The night market is about the food. Deep fried & on a stick

The Richmond Night Market is about the food. There are rides and entertainment, games and things to buy. But mostly, the night market is about the food. That's why people line up for an hour and pay their $2.75 just to get inside. It's a cover charge for entry into the wonderful world of things deep fried, on sticks, in paper boats, big pieces of meat you hold by the bone, shaved ice topped with fruit, and everything cooked on open flame.

Richmond has been doing a night market since 2000, in a large empty warehouse lot. Then, it was in the middle of an industrial park, parking was expensive and horrendous. Today, it's moved, a short walk from the Bridgeport Skytrain station. Follow the crowds if you don't know the way. Better yet, follow the smell of meat on the grill. They're open from 7pm until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays (until 11pm on Sundays and holiday Mondays). Come early, stay late, and don't eat dinner beforehand. In fact, don't eat lunch either.

The Richmond Night Market is the biggest in North America. The BC Lower Mainland must have the biggest Asian population in North America. Like the best Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, the Night Market is mostly populated by Asian people. That's how you know the food is good. Some of the food stalls are regular food trucks in the city or even full-blown restaurants. The advantage here is density.

There's more to see at the Night Market than just food, of course. Not as many counterfeit bags as there used to be, but many stalls selling phone accessories, cheap socks and underwear, Asian stationery and stuffed animals. What makes the new Night Market better than the old market is Lolliduck.

Lolliduck isn't just the Night Market mascot. Lolliduck is the main character, a pirate king looking for candy treasure. He greets you at the entrance, as a giant inflatable rubber duck. Inside, his pirate ship is a candy-coloured attraction for little kids to explore. And he can be found up and down the midway, in the games and the prizes. If the musical entertainment on stage isn't enough to capture your attention, watch the people inside giant plastic balls try to stay upright in a pool of water. It's a great way to pass the time standing in the line for a rotato.

Last year, it was a plastic candy kingdom, a self-proclaimed "Selfie Zone". This year, we get to see Lolliduck on his way to that kingdom. Perhaps a little backwards, but it's something new every year. For the people who come back again and again, it's something new to see.

I put off my first visit of the summer just so I could experience the wonder that is the Richmond Night Market with one of my best friends coming to town. We did the Night Market last year together, too. We ate a lot of good food last year, and we needed to make sure it wasn't a fluke.

Last summer, we discovered the Rotato. A whole potato on a stick, spiral cut with a homemade drill contraption, then dunked into a thin batter to make it crispier in the oil. The Rotato comes in different flavours, a variety of powders shaken on after it comes out of the fryer. This year, roasted garlic and pepper was my choice. Eat it fast because it gets cold and soggy faster than any french fries you've ever had, but while it's still hot and crispy, the Rotato is a delight.

After having my first Rotato at the Richmond Night Market last year, I visited the Night Market out in Surrey, where more than half a dozen stalls were selling the exact same thing. Under different names, of course--all potato-themed puns. But in Richmond, there's only one Rotato. They've cornered the market, and this year, they've expanded their operation.

For the price of two Rotatoes ($12 at $6/each), you can have your photo taken on the Throne of Rotato. A gold throne, in the style of the Iron Throne from the Game of Thrones, it's literally made out of Rotatoes. Plastic, of course, but beautiful, nonetheless. We arrived early that night, when no one seemed to care about the price of admission. We didn't know, so we jumped on and asked a lovely lady nearby to take our photo. Then we went and stood in line for more food.

I started eating vegan this spring, and while that's easy at home, it gets harder when going out to eat. But the Night Market isn't the PNE. There's far more to eat here than mini doughnuts and corn dogs. In just two visits so far, I've eaten mushroom takoyaki (without the "tako," octopus), deep fried mushrooms, coconut curry and naan, the Rotato (of course), and three different kinds of fruit and ice concoctions. I haven't even tried all the ways they're cooking tofu yet.

But if you're not vegan, here are a few you might like to eat: ham hocks on the rotisserie, big ass flattened fried chicken, butter chicken toast box, and all manner of BBQ squid. The squid is taking over, like the Rotato did last year; I saw those tentacles spilling out all over the place.

And because this is the hottest Vancouver summer in recent memory: dry ice! The dry ice cocktail is not an alcoholic cocktail, but they had fun names like Cinderella and Blue Hawaii. The dry ice goes in the bottom of one plastic cup with holes punched around the middle. Then your drink goes in a second, smaller cup, creating the smoke effect as you drink.

There's a thing called the Summer Special. I don't know what's so special about it; I don't know if you can only get it during the summer. But I need to have it. First, start with shaved ice. Pour over coconut milk. Add tapioca pearls and basil seeds, which bloom just like chia. (I didn't know this.) Dice strawberry and mango on top. There's something else in here that I don't know what it is. Something jelly-like, tiny pieces of it. I thought it was candied ginger at first, but the flavour isn't strong enough. That would be delicious, though. This is my best guess at reverse engineering the Summer Special into something I can make at home.

The best thing about the Night Market is that this food isn't a summer special. Here in Vancouver, I can find somewhere making mushroom takoyaki around the year. I could find a lychee slushie in the middle of winter. And I'm sure I could find a frozen yogurt/shaved ice shop making something very close to the Summer Special. Right here in the city, we have some of the best Asian food outside of Asia. But to have all of it in one place, to be able to eat things on sticks, watching kids play inside giant plastic balls floating in a pool, standing under trees light up in neon pink, that's what the Night Market is all about. Go for something unusual; come back for the flavour you can't forget.

⇓ 15.08.09 nightmarket.pdf