By Kate Krader
RESTAURANTS across the country are starting to reopen, but there’s one popular dining category that remains out of commission: outdoor food markets. Places like Smorgasburg in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood — where crowds line up for pizza cupcakes and ramen burgers — create an environment that’s impossible to manage under COVID-19 restrictions. While Smorgasburg is morphing into Smorg to Go for takeout only, another wildly popular destination in New York, the Queens Night Market, remains closed.
John Wang left his job as a corporate lawyer at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett to open Queens Night Market five years ago, with the mission of re-creating the stalls he remembered fondly from childhood trips to Taiwan. He’s recently been meeting with the Department of Transportation on ways to bring it back, “but it’s hard to see how to do it without eviscerating the experience,” Wang says. “One-way traffic that doesn’t allow for people to hang out doesn’t seem very fun. Plus, the vendors’ business depends on volume.” On the busiest nights, 20,000 people would come to the market, which had about 60 international stands offering food from Argentina to Kosovo to Nigeria to the Philippines.
For fans like me who badly miss the market, the consolation is an energetic new cookbook, The World Eats Here: Amazing Food and the Inspiring People Who Make It at New York’s Queens Night Market, by Wang and Storm Garner. There are profiles and recipes from such vendors as Alberto Richardson of Treat Yourself Jerk Chicken, whose smoker and Jamaican jerk recipe has been a major attraction at the market, and Maeda Qureshi, who runs Pakistand, a pop-up restaurant whose profits support childhood education charities in Pakistan.
Another go-to vendor is Amy Pryke, a Columbia Business School graduate who parlayed a class project into her Native Noodles stand, inspired by hawker stalls from her native Singapore. Pryke specializes in thick laksa noodles in coconut broth, and that recipe is included.
But there’s another selection in the book that she hasn’t yet served at the market: Roti John, a sandwich that personifies Singapore’s melting-pot cuisine.
Ground meat is stir-fried with cumin, onion, and garlic then fried again with chile-spiked eggs and loaded into a baguette. A final flourish of ketchup enhanced with spicy-sweet Sriracha takes it over the top. The omelet sandwich feels both familiar and adventurous, with spices jammed into every corner — a tasty treat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
“I didn’t serve them at Queens Night Market because they’re best made to order,” says Pryke, who’s opening a Native Noodles storefront in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood in the fall. “I have an academic background, so my focus was how do I bang out as many bowls as possible. But I saw that lines bring in more people, and people wait for something that’s worth waiting for.” She’ll serve Roti John on the lunch menu at her new spot.
For home cooks, Pryke notes that the recipe is very customizable: You can add cheese or spicy mayonnaise, or substitute sardines for meat.
Expert Roti John makers will spread the baguette halves on top of the eggs as they’re cooking and flip the whole thing over in the pan. It takes some practice; I didn’t get it exactly right my first try.
The following recipe is adapted from Pryke and reprinted from The World Eats Here.
ROTI JOHN (OMELET AND MEAT SANDWICH)
3 tbsp. ketchup
3 tbsp. Sriracha
1 tbsp. sugar
⅔ baguette or 2 hero rolls, about 8 inches long
2½ tbsp. canola oil
½ lb. ground beef or lamb, or beef/lamb mix
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. salt, plus more for seasoning
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 small white or yellow onion, sliced
6 large eggs
2 tbsp. sambal oelek (Southeast Asian chile paste, available at most supermarkets) or chopped seeded chiles
Large pinch of ground black pepper
In a small bowl, combine the ketchup, Sriracha, and sugar with 1 tablespoon of water; set aside.
Split the baguette or rolls lengthwise but do not cut all the way through, leaving a small hinge like a hot-dog bun. If using a baguette, cut in half crosswise for two sandwich buns. Lightly oil a nonstick skillet with ½ tbsp. of the oil and toast the inside of the bread halves, pressing down with a spatula until lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
In a bowl, combine the ground meat and cumin. Heat the remaining 2 tbsp. oil in the skillet. Add the garlic and fry over medium heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the onion and cook over low heat until translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the meat, raise the heat to medium, and stir-fry until cooked through, about 6 minutes. Season with salt.
In another bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Beat in the sambal oelek (of chilis), salt, and pepper. Pour the eggs into the skillet, covering the meat. When the eggs just start to firm up on the bottom and sides, turn the mixture over with a metal spatula and continue cooking to desired level of done. Transfer to a plate and keep warm. Press the inside of each bread half into the pan to pick up leftover scraps.
Pile the eggs and meat on the buns and spread the ketchup in the center. Close the sandwiches, cut into 4 pieces each, and serve. — Bloomberg