Why Snacks on Sticks Are the Backbone of Asian Night Markets
Chefs pay tribute to yakitori, khao jee, dango, yú wán, and more.
For those who grew up eating their way through the stalls and carts of Asian night markets, internationally or right here in the States, feelings of nostalgia abound while recalling the scents of barbecued meats wafting through the air, or taking that initial bite into a piping hot skewer before quickly going in for a second—ignoring the cries of a hot, burning mouth.
Regardless of what is on the end of those skewers, whether it be crispy bits of octopus, chewy sticky rice, or spicy hunks of lamb, enjoying a meal on the go at a street market is a shared experience among AAPI cultures.
“Beyond the melting pot of smells, sights, and sounds at street markets, there’s a scrappy, hustling energy that pervades these environments that’s incomparable to any restaurant setting.”
Perhaps one of the best parts of these iconic kebabs is that all you need to enjoy them is your bare hands and a hungry stomach. The ease and convenience of the skewer is exactly why it has been used as a tool for consumption for centuries, across Asia and beyond. What’s more, the tactile experience takes eating to a new level of fun—not to mention the fact that it leaves your other hand open for more treats to grab, and what’s better than that?
“Food items served on a stick present an opportunity where you can enjoy them while also continuing to walk through different stalls, whether you're looking for specific items or just searching for your next dish,” says Boby Pradachith, the chef and co-owner of Laotian restaurants Thip Khao and Padaek in Washington DC. “I think there’s something really cool about having your protein in one hand and a bowl of stir-fried noodles in the other.”
So we asked some of our favorite chefs to share about their favorite night market skewer snacks—from the famed yakitori to perhaps underrated treats like yangrou chuan and yú wán. Welcome to your own personal night market.
“My earliest memory of Thailand's street markets were filled with the wafting scents of grilled meats,” says Kevin Chanthasiriphan, a co-founder of IMMI Ramen. “Moo Ping was one of my favorites because the shop owner’s stall sat directly across from my grandmother’s noodle stall. As I sat there, I’d always be given a small styrofoam tray of perfectly charred, fragrant, and savory Moo Ping, with the sharp ends of the bamboo skewers broken off since I was around 6 years old. It was always given to me with sweet chili sauce and some chopped cucumbers.”
Moo ping, or mu ping, is one of the most popular street food dishes in Bangkok. Skewers of pork-filled moo ping are known for their sweet and tangy taste, thanks to a potent marinade that combines cilantro, garlic, pepper, oyster sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar.
The real magic happens when they’re grilled over hot coals, and right before they’re in your hands, brushed with coconut milk as they cook.
“My grandmother sent her six children through school, including sending my dad to college, through hard work at a hawker stall in Thailand,” Chanthasiriphan remembers. “Beyond the melting pot of smells, sights, and sounds at street markets, there’s a scrappy, hustling energy that pervades these environments that’s incomparable to any restaurant setting.”
While many kebab dishes call upon staple proteins such as chicken and pork, one of the most beloved street eats in Beijing is yangrou chuan, made with spicy lamb. Lamb, or mutton, is arguably the most consumed red meat in northern China. It makes sense considering Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim, live in Xianjiang and are experts at cooking the protein.
One might not think often about the origin of their tasty street market skewers, but it’s pretty wild to realize that some of their recipes date back centuries. Yangrou chian is a perfect example, originating in the autonomous region of Xianjiang.
It’s not known exactly when the dish as we know it today was first grilled, but in 1985 archeologists did find a literal stone carving of kebabs in a tomb dating all the way back to the late Eastern Han Dynasty, or 25-220 AD.
The flavor of yangrou chuan is all about the seasoning, and you can really make chuan’r, as it’s also called, using any protein you want. Many who make the dish at home prefer to use the shoulder chop of lamb, cutting it up and making sure to leave the fat for added juiciness.
Next, the protein is doused in a potent spice rub of salt, chile, and cumin—a spice that gives the dish its signature nutty and peppery flavor. Next, the skewers are thrown onto the grill for a few minutes on each side until they begin to get a nice char, and voila. These flavorful kabobs don’t even require a sauce.
One of the most widely popular street food dishes is Japanese yakitori, which literally translates to “grilled chicken,” combining the words yaki, meaning grill, with tori, or chicken. Yakitori is an extremely adaptable dish, served everywhere from specialty restaurants in Japan known as yakitori-ya to night markets and dinner party tables.
Traditionally, yakitori is cooked over the coals of a hot grill, where chefs will cook one or more of the approximately 30 different parts of the chicken that can be used to create the dish. If you’re sinking your teeth into a yakitori skewer at the market, you’ll be able to taste every part of the chicken, from its thigh to its cartilage.
Home chefs need not be discouraged, though, because tons of families prepare yakitori right in their own backyards. Because of its simple requirements, a lightly seasoned skewer of chicken grilled over the fire will suffice, but that also provides opportunity for flavor play.
