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When I worked at 30 Rock in the ’80s, I took a car service called Lotus. The drivers, usually from Hong Kong, used to say with an impish grin into the rearview mirror, “New York is too slow.”
“New York — too slow?” I thought.
And then I went to Asia — over and over and over again — and I realized they were right, New York really is too slow.
1. Ameyoko Market, Tokyo, Japan
Occupying three blocks of two streets in central Tokyo, Ameyoko started in World War II as a black market but went straight after the war. Short for Ameya Yokocho, or “candy shop alley,” the market still offers some extravagant matcha-and-ice-cream confections and expensive fruits, but its specialty is fish. You can smell it in the air — fresh fish, cooked fish, raw and cooked seafood like octopi, sea worms and mollusks are all available at roughly half the price you’d pay at the supermarket. For a real treat, grab some takoyaki (fried octopus dough balls) and absolutely delicious chirashi (raw fish over rice). You can also find discount casual wear and sportswear, as well as traditional clothing like kimonos and yukata, but it’s the atmosphere you really come here for. Ameyoko is quite a scene in normally restrained Japan, with 500 yelling vendors, many of them distilling their pitches down to the Japanese word for “delicious”: “Oishi! Oishi! Oishi!”
2. Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand
It could be argued that Bangkok itself is a food market, with affordable and superb street food available on practically every corner. On a recent trip, we had incredible stir-fried chicken and coconut-milk-and-jelly shaved ice from Chinatown street vendors, freshly-made Chinese-style noodle soup from the lady down the street from our hotel and desserts and fruit from practically anywhere we chose.
Chatuchak, however, is something a little more concentrated than that. A bewildering, maze-like place with more than 8,000 stalls, it’s been in operation for 74 years and you can get fresh and dried food, fruit juices, herbs and spices and cooked-to-order noodles. Try the coconut ice cream or a thapthim krop, a crisp, delicious dessert made of water chestnuts in coconut milk. And then, since Chatuchak is much more than just a food market, you can buy yourself a massage, a ship’s wheel, a stuffed alligator head, a golden god for your dashboard, a live porcupine and pretty much anything else you might want.
3. Amphawa Floating Market, Mae Klong River, Thailand
Among the most picturesque markets in the world, Amphawa consists of two long rows of very old wooden buildings on the banks of a narrow offshoot of the Mae Klong River roughly 56 miles from Bangkok. The floating market comes alive at night, with the water and its old shacks bathed in golden incandescence. Try the spicy green curry chicken, rich with coconut milk, served from a gigantic pot at the water’s edge. You can also order freshly-made food from cooking boats — like grilled scallops and shrimp or stir-fried noodles — and your steaming meal on a banana leaf will be passed over to you at the dock or in your boat. After your riverside feast, stroll the docks, cross the concrete bridge, stop in at artists’ shops or listen to live music from the bars — and let Amphawa cast its spell.
4. Temple Street Night Market, Hong Kong
Hong Kong is my favorite place on earth. I love it, not for its umpteen Louis Vuitton stores, but for its hundreds of traditional noodle shops and open-air dai pai dong (restaurant stalls) — and you can visit both at the Temple Street Night Market, which has been in business since at least the 1920s. Just a two-minute walk off Kowloon’s great commercial artery, Nathan Road, are the five blocks of the Temple Street Night Market, a buzzing, humming, blinking, squawking street emporium of appliances, clothes, decorations and practically everything else. I relish Temple Street for its hustle and push, its chorus of Cantonese voices shouting over the sizzle of foods in big cooking woks, and its simple, inexpensive dishes like roast duck or goose — a delicacy in the West, yet just another fowl in Hong Kong. Shop a little, take a break over grilled shrimp and beer, then return to the hubbub and madness of Hong Kong with renewed vigor.
5. Shilin Night Market, Taipei
My nominee for world’s best food market, Shilin has everything you could desire and hundreds of things you never even knew existed. There’s an air of excitement here — of discovery — and you can watch foreigners walk in, look around and say whatever in their language is the word for “wow.” That’s because when you enter Shilin, it feels like you’ve walked into an established self-sufficient city.
It even smells different here, at least in places — and yes, I’m talking about stinky tofu. The weather’s warm and humid in Taipei, so stinky tofu’s indescribable odor drapes around you like a jacket, but only in patches. Elsewhere, you can get bubble tea, which came from Taiwan, or grilled meat handed over on skewers. The local — and surprisingly cheap — variant of hot pot comes with a prodigious variety of raw seafood. Many foods are sold out of handcarts so you simply eat as you walk along. Before you know it, it’s three in the morning and the night market is still going strong — more than strong, with more than 500 close-packed, vibrant, active stalls.
Which food markets do you enjoy visiting in Asia? Tell us about them below.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.