Quite some time ago I did a post for Project O. In it I described through words my local neighbourhood and in particular my local markets.
While I can’t capture the smells and noise through my blog, I thought it might be nice to share a few photographs of exactly what my local markets look like. A walk through my ‘local’ is not something to be taken lightly, so if you dislike pictures of meat or animals being used for food, then best to skip this post.
My ‘local’ is in a neighbourhood called North Point. This part of the markets even has the Hong Kong trams (din din che) run through it, so you have to watch out lest you be bumped by one. On one side of the markets are the fresh produce and meat (to the left in the above photo). On the other side are stalls selling everything from clothes to jade trinkets to undies, handbags, blankets and all sorts of in between. I’m going to focus on the produce and meat side which in Hong Kong terms is generally referred to as a wet market.
Let’s start with meat. Pig to be exact. Pig is probably the most popular meat in Hong Kong as it is cheap(ish) and functional in a lot of Chinese cuisine. It can be boiled, fried, roasted, grilled, turned into soups … and every part of the pig has a purpose. So, logically, you can buy any part of the pig you want.
They will even slice and dice for you for an extra few HK dollars. Trotters anyone? Meat is normally weighed by the catty (around 605 grams). Depending on how much you buy from a vendor may result in more success with bartering the price down or getting an extra ‘bit’ thrown in for free.
Cow is also readily available in the markets, as is goat. Can you see the beef vendor on the left? He can offer you any part of the cow… tail and all! Beef isn’t as popular purely because it is more expensive. These vendors are ideal for getting brisket as you can choose which part of the cut you want and they will prepare it on the spot.
If you’re wondering about freshness and hygiene, well, yes, these places smell like a butchers shop (and sometimes worse in Summer). They are indeed quite pungent. However most of the stalls are kept exceptionally clean. The reasons behind this are 1) they require permits to operate which are regularly and vigilantly checked by local authorities, 2) Hong Kong people are inherently paranoid thanks to SARS and avian/swin flu scares and thus picky, 3) Bad vendors reputations spread through the local community like wildfire wiping out those who are unable to offer good/safe product. Having said this, when I buy from the vendors I am choosy. I only go first thing in the morning and am selective about the cuts and butchers I choose. My helper has her favourite vendors and I have mine. We’ve never got sick from their meat which I take as a good sign. We also make sure we only buy on the day we are going to use the meat. Fresh is best used while fresh in my book.
Feel like some seafood? No worries.
The markets have that covered too. In fact, I often stand fascinated by the variety of fresh and mostly very alive and flipping seafood on display. Squid, prawns, sardines … even species of small shark (which shake my conscience a little as I don’t know if they are babies or miniature shark species). Again, the fishmonger will kill, gut and slice the fish for you or pull the icky bits out of a squid (my normal request). The seafood here is normally significantly cheaper than in a supermarket (it can be up to 50% cheaper depending on the seafood), but I tend to be even more selective than with my hoofed meats. If I am buying prawns or shellfish I only buy them live. The colour on my fish has to be vibrant, the eyes still glossy and not sunken (unless they are still alive).
I want to see vendors who are doing good turnover in their product. If the locals are crowding around it, then chances are it is a reputable vendor with good quality seafood. And once again, I always, always, always buy in the morning. I can’t imagine how awful and pungent seafood would be in the afternoon so I never risk it.
How about some Chinese sausage? These preserved sausages are akin to salami and, as with many products, used in a wide variety of Chinese dishes from soups to fried rice and steam rice. Their taste is strong and personally I don’t enjoy it on its own. When included in some rice dishes however the flavour seeps into the rice and can be quite enjoyable.
Chicken is a little more difficult. There are but a few vendors on Hong Kong Island now who are able to offer live chickens due to the fears of Avian flu. Most others have moved to frozen or processed dead chickens. At our markets there is one vendor licensed to sell live birds. You choose your chicken, pay and come back in 1/2 an hour to find a dead, plucked and gutted whole bird just like you would get in the supermarket. As odd as this will sound, the meat from these fresh birds is nicer than that of a supermarket brought chicken. My helper’s tip is to feel under the feathers around the breastbone to check how much meat is on the chicken before choosing as feathers can fluff up a chicken to make it look more than it is… The concept of a fresh chicken took me a while to get used to but as long as I don’t see the “processing”, I’ve come to accept it as a part of everyday life.
Tofu is another product we source at the markets. There are a number of different tofus you can use. It is ridiculously cheap. I’ve still to figure out how a tofu vendor even makes enough money to survive on, and yet fresh tofu is delicious. Unfortunately due to my thyroid I’m not allowed to indulge in fresh tofu much these days so it’s a ‘special treat’.
Some stalls also do preserved and pickled vegetables. Chinese have so many different techniques to add flavour, texture and colour to their food. Often this involve some of these interesting ingredients. Don’t turn your nose up. Despite some of the pungent and off-putting smells these little condiments can often turn an ok dish into an amazing dish without you even knowing it.
So I’ve left the biggest group of stalls till last. These are the fruit and vege vendors. They are the dominant vendors in most markets with an abundance of colours and choices. They are fiercely competitive and this is often where the best “deals” are to be had. Ironically, most of their produce is imported, but not from where you are thinking…
Hong Kong people look beyond China when it comes to fruit and veg. Peaches from Japan? Apples from the USA or New Zealand? Carrots from Australia? Yep – you can find all those in the local markets. All you need to do is ask where the product is from. You’ll find Chinese produce as well as local Hong Kong grown products so you can make the choice over what you want and where from. I find the produce in the markets far superior to anything I find in the supermarkets and, of course, the price is almost always significantly cheaper.
Here is where you’ll often see old ladies haggling most loudly with the vegetable vendors as they try to get the best deal for buying a variety of ingredients for their family meal. People will also jostle over vegetables that have come into season as they try to claim the freshest for themselves. It’s amusing to stand back and watch the chaos unfold.
A stroll through our markets is a fabulous experience of colour, smell and sound. It isn’t for the weak of stomach but for those of us brought up in the non-Asian world it really is something worth seeing first-hand. It is a great place to people watch and to think about the hardships it can take to make a living in this fast-paced and crazy city.
This old lady sets up a small stall at the corner of the markets every day. She sells her few boxes of vegetables and when they are all gone, she hobbles down the road, her job done for the day with some money in hand. Can you imagine working like this when you’re her age?