At many of the yakitori-ya in Japan, you can find dozens of unique varieties of the dish. One of the easiest ways to elevate your at-home yakitori is to prepare tare—a sauce similar to teriyaki made with soy sauce, mirin, sake, scallion, and sugar. Brush the sweet and savory tare onto the hunks of chicken as your yakitori skewers cook over the grill.
“I know there are other Asian cultures that utilize rice in their street food, but I like that with khao jee, you’re just appreciating the rice itself,” Pradachith of Thip Khao says.
A popular snack found throughout the street markets of Laos and Northeastern Thailand, khao jee, or khao jee joom kai, features just two main ingredients: sticky rice and egg. It looks like a rounded paddle (or a McDonald’s hash brown, as described by Pradachith) sitting atop a bamboo skewer, with glutinous rice at its core and a coating of egg. It’s the perfect usage for day-old sticky rice and can be eaten as a quick breakfast.
While khao jee’s main ingredients are simple, Pradachith says the beauty of the street food dish is that it provides a base for unlimited culinary creativity. He describes street market vendors who brush their khao jee with a mixture of fish paste and soy sauce before a final grill, and those who top theirs off with pork floss, or mix in chinese sausage or scallions.
“Khao jee is one of my mom’s favorite things to make for the family at home,” he says. “Growing up, I didn’t even initially really enjoy it, but then as I got older I started to love it and I remember on my last trip to Laos I found the ones I ate at street markets to be really tasty. I haven't seen anyone else doing this, but I like to grab a skewer of grilled chicken from another stall and eat it on top of my khao jee for a more composed dish.”
“My grandparents are produce farmers in a rural part of Ping Tung,” says Kevin Lee, co-founder of IMMI Ramen. “After helping them package rose apples during the day, my older cousin and I would roam the small local night markets to eat all sorts of stall food like yú wán, a chewy glutinous ball made with minced fish and cornstarch. My first memory of eating yú wán was on a stick, where I’d dip each bite of fish ball in white pepper powder as a delicious snack.”
Fish balls are a ubiquitous part of nearly every Asian cuisine, finding their way into soups, on top of noodles, and onto the point end of bamboo skewers. In Hong Kong, you can find fish ball skewers smothered in curry sauce, in the Philippines the skewers are fried and served with a variety of sauces, and in Taiwan they look for their fish balls to reach just the right level of ‘QQ.’
“My first memory of eating yú wán was on a stick, where I’d dip each bite of fish ball in white pepper powder as a delicious snack.”
“One unique quality about Taiwanese street food is an emphasis on a texture that locals will dub as QQ,” Lee says. “QQ means a texture that isn't too hard or soft, but just the right balance of springy and firm. In hot and humid Taiwanese summers, you can try taro balls made with fresh taro and potato starch served over shaved ice with a drizzle of syrup for the perfect QQ bite.
“On colder nights, you can seek a comforting snack in a ba-wan, a translucent glutinous dough that wraps a filling of marinated pork, mushrooms, shallots, and bamboo shoots. This Taiwanese ‘meatball’ is covered in gravy and sweet chili sauce with the perfect QQ dough texture.”
Besides getting your hands on some skewers of yú wán, Lee suggests that travelers to Taiwan night markets seek out Huasheng Bingqilin Juan, or Peanut Ice Cream Wraps.
“I remember going to the festivals at temples and shrines with my parents. Local festivals, the morning glory market, a Chinese lantern plant market,” says Tomoko Yagi, a wagashi expert and founder of Cha-an Teahouse in New York City. “Of course, as a child, the most exciting thing was the night market, getting Yakisoba, cotton candy, Mizuame [starch syrup candy], and carrying the portable shrine with the locals.”
In the area of Kanto, where Yagi grew up, street food markets were typically set up for special occasions. She recalls digging into savory classic snacks like Ikayaki, or grilled squid topped with soy sauce, Takoyaki (octopus ball), and Yakisoba (pan-fried noodles). Walking around carrying her prized culinary possessions, she would play Kingyo Sukui, a typical festival game that involves scooping up live goldfish with a paper scoop.
During Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing parties, Yagi would revel in receiving hanami dango—glutinous rice dumplings shaped into balls and served on skewers. It wasn’t until she moved to New York and began studying the ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony that she learned hanami dango’s colors are meant to represent the order in which cherry blossoms bloom: first green, then white, and finally pink. When she was a kid, all she knew was that she loved eating the pink dango first, despite knowing they all tasted the same.
“[Hanami dango] has a very subtle sweetness. Like other Japanese Wagashi confections, it’s simple, but there’s always a reflection of the season and space for imagination.”
For those who want to make hanami dango at home, Yagi recommends ordering Cha-an’s handy DIY mochi kit. Bamboo sticks can be purchased at your local Asian grocery or at select supermarkets.