body and flavour, it’s generally the battleground on which ramen shops compete. The tare is like a strong seasoning sauce, spooned into the bottom of the bowl to later mingle with the broth. There are three basic varieties, with the tare being the factor to determines the ramen’s type: shoyu, which is soy sauce based; miso, the notorious fermented bean paste; and shio, a salt-based sauce that also contains some seafood and seaweed essence. To make it all more confusing, there is a fourth type of ramen, tonkotsu, a rich, creamy pork bone broth which has tons of flavour in itself, and may or may not be mixed with tare. Noodles can be thin or thick, curly or straight, but are usually wheat-based alkaline noodles. For me, the noodles are as important as the broth – must be chewy! Serious shops use fresh handmade noodles rather than packaged stuff. Finally, the toppings usually include roast pork (belly or shoulder), a boiled egg, and some simple vegetables like bean sprouts, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.

Sansotei's tonkotsu ramen

Sansotei’s tonkotsu ramen

Kinton's miso ramen

Kinton’s miso ramen

Unsurprisingly, there are many variations on these basic elements, with lots of interesting, sometimes funny, innovations and trends. Tsukemen, for example, is an extremely popular style where broth and noodles are served separately. The broth is more concentrated than that of a typical ramen and serves as a dipping sauce for the noodles (inspired by the traditional way of eating soba). Then there’s a shop called Jiro ramen which has become insanely popular in Japan for just loading on heaping tons of toppings.

There are even places using ice cream in their ramen, like this one with an actual ice cream cone in the bowl, or this chilled soy-milk broth ramen with chili oil ice cream and chicken. Eek. While Toronto’s not quite at that stage yet, we’ve finally got a respectable number of ramen shops slinging their own versions, including some creative bowls in the mix. Without much further ado, here are all the spots to score yourself some slurpy goodness:

(1) Santouka (Dundas and Church)

A Hokkaido-based ramen shop with several locations worldwide and many devout followers. Their signature, shio ramen, is topped with a pretty pickled plum and is just plain incredible. Try it. They also serve tsukemen, the dipping ramen, which I’ll have to go back for.

(2) Ramen Raijin (Yonge and Gerrard)

From the owner of some successful Vancouver ramen shops, Raijin’s the newest kid on the block. They were in soft-opening for awhile but now serving their full menu as of yesterday. Their ramen is great and they have the most diverse menu by far, including a vegetarian option, chicken broth ramen (which are clear and light – they’re pretty salty too but you can ask them to adjust when you order) and tsukemen. Their most unique dish is a bamboo charcoal dark miso ramen, which actually contains food-grade charcoal powder (apparently considered a toxin cleanser). Also some tasty sounding sides like pork buns and Japanese poutine. In addition to their food, one of their biggest draws is that the restaurant is huge compared to other places, meaning you probably won’t have to wait long in line, if at all. It could also accomodate large groups.

(3) Sansotei (Dundas and University)

Their signature is the pork-bone broth tonkotsu ramen and it is definitely something to write home about (if you’re from a food-obsessed family like mine I guess). I literally drank every last drop. They were getting some flack from customers about not having the chewiest noodles to match their amazing broth so they actually listened – they upgraded to Japanese quality noodles and are now offering customers a choice of noodle type.

(4) Kinton Ramen (Baldwin Village)

From the people who brought you Guu, it’s the most fun and lively of all the ramen shops (as expected from Guu). Their noodles, made in house, are excellent and their pork belly is serious business. Options include a cheese ramen, with swiss cheese and basil toppings (I haven’t tried but sounds good) as well as a corn kernels topping (yum). On Wednesday evenings, they do a limited amount chicken ramen.

(5) Kenzo (Spadina and Bloor; Bay and Dundas; Yonge and Wellesley; Yonge and Sheppard)

The owners of Toronto’s first ramen shop at Yonge and Steeles (now under different ownership) have since expanded to four locations throughout the city. While it’s not the best bowl of ramen ever – their broth isn’t the richest nor noodles the chewiest – it’s stil really tasty food that hits the spot. I’ve been there a handful of times and always order the King of Kings ramen. It’s good stuff.

(6) Momofuku Noodle Bar (Richmond and University)

From the infamous and innovative David Chang. There’s only one bowl of ramen on the menu, and it’s made with bacon. Not traditional, tastes great.

