Journalist Lisa Ling Shares Her Favorite Night Market Memories
The host of HBO Max’s ‘Take Out’ talks Taiwanese markets, grilled squid, and Asian food in America.
Lisa Ling is a dream dinner party guest. The award-winning journalist has carried an insatiable curiosity across the globe, as a reporter on Channel One News, a host of National Geographic Explorer, and a special correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show. She’s covered everything from the civil war in Afghanistan to the humanitarian crisis in North Korea.
In her latest HBO Max docuseries, Take Out With Lisa Ling, the storyteller explores the Asian-American culinary communities who have shaped the identity of the United States, spanning the bayous of Louisiana to Orange County’s Little Saigon. She tastes everything from Bangladeshi hilsa to Hot Cheeto-crusted Japanese musubi, while also diving into her own family history, as the granddaughter of Chinese restaurant owners.
We caught up with Ling to chat about her new show, the changing perceptions of Asian food, and her favorite night market memories.
Thrillist: Can you share what it was like being raised in a restaurant family? How do you think it shaped your curiosity for food?
Lisa Ling: My grandmother learned how to cook in a restaurant because, when she immigrated to the United States, the restaurant provided an opportunity for my grandparents to eke out some semblance of the American dream. Despite the fact that both of them were very highly educated—my grandfather had an MBA—he couldn’t get hired in finance and she couldn’t get hired to work in the professional world, either.
So restaurants were one of the very few ways that Asian people—more specifically, Chinese people—could have a business. So they opened a Chinese restaurant in the 1950s without knowing how to cook. One day, one of the cooks in the restaurant called in sick. So my grandmother, who had been working in the kitchen, sort of watching him, had to put on the apron and start cooking herself. And she learned how to make these dishes that appealed to a non-Chinese clientele, like egg foo young and chop suey and so on, but she never cooked those foods in my home.
She cooked much more authentic food in the home, and what I would say about growing up in a restaurant family, specifically a Chinese family, is that I never learned how to cook because of it, because for my grandmother, the Chinese restaurant was a means for survival, and she wanted better for me.
Do you think American attitudes towards Asian food are changing for the better?
To me, it’s a no brainer. Despite the discrimination that Asian people have endured since they first showed up in America, somehow Asian food has been able to transcend that discrimination. I mean, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s combined. And these days, you’re likely to find all different kinds of Asian restaurants—even in the smallest towns in America. So food is, I think, the best way to understand a culture that has been misunderstood in America for far too long.
Now it seems people are seeking out more authentic Chinese dishes, rather than those designed for a non-Chinese clientele.
Oh yeah. I mean, the American palate has become so much more evolved. And I think Asian foods and flavors are so much easier to acquire these days, with the proliferation of all the restaurants, the different food shows, and the ease of access. Now you can have authentic Asian foods delivered to your doorstep in the wake of all these delivery services. I think all of those things have contributed to the evolution of the American palette and the desire to experience the most authentic kinds of Asian foods, as opposed to the egg foo young and chop suey of the past.
I’d love to hear about some of your own experiences, discovering different Asian dishes as you traveled throughout the world.
Growing up, when I was taken to Asia with my family—I visited Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—nothing excited me more than going to the night markets. I mean, as a kid, it was an opportunity to stay up late, first of all, and night markets were like this social center. I would generally go to Asia in the summer because that’s when I was off of school and the days were excruciatingly humid and hot. And so the cities just came alive at night when temperatures cooled down a little bit. The night markets in Taiwan, for example, would literally stay open all night long and were comprised of entire city blocks. And you could get the most exotic things. The socialization, the communal nature—it was all just so much fun.
What does “street food” mean to you, and what do you think are some misconceptions that are often associated with it?
From an American lens, I think the perception exists that night markets are not clean and that you might need to spend the next day next to your toilet bowl. And while I have had some of those experiences after eating street food [laughs], the night markets that I’ve visited throughout Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and even Thailand, have been very, very clean. Things are made right there, out in the open, in the market. There’s an exciting flavor in every stall.
Was there a food that you discovered at a night market that just kind of blew you away?
I remember sitting on these little stools with Styrofoam bowls of oyster noodles. I remember loving these tomatoes that were slightly seared and stuffed with dried plum. And there would be, like, three on a stick. So you got that very savory, very sweet kind of sour, pungent flavor. Never far away would be the grilled squid, which was always something that I loved as a kid and still love today, and that you could smell from a mile away. And, of course, the stinky tofu in Taiwan that no matter where you go in the night market, you could smell. And I actually like to eat it as well [laughs].
Why do you think Asian street food in particular is so conducive to events like night markets? What makes the cuisine so good “on the go?”
I actually don’t consider them “to go” because, for me, it’s such a communal experience. At the night markets in Taiwan, for example, you can actually sit in front of the stalls and eat. It’s the all-encompassing experience of just hanging out all night and having little bits. What’s great about night market food is its bite size. You don’t get these heaping plates of anything. There are just these small Styrofoam bowls or sticks of things, so you can consume from a plethora of stalls before the evening is over. By night’s end, you could have eaten 12 or 13 little dishes.
And there's no formality involved. I mean, it's just super casual. With these stools you’re literally so close to the ground and it doesn’t matter which side your fork is on. It’s just the essence of communal, casual experiences.
Through your show, have you learned of any other night markets in the states?
I just learned about the Little Saigon one for the first time. But when 626 opened here in Los Angeles, I could not have been more excited.
It’s interesting that we don’t really have a culture of late-night eating in the U.S., besides, maybe, the 24-hour diner. Do you think it’ll make its way over here soon?
I think it's starting to change. There are these pockets, in Las Vegas, San Diego, and much of the San Gabriel valley here in LA, of these little strip mall restaurants that are all Asian. I mean, they don't stay up exceedingly late, but there are definitely places where you could stop in one strip mall and hit up five or so places for different tastes. Wherever there’s an 85°C Bakery [laughs], there’s usually a little community kind of hanging out.
Do you have any tips for navigating night markets?
Don’t eat too much before you go, and don’t eat too much at anyone’s stall. You definitely don’t want to get full on one thing, because there’s just so much to experience. Be prepared for your taste buds to have an orgasmic experience all night long—and a totally varied one at that.