Saturday, June 17, 2017

To market, to market …

Every time I visit a new city, one of the first places I want to scope out is the neighborhood market. Nothing helps me to get to know a place as quickly as checking out where the locals shop for their meat, vegetables and provisions. I learn what they like to eat, shop for and cook. And because it’s a local market, frequented by fussy housewives, it has the best produce. When I’m at home, it’s the  same. Sure, I’ll pop by the nearest supermarket, because I can swing by and pick most things in a jiffy, but when it comes to shopping for fresh fruit or vegetables, or even freshly ground curry paste or deboned chicken thighs, I have to go to what the locals in my hometown call a “wet” market.

I remember trailing after my mother to the wet market when I was little. It was, literally, quite wet. And gunky and foul-smelling because the poultry vendors would be slaughtering chickens and ducks on the premises. I’m not sure why I didn’t just say no, I don’t want to go to the market with you, Mum. I was the youngest in the family, ten years younger than my brother, the next sibling. My mother didn’t bring any of the others with her, although they would have been far more useful in carrying her marketing bag and other groceries.

At age seven or eight, I would happily trot after my mother to the market, sloshing up and down the aisles with her as she picked up fish and meat and vegetables, getting splashed by smelly water as the vendors scaled their fish or sprayed their vegetables. I guess that even at that young age, food fascinated me. At the pork stall, the owner, “Fat Man” would hail my mum as she placed her huge order. He would slice off the tail end of a piece of luscious barbecued pork or “char siew” and hand it to me. It was a juicy snack I chomped on as I took in the sight of slabs of meat.

At the dry goods provision store, my mother would hand pick cloves of garlic and tiny shallots, making sure that each one was perfect. Nowadays, where everything is pre-packed in pristine plastic bags, you can't rummage through the dried goods anymore and the experience is sanitized in the name of hygiene. While mum was selecting this and that, I would surreptitiously sneak a tiny dried anchovy from the huge pile and palm it into my mouth. It was probably none too clean, and uncooked, but to my unformed taste buds, nothing tasted better than that stolen sliver of dried fish.

At the fishmonger’s, if they passed her freshness inspection test, mum would buy a whole bushel of mud crabs. To my delight, later at home, I would take one of them for a “walk”, with a string attached to it, God know how. The fun of walking one of them was matched only by the tangy sweet and sour sauce my mother fried them up in.

Capping off a visit to the market was a stop at a pastry stall specializing in a thick pancake smothered with margarine, crushed peanuts and sugar. The vendor would fold the giant pancake in half and slice it up for customers. My mother would order the entire pancake and have it customised with extra margarine and crushed peanuts. Even today, when I bite into one, washed down with a steaming cup of coffee, I am instantly transported back to that stall, waiting beside my mother and breathing in that sweet, caramelly smell.

My love affair with local markets hasn’t abated. Whenever I’m about to visit a city, I do my research on where the markets are, what days and times they’re open and what they’re well known for. In Hongkong, I trawl up and down the steep alleys, marveling at how green the vegetables are, and how many kinds of tofu can actually be made from the humble soybean. Best of all, there are eating stalls selling the best wonton noodles or roast pork rice nearby.

In Spain, my favourite places are the indoor markets with their displays of fresh olives, umpteen varieties of mushrooms, the cheeses, sausages and jamon. Oh, those giant hams giving out their earthy, umami smell! I stand along with the locals at the coffee stand, and chomp down a fresh pastry. Better yet, at lunchtime, I see what’s fresh on the grill and tuck into succulent asparagus in season, or octopus that’s firm yet melt-in-the-mouth.

It’s the same  whether in Australia, England, the Netherlands, Japan or China. The freshest and best quality produce is to be found in the neighborhood markets, not the supermarkets. Luscious fruit in season. Intriguing vegetables I’ve never seen before. Unidentifiable meat sometimes. Grains and spices that look and smell foreign to me, but which are so essential to local cooking.

I thought I could cover markets in just a few paragraphs, but realize that I have so much more to share that I’ll have to tackle each country separately. But suffice to say that I think the best way to get to know a country is through its cuisine. And what better way to find out how the locals buy, cook and eat their food than at their markets?

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