(7) A-OK Foods (Queen and Shaw)

This place just opened last week so I have yet to try it, but it’s from the people behind Yours Truly, who used to serve the tastiest snack menu (R.I.P.), so hopes are high. Amongst other snacks, they have a shio ramen and a tsukemen sichuan ramen (mmm, sounds good). I’m gonna guess they’re both untraditional.

(8) Ajisen (Spadina and Dundas; Yonge and Empress)

Big menu. Don’t have much to say as I just don’t really like this place.

(9) Ramen and Izakaya Ryoji (College and Montrose)

Set to open sometime before Christmas, Ryoji, with several branches in Okinawa, promises to bring us some Okinawan style ramen.

Go get your slurp on.

So I Finally Momofukued…

A few weeks ago, after months and months of delays and anticipation, New York’s acclaimed Momofuku restaurant (which means lucky peach in Japanese, but as I wrote in my first post ever, might refer to Momofuku Ando, the father of instant noodles) finally opened its doors in Toronto – and it’s all anybody’s been talking about since. How long did you have to wait in line? Did you try the pork buns? Along with every food-blogger, every local and national publication has also covered some aspect of it, like here, here, here and here. I think Toronto is feeling rather chuffed that of all the cities in all the world, the empire has chosen us to include in its realm. Ok, Sydney might have been first, but we didn’t get just one Momofuku restaurant – we got three (plus a bar).

Adjacent to the new Shangri-La Hotel at Univeristy and Adelaide, the glass cube structure houses all four Momofuku establishments: the infamous Noodle Bar on its ground floor; Nikai, a second-storey lounge/bar where you can have a drink while waiting for a table (although its birds-eye view of others’ tables as they happily slurp away at their noodles seems kind of torturous ); the third floor Daisho, which serves large family-style meals like whole fried chicken; and Shoto, also on the third floor, which serves a fancy-pants $150 ten-course tasting menu. I’d eventually, someday, like to try all of them but Noodle Bar was first on my list – not only because it was the first of the three to open but quite obviously because it serves NOODLES. Also, I’ve never been to the original Noodle Bar in New York and have heard so much about it. Also, I was totally enthralled with the first issue of Momofuku-founder/chef David Chang‘s Lucky Peach magazine (it’s the ramen issue, and is entirely, obsessively devoted to all things ramen) and while reading it, I thought (a) this guy totally gets me and (b) someone who’s so obsessed with noodles must turn out some pretty good ones – and I must try them.

The restaurants’ entrance on University, with a smidge of the gorgeous Zhang Huan sculpture that dominates the building’s exterior

Bird’s eye view of Noodle Bar from the second floor bar – hi guys!

For all the praise and cult-like worship this place gets though, there’s also the inevitable, and often disproportionate, hater backlash – and Toronto has been no exception. Within the first week, I heard/read a whole range of reviews – some people were in love, bowing at the altar, others said it was a total disappointment/doesn’t compare to the New York location/is totally not worth waiting in line for an hour +. And then most people were somewhere in the middle – thought it was good but didn’t get what all the hype was about. Despite some lowered expectations, I was still extremely excited to check it out for myself.

A group of five of us went there on a Friday afternoon at 1:00. We were told the wait would be 1.5 hours and they took our name and number down on an iPad and said they’d text us when our table was ready. Somehow we got lucky and before we even made it to the closest coffee shop to distract our stomachs, we got the text and were seated within 20 minutes – woot! Despite its name, only about half the dishes on the restaurant’s menu are actually noodles, while the rest is other delicious sounding things, like smoked chicken wings, kimchi stew with rice and the infamous pork-belly steam buns,. With five pairs of big eyes, we actually tried to order one of everything on the menu. (Un)fortunately, the waitress told us it would be way too much food (party-pooper) so we scaled down a bit. Here’s what we tried:

Kimchi jar

Shiitake and chicken buns – nope, we didn’t get the pork belly

Ramen with pork belly + shoulder, poached egg, fishcake and cabbage

Chilled spicy noodles with sichuan sausage, fresh spinach, fermented black bean, and candied cashews

Smoked chicken wings (with some background carnage)

