July 15, 2019
F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been shocked to see Myo Thway, 48, kneading palata dough on a flat-top stove at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby famously described the park, then a giant trash-burning operation, as a “valley of ashes.” A century later, Thway, fitted with a blue cap with “Burmese Bites” in orange lettering, hands me a steaming kheema palata, minced lamb wrapped in flaky bread. It cost just $6, the highest price allowed for a dish at the Queens International Night Market, where 70+ vendors sell international food and wares on Saturdays between April 20 and August 17 this year. There’s also beer and wine, five hours of musical acts, and dancing — and it’s free to enter.
“Kheema palata is our most popular dish,” Thway told me. His stand is manned by three of his sons and his mother-in-law. In 1886, Burma, now Myanmar, became a part of British India and saw an influx of Indians, who arrived as soldiers and civil servants in the newly annexed colony. Thway acknowledges the region’s history. “This isn’t just Myanmar food,” he smiles at me, still kneading away. “It’s Indian food, Bangladesh food, Malaysian food, Singapore food.”
The founder of the Night Market, John Wang, is a Taiwanese-American from Texas. For him, the purpose of the market isn’t to showcase “fusion” food or be “Instagram-friendly.” Rather, “our mission is to highlight traditional food made by people who grew up eating it,” he told me. “We’re sort of anti-trend. When vendors use the word ‘fusion’ in their applications, we deduct points.”