Southeast Asia is famous for its night markets. In just about every town across the region as the sun dips the stalls start setting up and by the time night has fallen a bevy of food vendors are busy over hot woks and steaming tureens, cooking up spicy delicacies native to the district and country. For the novice, night markets can be a fun and friendly way to start trying to get your head around a new cuisine. They come in all shapes and sizes: some are in the parking lots of malls or daytime shopping strips, others are by the beach or side of the road. And every now and then you meet a night market that lifts the bar for all the rest: Meet Kota Kinabalu night market.
Also known as the Filipino Market, it backs onto the South China Sea, just to the south of Kota Kinabalu’s central wholesale and fresh market and it doesn’t reach its full momentum until the sun has long dipped below the horizon.
The tarpaulined affair has dozens upon dozens of merchants preparing everything from satay and chicken wings to just about every variety of seafood that springs to mind. While the chicken wings are as catastrophically fattening as they are delicious, the real deal here is the seafood.
Kota Kinabalu sits just outside the western extremity of the “Coral Triangle”, a region recognised as a global centre of marine biodiversity that covers almost six million kilometres and is sometimes known as the Amazon of the seas. As rich as it is fragile, the region has a wealth of sealife unlike anywhere else in Southeast Asia and those new to the market will be taken aback by the size of the fish you see here. As we walked between the stalls we can’t say we didn’t feel the catch on display was rapacious, but that didn’t stop us from sampling a meal. If you’ve better moral fibre than us, stick to the chicken wings — they’re great.
As with any night market, wander till you see what you like and start pointing and picking. Most vendors will have someone around with enough English to take an order, and they’ll generally be able to suggest the best way to prepare different seafood.
The meal will be prepared right in front of you. While taking photos is generally no problem, always ask beforehand. There is table seating, sometimes communal behind most of the kitchens. Drinks, mostly non-alcoholic, are available at each stall.
While we found little price variation from stall to stall, be sure to be clear on exactly what everything will cost before you order it — just to avoid any misunderstandings at the end of the meal. This applies to vegetables and rice as well.
And don’t forget to grab some chicken wings on the way out.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 31st August, 2014.