Ginger scallion noodles, dressed with a light vinaigrette

Roasted rice cakes in a sticky/sweet/spicy red chili sauce

The ramen was a good bowl of noodles – springy noodles, comforting, meaty and well-salted broth, and a beautifully yolky egg. Purists beware, this is not a traditional Japanese ramen and doesn’t claim to be (there are other places in the city doing that, and quite a few more on the way – stay tuned for my ramen low-down). It’s instead an interesting variation on the theme. The ginger scallion noodles were also really tasty – a more light and refreshing take on a noodle bowl. The chilled spicy noodles were decent, although not something I’d crave or go back for. The best things we had were actually the non-noodle goods. For me, total sleeper hit was the shiitake buns – did not expect to like these at all but as soon as I took a bite, I was taken. Same reaction for the roasted rice cakes. Rice cakes in chili sauce is otherwise known as dukbokki, a common and extremely popular Korean dish that can be found for about $5 at any of the Koreatown restaurants near Christie and Bloor. This is an elevated version of it though – by untraditionally roasting the rice cakes, they get a crispy crunchy coating and an ooey gooey centre which goes so well with the sweet sticky sauce and green onion and sesame garnish. Overall, I’d say the food was good and tasty but not omg-amazing-best-ever. Certainly not the absolute best bowl of noodles I’ve ever had (which I was kind of hoping for) but I’d go back for a couple of the dishes, and to try the pork belly buns, and maybe also cause it’s a cool atmosphere. Worth waiting in line for? At least once. And depending on your outlook, the line-up can be half the fun.

Filipino Noodles from a Downtown Shipping Container

I’ve eaten a lot of noodles in my day but up until last week, had never tried any Filipino varieties. Despite Toronto’s large Filipino community, the archipelago’s cuisine – a combination of Chinese, Malay, Spanish and American influences – hasn’t really gained widespread popularity. While there are many places to get Filipino food, they’re mostly scattered outside the downtown area and are mostly take-out places where you choose your meal from a hot table. It appears that trend is gradually changing though. A few months ago, Lamesa Filipino Kitchen opened on Queen Street West, serving contemporary renditions of traditional Fiipino dishes in a trendy dining room. I haven’t been but my friend Laura had their prix-fixe and says you have to try the pork belly. And there’s also Kanto by Tita Flips, a food stand at Dundas and Bathurst serving made-to-order Filipino street food.

Kanto is one of several international food stands at Market 707, an outdoor marketplace at the Scadding Court Community Centre comprised entirely out of refurbished shipping containers. It’s a pretty cool project. In an effort to revive the bleak corner of its central downtown intersection, the community centre set up a row of shipping containers, spruced them up with some paint and electricity, and now offers the spaces to burgeoning entrepreneurs for very low rent. Currently, most of the businesses that have taken up shop there are food vendors and so there are also some tables and chairs set up along the wide sidewalk for customers to eat their meals. I get pretty excited every time I go there as there are lots and lots of good options – Central American pupusas, Korean bulgogi, European crepes, Ontario grilled cheese, Japanese curry, Chinese dim sum, West Indian roti, South American ceviche, and even North African camel burgers (yes, like Alice – try it, it’s good). If you know me, you know that so many appealing food options are usually a double-edged sword as I have a really hard time deciding what to order – restaurants with 15-page long menus are a bit of a nightmare for me, and I adore dining companions that are into sharing. There’s only one noodle dish currently on offer at Market 707 though, so on my first visit, the decision was pretty simple.

There’s an unsurprisingly large variety of Filipino noodle dishes and Kanto serves up one of the most popular among them, pancit palabok, literally noodles with garnishing. It’s often made with thin rice noodles/vermicelli, one of the most common types of noodle in Filipino cuisine. However, it can also be made with cornstarch noodles, which is what Kanto uses for their version. Apparently unique to the Philippines, I had never heard of cornstarch noodles before and was curious to try them. They’re similar in texture to glass noodles/mung bean noodles, although slightly thicker, and a bit firmer and springier. For pancit palabok, they’re simply soaked in water and then quickly boiled. The noodles themselves don’t have much flavour so the success of the dish really rests on its toppings. The main and most complex feature of pancit palabok is the shrimp gravy that’s poured over the noodles. It typically consists of a rich shrimp stock – made by boiling down shrimp heads and shells – mixed with the extract of annatto seeds, a mild flavoured seed with an intense yellow-orange pigment. The two liquids are simmered together with some seasoning, including fish sauce, and then thickened with cornstarch or flour. The resulting gravy is then tossed up with the noodles, along with some pieces of tofu and slices of chicken. The final step of the dish is its garnishing. I’m sure there are some variations but, as served up at Kanto, it typically includes slices of hard-boiled egg, fried shrimp, green onion, chicharron (pork crackling), fried garlic pieces (my favourite part – yum), and a slice of citrus (calamansi, lemon or lime) to squirt on top. It’s warm and comforting, and full of complementary textures and flavours. And at Kanto by Tita Flips, it’s just $5 a plate. I’m happy this place is downtown so I can slowly work my way through their menu. The  Japanese curry place is lookin’ pretty good as well, though I might have to suggest they start serving some udon.

