With more than 100 food stalls serving about 500 authentic, made-to-order international dishes, the Richmond Night Market is one of the largest and busiest outdoor markets in North America. Open on weekends from May to October, it gets an average of one million visitors annually. For Richmond, B.C.’s majority Asian population, it creates a sense of place and is a warm reminder of the lively night markets of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. For out-of-towners, it’s an eye-opening culinary experience and an introduction to Asian street food the way it’s meant to be experienced—casual, entertaining and wonderfully messy.
The night market opens at 7 p.m., but at 6:45 p.m., there are already close to 500 people lined up outside the gates in the parking lot across from the River Rock Casino Resort in Richmond’s Duck Island, just a 20-minute ride on the SkyTrain from downtown Vancouver. Like me, many of them have come from dinner to walk around, take in the sights and, yes, to eat again. As I make my way to the end of the line, I notice a group of well-prepared seniors near the front, sitting in fold-up chairs as they wait. Kids are getting antsy, chasing each other on the concrete, and teens pass the time by checking their cellphones.
When the gates open, the crowd moves en masse and, very soon, the pavement between the rowed, red-tented stalls is swarming with people. While the main attraction is definitely the Asian cuisine (from a long list of countries that include Japan, Taiwan, China, Malaysia and South Korea), I notice a variety of other international dishes on offer, like German pork hock and Hawaiian poke, as well as classic midway treats such as mini doughnuts and deep-fried cheesecake. Next to the food area, 200 rowed retail stalls sell everything from socks and cellphone cases to rugs and cat-eared headbands. A kids’ zone keeps the whole family busy with midway games and rides.
But, even with all the distractions, it’s clear that nearly everyone here has the same strategy—head to the food first. When it comes to navigating the food stalls, I’m told there are a few rules: bring cash, wear comfortable shoes, practice patience and be adventurous.
The lineups at almost every stall are at least 10 deep, and the ATM lines are even longer. People stand on cement blocks and at the bases of light posts, shovelling long, Cantonese chow mein noodles into their mouths with chopsticks, savouring every bite. Tall garbage cans nearly overflow with sticky bubble-tea cups and sauce-lined bowls that moments earlier held Japanese takoyaki (fried dough balls filled with octopus and topped with a tangy takoyaki sauce).
The aroma in the air changes from corner to corner. The smells are sweet and savoury near Egglet Parfait, which serves cone-shaped bubble waffles topped with chocolate and ice cream. Near Xin Jiang Man BBQ, it’s smoky and spicy with the scent of eye-watering cumin coming from the fiery, front-facing grill, which is filled with charred lamb skewers and roasted corn. Chef and owner James Chen has been running this stand for 10 years, and he draws quite a crowd with his showy demeanour, flipping meat into the fire and calling out into his headset microphone, “Happy Saturday! Welcome to the Richmond Night Market!” The cashier next to him calls out orders, “Number 65!”
The Richmond Night Market’s vibrancy is undeniable, especially after dark. The interiors of its kiosks light up beneath strings of decorative bunting, and a seating area near the kids’ zone takes on a rosy glow from faux cherry blossom trees adorned in pink lights. A-Pop music (Asian pop), Top 40 hits and hollers from an upside-down mechanical octopus ride keep the energy on high.
“You don’t get this type of vibrancy anywhere else on the continent outside of Toronto or the Calgary Stampede,” says John Yee, owner of Po Wah Dim Sum, a family-run stall that’s been part of the Richmond Night Market since the beginning.
Yee also points out that the variety in Asian cuisine is not unique to the market. Once a sleepy fishing village across the North Arm of the Fraser River from Vancouver, Richmond now has the largest immigrant population in Canada (65 per cent), and about half of its entire population is Chinese. Richmond’s “Food Street” consists of more than 200 authentic hole-in-the-wall Asian eateries—from teahouses to ramen joints—packed into just three city blocks.
“Most local Asians have maintained their heritage and lots of Vancouverites are influenced by Asian culture in one way or another,” says Yee. “You don’t have to show them chicken feet because they know what this is. You can give them raw fish. They eat all of that stuff.”
This spirit of culinary indulgence is contagious. My favourite travel experiences are almost always fuelled by food, and I consider myself a fearless eater, so the Richmond Night Market presents one taste adventure after another. For instance, I don’t say no to stinky tofu, a popular snack that’s fermented and deep-fried; it’s like the blue cheese of Asia, and its surprisingly mild taste is worth the eye-watering pungency. The fish balls—deep-fried mackerel spheres boiled in a spicy red sauce—are just as tear-worthy. I’m also mesmerized by the angelic dragon’s beard candy made of hair-thin, pulled-sugar wrapped around helpings of crunchy peanuts. It’s edible art.
After five hours of sampling such snacks, I’m ready to settle into a food-induced slumber, but the sights, smells and tastes of the market have made an impression. There’s no doubt I’ll be back.
Richmond’s other night market
Richmond has two night markets—Richmond Night Market and Illumination Summer Night Market—but they share the same origin. The Richmond Night Market opened in 1999 with 13 stalls in the parking lot at Continental Centre mall before moving to Landsdowne Centre to accommodate growth. The co-owners’ partnership dissolved and one partner left, taking the name with him to the Night Market’s current location, where it’s been since 2010. The other stayed at Landsdowne and rebranded.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Vancouver 77 times a day from 18 Canadian, eight U.S. and three international cities.