The Queen Victoria Night Market is a boon for parents of fussy eaters. Though I am a qualified chef and theoretically know a thing or two about cooking I have found there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time and effort I put into making something and my children's likelihood of eating it.
Enter the Queen Victoria Market, which on a Wednesday evening* transforms into a Night Market featuring food from across the globe. If T-Bone or Sea Bass dislike food from one stall, no matter, just move onto the next, and daddy gets the leftovers. Eating pre-masticated food is a badge of honour for me, and I'm almost certain it'll be the next big food trend.
Sure there's the paleo diet, dude food, and smashed avocado, but in our increasingly time-poor society, who wouldn't want to eat a dish that has already been chewed and spat out by a cranky toddler? Half the work's already done for you so you can eat twice as quick, and surely a toddler's saliva contains vital anti-oxidant/ anti-bacterial/ anti-badstuff properties that will boost not only your immunity but also your will to live. In fact, nine out of 10 people named Pete Evans swear by just such a diet.
The Night Market is loosely designed to mimic those in south-east Asia, though the fare is far more eclectic. Go early to avoid the queues and the oppressive heat and smoke that builds up during the evening, a combination of the many flame grills firing under the sheds. By 7pm you'll be packed in like a sardine and feel as though you're a side of salmon being gently hot smoked. By 7:30 you'll have sweated so much you'll be as dried out as a piece of Norwegian bacalao, and by 8 you'll surely be sick of all the fish references.
Arriving early also ensures you will find yourself a table to eat at. On this particular evening the boys and I score ourselves a dish of hanged cacciocavallo by 5:30 and are hunting for a spot to chow down. We arrive at a long trestle with a dozen cheap, grotty plastic seats and attempt to sit down when a woman with two teenage daughters sat at the far end jumps up and exclaims, "IT'S ALL TAKEN", with a wild gesture of her arms, all the while carrying on a conversation on her mobile. I think the forlorn look on my face will lead her to take pity on us but no such luck. There's an empty table only a few metres away but I sit the boys on the bitumen right next to them, amidst the rotting capsicum and rat faeces, to prove some sort of a point.
I am just in the process of hoping against hope that her two daughters don't turn out just like her, when one of them asks me if we want to sit down after all, as the rest of their group is some time away. I politely reject her offer, however, to further highlight that they should probably try and find themselves a new mother.
I come to realise, however, that in many ways this woman is a lot like my own mum: fiercely protective of her own clan, but generally indifferent to others and a greater sense of decency. No outsider was ever going to get a seat at that table – I see her resist countless others – fighting for that turf like she's fighting for God and Country, and immediately think that I've stumbled upon the winning argument in favour of letting women serve in the military frontline: yes, so long as they have children and have been embittered by years of a loveless marriage. ISIS wouldn't stand a chance against such a force.
Second course is Southern fried chicken from Mjr Tom which the kids greatly enjoy. Rumour has it that sales at Mjr Tom went up 3% following David Bowie's death, but then fell a further 12% after Lady Gaga's tribute at the Grammys. Whatever the case may be, the wings are a delicious oily, salty mess and have us all reaching for the baby wipes, which surely meet a better end than their maker had in mind.
Despite T-Bone' s protestations we skip the Jamaican jerk chicken as I tell him, "you are what you eat, and I am most certainly not Jamaican, or a chicken," and we hit up a few wonderbao instead. They are true to their name and come in the form of tasty little steamed bun envelopes encasing sticky pork belly and crispy fried chicken respectively. Good stuff.
All this fat and salt combined with the stifling heat and smoke starts taking its toll so we each get a cold drink. The kids opt for "traditional" lemonade and I cannot resist freshly pressed sugar cane juice, the nectar of the Gods. Four year old T-Bone is transfixed by the juice extractor, being enamoured by all things machine, and it isn't long before his mind wanders to other uses for it.
"What would happen if I put a lemon in there? ...
What would happen if I put a TV in there? ...
What would happen if I put my doongie in there?"
For the record a doongie is our family's name for a penis, derived from the Cantonese word for mushroom, dung gu, and the Ikea plush toy snake Djungelorm. And also for the record, a doongie does not belong in a machine designed to crush sugar cane.
The sugar cane juice is expensive compared to the ones I sucked down at the Ipoh hawker markets as an eight year old. Most things seem expensive compared to the Malaysian ringgit, I guess, but this juice is most certainly just as delicious, with the added spice of nostalgia. The guy who works there will likely offer to bastardise it with the likes of a coconut, lemon or passionfruit syrup but do not fall for this, and thank me for it later.
The Night Market is smashing fun, but admittedly reek of being slightly inauthentic. Perhaps it's the garish Thai tuk-tuk staffed by a team sporting faux Asian conical hats, or the giant paellas being cooked without the requisite socarrat (crust). But really, it's probably just the fact that these markets, at least in my mind, pale in comparison to the "real thing" I experienced in Malaysia as a wide-eyed young boy.
In my mum's little town in the city of Ipoh, the patch of land where the locals would play soccer of a daytime suddenly transformed into a whirl of flame and ember come darkness. A squinting man fanning his trusty grill fueled by coconut charcoal and shear human toil; a wiry cook flicking char kuey teow high up in the air then letting it descend into his wok like Torvill falling gracefully back into Dean's arms; a Malaysian-Indian smacking roti onto a hot plate as though it had wronged him and his brethren in a past life.
These are the sights and sounds, flavours and tastes, to which I pit all other so-called "night markets" against.
I came back to Australia from that summer holiday in Malaysia some 10 kilograms heavier, a fair amount considering I was just about to enter grade three. Early in first term, during a maths lesson, we were being taught about bar charts using each student's weight as the variable. Turns out I was the second fattest kid in the class. The ultimate lesson, of course, not being in mathematics, but rather, who should be picked on for the rest of the year. For when later that term we were asked to put up our hands and say something nice about each of our classmates, Nicola O'D couldn't resist opining, "he's fat", when the spotlight hit me.
Back at the Vic Markets we decide to end our feast with Estelle's brioche bun stuffed with crispy pork jowl and coleslaw. T-Bone and Sea Bass extract the pork with a dexterity belying their tender ages, leaving me with effectively a salad sandwich. Though part of me is disappointed with such a paltry end to proceedings, a larger part of me, the part haunted by childhood bullies, is probably grateful for the break.
* There is a summer night market and a winter night market. Check the QVM website for exact dates and details.