Cold Korean Noodles in the Hot Hot Heat

I feel pretty lucky to live in Toronto’s Koreatown (the one around Christie and Bloor – there is also another one around Yonge and Finch). Not only does it have a great Korean grocery store with all the necessities, and then some, for my predominantly Asian pantry (to be clear, it pales in comparison to T&T, especially the newly renovated Promenade branch i.e. my favourite place in Toronto, period – but it’s great for downtown standards) but it also means that I’m surrounded by an abundance of delicious and affordable Korean restaurants. Sometime in June, once the temperatures started reaching into the mid-20s and above, I started noticing many of the restaurants in the neighbourhood putting up signs in their window for ‘cold noodles’ or naengmyun/naengmyeon. Seasonal cold noodles dishes for the hot summer months are common among various Asian cuisines – for example, Thai yum woon sen, Vietnamese bun thit nuong, Japanese zaru soba, and Chinese liang mian. Korean Naengmyun, however, takes the cold factor to the next level.

Having never tried them before, and being constantly taunted by the signs in the window, I was very curious about these noodles. Also, our friend Matt, who used to live in the area and loves noodles perhaps as much as I do, kept telling me how awesome they are. Amid the sweaty, sweltering heat wave of the past couple weeks (and no air conditioning in our apartment!), we finally made plans to go check them out. Matt took us to Sunrise House, a little family-run place that’s made a reputation among its competitors for having some great banchan (various complimentary side dishes such as kimchi and bean sprouts that are served with your meal).

Sunrise House – 661 Bloor Street West, at Manning

Yummy banchan – bean sprouts, seaweed, kimchi, potatoes, sweet potato noodles and spicy cucumbers

Naengmyun, literally cold noodles, refers to a dish of cold buckwheat noodles, commonly prepared in one of two ways. The first is bibim naengmyeon, literally ‘mixed cold noodles’ (similar in name to the infamous Korean dish bibim bap, literally mixed rice). In this dish, the cold buckwheat noodles are smothered in a sauce of chogochujang – a mixture of gochujang (the thick, spicy red chili paste that’s ubiquitous in Korean cuisine), vinegar and sugar – and tossed together in the bowl with some vegetables. Sounds alright, maybe too sweet for my taste.
The real showstopper is the second style of preparation: mool naengmyun, literally water cold noodles. The buckwheat noodles are boiled and then chilled, which halts the cooking process and results in a wonderfully chewy, springy noodle texture. They are then placed in a metal  bowl, to retain their cool temperature, and covered with a chilled beef broth (in some preparations, it may also be chicken or kimchi broth, or a combination of the three). The real kicker, though, is the handful of crushed iced that’s added to the bowl, creating this kind of slush noodle soup. It’s then topped with slices of boiled beef brisket, halves of hard-boiled egg, ribbons of pickled daikon radish, strips of fresh cucumber, and a generous shake of toasted sesame seeds. Some white vinegar and hot mustard paste is also served on the side, to add some tang and heat to the savoury broth, according to your personal taste. The whole dish is certainly unusual, and unbelievably refreshing. You actually feel a cooling sensation after slurping down the icy cold broth and noodles.

Mool naengmyun

Ice ice baby

Matt cutting the super-long noodles with the provided noodle shears, for ease of noodle slurping

Accompanying white vinegar and hot mustard paste – rock on

Interestingly, naengmyun originates from the Ibuk region of present-day North Korea and was initially a winter dish, its chilling preparation deriving from climatic circumstances rather than preference. Apparently the broth for naengmyun was originally prepared with dongchimi, a daikon and cabbage kimchi which is particularly watery. Dongchimi was traditionally stored outdoors and so on really cold nights it would freeze, resulting in the noodles’ icy broth. I can’t imagine wanting to eat this body-chilling dish in January, but it’s an awesome antidote to this scorching summer heat. And the buckwheat noodles are really, really good.

