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.