sizing up the night market

pub street

Night markets are a tradition particular to Asia. A crazy open air jumble of stalls and stands selling everything from meat and produce to tchotchkes to clothing, condiments, and prepared foods, it only comes alive after dark. Part shopping mall, part social scene, it makes for great people watching while also being quite handy for souvenir shopping if you’ve spent your entire day engaged in more culturally elevated pursuits. In Hong Kong the night markets are pristine; in Bangkok only slightly less so. Here in Siem Reap the capitalism is nakedly pure – if slightly less hygienic: no price is what it seems and absolutely everything is negotiable

night market

night market toenails

night market grill

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mona lisa, toasted

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hairy crab, with style

Hairy crab turns out to be a delicacy best enjoyed in the sleeves-up style of a Maryland crab boil: bibs, mallets, and lots of messy picking, poking, and shell sucking. Following my visit to the wet market, however, a newspaper-covered communal table strewn with hairy crabs was not exactly the meal I had envisaged. Luckily the concierge at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental had a few alternate suggestions – including Island Tang just around the corner from the hotel. This latest venture from Sir David Tang, the entrepreneur behind Shanghai Tang and a host of Chinese-themed luxe dining clubs, oozes nostalgia for 1940’s Hong Kong with antique chandeliers and ceiling fans spinning lazily above an airy dining room of yellow silk banquettes. Tucked into the second floor corner of a shopping mall, the unassuming façade is an easy blink-and-miss and perhaps that’s the point: something tells me Sir David wouldn’t be keen on just anyone stumbling in and spoiling the chummy atmosphere. Dinner started with a bamboo steamer of the fluffiest, juiciest pork buns I’ve ever tasted. In fact, from this point forward all pork buns shall be held up to Island Tang’s imposingly ethereal angel pillows of porky goodness. Braised egg noodles were bound to be a disappointment after the revelation of the bun – even enlivened with tender slices of brisket. Alas, I also forgot that I had signed up for the subtlety of Cantonese cuisine and not the fiery noodles of my neighborhood Sichuan Kitchen. More important, however, was the arrival of evening’s star attraction: hairy crab with fried tofu. Sweet crabmeat, tender as butter, melted into the creamy tofu to create some kind of crazy Chinese version of risotto. It’s the kind of dish that makes you thankful for chopsticks because with a spoon you’d just shovel it in. The rare and elusive hairy crab turned out to be a bit of a misnomer.  Butter crab, anyone? Get the bib – I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

 

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