Night market noodling

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I borrowed my mom’s car and hauled our downtown-dwelling selves up to Highway 7 and Warden (indeed, life – and delicious food – exists north of Bloor) to hit up Night It Up, an annual weekend-long food event that seeks to import the night markets of Taiwan, Hong Kong and other asian cities to a parking lot in Markham. Having lived in Taiwan for about a year and half, and having spent a large portion of that time eating and shopping my way through its night markets, I’d say they did a pretty excellent job of emulating the real thing. A night market is, as the name suggests, an area where dozens upon dozens of vendors set up stalls at nighttime and sell a wide variety of local snack foods, alongside other vendors selling clothes, accessories and knick-knacks. It is, in my eyes, part of the unique fabric of Taiwan. Most, if not all, cities in Taiwan have night markets of varying sizes and it’s a place where all people, especially youth, go to hang out on any night of the week. You may have heard of the infamous Snake Alley Night Market in Taipei – a popular tourist destination that’s known for selling some less common items such as turtle blood and snake blood in a shot glass (for male virility, I believe), as well deer penis wine, and various turtle and snake parts to eat. Sometimes the killing of the snake or turtle is made into a crowd-attracting spectacle. However, snake Alley is unique, and not really representative of the typical night markets in Taiwan.

The Night It Up in Markham had some music performances, games, and contests but it was mostly food-focused – yay! While it would have been impossible to offer up the countless variety of snacks that are available in Taiwan’s night markets, they featured all the most popular, or “famous”, ones. Perhaps the most well known is chou doufu – literally, stinky tofu – which is a fermented tofu with a really strong odour. In Taiwan it’s often served deep-fried and topped with a spicy sweet chili sauce and pickled cabbage. When they fry it up, the tofu’s odour is magnified as the smoke from the fryer permeates the air. It’s pretty intense, and kind of smells like garbage and gym socks. Seriously. But it tastes delicious. I love the stuff. It’s not for everyone though. It’s kind of the same deal as with stinky cheese – an acquired taste, which requires first getting over the funky smell. They also had quite a few stalls selling Taiwanese fried chicken – battered cutlets that are fried to an extra-crispy golden brown and then generously dusted with the most delectable, savoury seasoning salt. I still don’t know what’s in that salt but man, is it addictive. We actually tried three different versions. There were also lots of other popular Taiwanese nigh market goodies, like oyster omelets, charcoal-grilled lamb skewers, watermelon juice (here, creatively served in an adorable baby watermelon, with little cocktail umbrella), skewered squid grilled in a sweet n’ salty sauce, takoyaki (Japanese squid balls) and on and on and on.

But let’s get down to business here – the noodles. Despite Taiwan having an abundance of amazing local noodle dishes – like beef noodle soup – they didn’t have any uniquely Taiwanese noodles at Night It Up. Thinking back, I don’t remember seeing so many noodles at the night markets in Taiwan, maybe because unlike meat on a stick or chicken in a bag, they’re not the most convenient thing to hold in hand and eat while walking through a crowd. I guess they’re typically served at restaurants and non-night market stalls. But fret not – I still got to eat some noodles that night.

The first kind, which I was really excited to see here, is a Chinese noodle dish called liáng pí.

While widely available across China (or at least in major cities – I used to buy it at the entrance of a shopping mall in Shanghai), it originates from the northwestern Shaanxi province, whose regional cuisine is characterized by strong, bold, savoury and sometimes sour flavours, and is often extremely spicy as well due to the influence of its neighbouring Sichuan province. Liang pi literally translates to cold skin. That’s not because it actually contains any skin but I’m guessing because the translucent-ish noodles kinda resemble skin? Their texture is quite unique and tricky to describe – smooth, slippery, and jelly-like, but a firm jelly. I’ve never actually seen these noodles being made from scratch but the wikipedia entry provides some insight into their texture: wheat or rice flour is mixed with water to make a dough; the dough is rinsed in a bowl with water to release the starch; the dough is discarded and the starchy white water is left to rest; a starch paste forms at the bottom of the bowl and any water which has risen to the top of the bowl is discarded; the starch paste is spread out into a round pan and the pan is steamed to cook the dough; the dough “pancake” that comes out is finally sliced into long strands that look like noodles. I guess liang pi aren’t technically noodles since they’re made from the starchy by-product of a dough rather than a dough itself – but they look, taste and slurp like a noodle.

