The following article was written after a visit to Warsaw’s night market in the summer of 2016. I’d made contact with a local foodie who promised to take us to some of Warsaw’s most interesting food stops. He didn’t disappoint…
I give the taxi-driver the address; he is perplexed. “Do you know the Night Market?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders. It is clearly not on the tourist map. En route he points out Stalin’s baroque Palace of Culture and Science, glowing indigo. The 3300-room high-rise looms over us, and I begin to fret as the elegant buildings thin out, and I enter unfamiliar territory. I am dropped off in Wola (pronounced “Vola”), once the industrial heart of Communist Warsaw. Next to me is the husk of the old central station. From 1945 until the regime fell, it was the hub for trains to Moscow and Eastern Europe. Now, all is quiet and still. There is a disused goods yard behind me. The streets are wide and empty, lined with construction sites, and very poorly lit.
Thankfully, my guide, Marcin appears out of the gloom. He’s tall, stocky, and somewhat resembles a lumberjack. With his shaven head he’s quite intimidating, but he is grinning behind his full Slavic beard. A lecturer in food studies at Warsaw University, he also describes himself as a guerrilla street-food vendor. I walk with Marcin towards the end of the goods yard, past high, graffiti-covered walls. I spy a gap in the fence, and through it, crowds of people who are illuminated by flashes of pink and green light. I find myself immediately on a sunken platform. Hanging from a corrugated metal roof is a neon sign announcing Nodzne (night) Market, a pop-up market that will last as long as the warmer evenings allow.
As proprietor of the underground Asian Food Foundation, Marcin regularly swaps his double denim, not for a chef’s overalls, but for a chemist’s lab goggles. “They protect my eyes,” he explains. He shows me a picture of himself behind a wok sizzling with lemongrass and coconut. His latest dish is a slow-cooked beef heart rendang, derived from travels in Malaysia. His cooking often brings him more money over a single weekend than the average teacher’s monthly salary. Many of the stalls here are also Asian-inspired, but tonight Marcin’s usual spot has been replaced by a tapas stand. There are pickled herrings on toast alongside the patatas bravas: a strong, acetous scent lingers in the nostrils.
“It’s not just about food,” says Marcin, as he buys a single oyster. He sups raspberry vinegar and shallots from the shell. “This is a place for people to hang out, to be seen. It’s a lifestyle market.” He nods towards the tattoo parlour and the barber shop. The stalls have names like Oyster Hooligans, Viper Sniper and Cool Cat. They share a minimalist, design-conscious style, most with logos in black and white. A DJ wearing a vintage 80s jacket and silver headphones dances behind rainbow-lit decks. Giant speakers vibrate next to people lounging in pink deckchairs set alongside electric cable-reel tables. There are long queues at the vodka bar and the wine bar. Beyond, the ghost of the railway station stretches into the night; lush undergrowth has crept all the way up to the tracks.
Marcin swallows the oyster and takes me to meet his friend Bitos, who co-owns the Viet Street Food van. Bitos has been living in Poland since 1990 when his parents left North Vietnam, along with thousands of others, in a second wave of immigration. They were attracted by Poland’s emerging capitalist society. “There’s a range of Vietnamese food in Warsaw,” Bitos says, “But it’s PoleViet, not true Vietnamese.” He makes me a Banh Mi, which he offers as an example of authenticity. It’s a baguette; a reminder of Vietnam’s French colonial past. It’s crammed full of Vietnamese ham, coriander, hot sauce, pickled carrot and kohlrabi. It’s zingy and exciting, although I’m rather full and regretting the gnocchi I had before coming to the market. Marcin is watching my reaction. I have to eat it all.
He selects a bottle of Primitivo, and we sit down at a makeshift table. Eyeing the cement pillars and corrugated iron, I wonder aloud: What was it like to live under martial law? As a child of ten, Marcin says he experienced the world through a diet of Communist-approved TV programmes. His favourite, Life on Earth, showed him what lay beyond the soldiers and the economic hardship on the streets. “Warsaw couldn’t be more different now,” he laughs, and pours the last drop of wine into my glass. As the evening ends, I walk past Oyster Hooligans, Cool Cat, and the Viet Food van. I go back through the gap in the fence. The lights, the music and the voices from the old platform fade into the night.