Updated: Jul 15, 2020
Spelunking for authentic Asian street food
Anyone who knows me will know that I would not confuse a food hall with a food court. You are unlikely to find me writing about the latter, but I am often in search of the most interesting of the former, and the more varied and exotic the food stalls, the better. Normally I have great recollection of my "firsts" of different dining experiences, but I have racked my brain and come up empty on when I first experienced an authentic food hall. My guess is that it was probably the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, near to where I grew up and probably involved a Philly soft pretzel or over-stuffed deli sandwich.
Spending five months in Hong Kong gave me the opportunity to seek out some exotic spots for street food. The most unexpected has to be a food hall in Beijing that was hiding behind an unmarked entry way in the South Luogu shopping street within the Qinlao Hutong to the north of the Forbidden City. The Hutong are typical narrow alleyways in Beijing that link low-rise residences containing interior courtyards, but also can refer to a neighbourhood of several networks of alleyways. In this fascinating covered area with about a dozen different food stalls, young servers in crisp and colorful uniforms served up a varied offering of fried soft shell crabs, fried tripe strips, barbeque beef on a stick, chicken wing/thigh combos and other local favorites (i.e. did not have a clue what they were!).
The night markets in Taipei are an adventure! Think of a flea market for snacks in alley ways with festive lighting and a bit of sideshow schtick and you have a Taipei night market. This is genuine street food with vendors doling out snackable portions to diners who stroll and nosh their way through the market. This apparently is a favorite pastime of Taipei residents.
The highlight is the Taiwanese pork pepper bun, which is as delicious as the reviews make it out to be, and which is further validated by a hefty queue of diners waiting for their share. Like this vendor, the attraction of the night market goes beyond tasty food as there is often entertainment value in the production. A novelty item that often gets mentioned in reviews is the stinky tofu. I tried it and frankly wish I had ignored the reviews!
Singapore is famous for its hawker centers, which is generally a more rustic, open-air version of a food hall. Many in Singapore are open around the clock and will contain dozens of stalls with varied ethnic Asian offerings. Our favorite, Lau Pa Sat, is located near Raffles Place in a market building with vaulted ceilings supported by Victorian-styled iron columns and struts. Every style of asian cuisine imaginable seems to be on offer, but we decided to stick to Singapore specialties like carrot cake, which is neither carrot, nor cake, but a traditional stir-fried, pickled daikon radish dish. The oyster omelette is another local specialty that is worth sampling.
While seemingly ubiquitous in Singapore, hawker centers can also be found in Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong. Some very suspicious looking food stalls can be found in the most unlikely places in Hong Kong, such as a back alley of prosperous Sai Kung in the New Territories, or even in fashionable Central. It is not unusual to be criss-crossing the prime shopping streets of Tsim Sha Tsui and come across an eccentric looking stall with food on a stick.