While there are variations, liang pi are most often served cold (excellent for summer), swimming in a savoury, vinegary, spicy chili oil sauce that has not been mixed together or cooked rather simply involves spooning different ingredients on to the noodles, so that it may be easily adjusted to taste. At this particular stall, the sauce consisted of chicken broth, sesame paste mixed with soy sauce, and chili oil. I was surprised that there was no vinegar involved. There were also chilled cucumber and carrot shreds to top the noodles, as well as ground peanuts mixed with ground Sichuan peppercorns.

For my taste, this dish was absolutely delicious. I especially liked the ground peppercorns that had been mixed into the peanuts, which added an extra kick of heat on top of the chili oil. My only gripe is that the noodle dough had been cut into chunky cubes rather than strands so that you up ended with a big mouthful of dough to chew on and not enough sauce. They should have been cut into strands which have more surface area and therefore allow for a way better dough/sauce ratio.

If you’re interested in trying some liang pi in Toronto, I know that you can get them at Chinese Traditional Bun on Dundas, just west of Spadina. I’ve never actually ordered their liang pi before but I’ve really liked all of the noodle and dumpling dishes I’ve tried there (most notably their beef and onion pancake roll). They also serve a killer version of liang pi at Xian Famous Foods in New York. This tiny restaurant was first introduced to me by my amazing friend Polina while visiting her in New York back in the summer of 2008. I remember nearly exploding from excitement just looking at their menu, full of all kinds of Shaanxi-style hand-pulled noodle dishes. It’s a definite destination for noodle-lovers and every time I’ve been to New York since then, I’ve had to go eat there, as if by impulse. It’s a pretty popular spot – they’ve been featured on tv shows, including Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations – and they live up to the hype. On that note, I just read a great article about them on Serious Eats and the writer explains all their dishes, and the story of the restaurant, really well. Drool. I want some now.

The only other noodles being served at Night It Up were from a stand called Sumo Noodle House. They had two noodle dishes: cold soba and seafood fried udon. Despite the heat, I opted for the latter simply because I have a deep love for fried noodles (probably my favourite kind of noodle preparation). Udon are a thick, round wheat-flour noodle from Japan that are widely available in supermarkets and Japanese restaurants in Toronto. As with all the vendors at the night market, these guys cooked the noodles to order, right in front of you. They started by quickly heating up some garlic in the pan, throwing in some shrimp and octopus, adding the noodles, and frying it all together with a sweet n’ salty unagi sauce (soy+mirin+sugar), so named not because it actually contains eel but because its regularly used in the Japanese grilled eel dish (of which, btw, I am a big fan). They then plated the noodles, sprinkled them with some black sesame seeds, and topped it all with shreds of nori (dried seaweed) and shredded marble cheese. Yep, cheese. To be honest, I was disappointed and a little grossed out when I first saw the cheese. So in the interest of research, I mixed it all together like the vendors suggested and dug in. And oh man, it was so good! The cheese had melted and combined with the unagi sauce to create this creamy comforting coating for the perfectly paired thick and chewy udon (sorry there’s no post-mixing it all together photo). I was surprised at how delicious it was and ate every last bit. Mmm. Then I remembered that Guu also puts shredded cheese in their version of bipimbap and I’ve liked that too. I think cheese is a trend in modern izakaya type food.

Unfortunately, a quick google search suggests that Sumo Noodle House is not an actual restaurant in Toronto – perhaps just a one time thing for the market. But there were so few ingredients involved that it should be pretty simple to make at home, and can be easily modified to suit vegetarians or non-seafood eaters. You can bet your udon I’ll be trying this at home.

If reading this post has made you hungry and/or sad that you missed the awesome once a year night market in Markham, there’s actually another night market going on this weekend, and downtown. It’s the T&T Waterfront Night Market, which will be running from Friday to Sunday night in the parking lot of the T&T supermarket on Cherry St. I think it’s organized by different people so it won’t necessarily have the exact same stuff as the Markham one, but it’ll probably be similar, albeit much smaller. There will definitely be stinky tofu. And probably some noodles.