Hong Kong’s Wet Markets

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As I spend time in Europe this month, I am permanently amazed at the beauty of the fresh produce markets here; each new one surprises me with color and ingredients I can’t find anywhere else. While I enjoy Paris, Josephine shares a short essay on the traditional Wet Markets of Hong Kong (where she lives), a place I now hope to see some day for myself. -Maggie

Bustling with life and color, Hong Kong’s outdoor markets (locally known as “Wet Markets”) remain a part of the everyday life for the Hong Kong local. It’s been a little over four months now and I’ve been to the Wet Markets more times than anywhere else in Hong Kong. They are an extremely damp place, where “fresh” effectively means “alive.” Its not just fruit and vegetables that are distributed along these lively streets; butchers, fishmongers, and growers are all welcome.

My first impression of the wet markets was that of the typical Westerner. I feared them. Frankly, I couldn’t comprehend the combination of fresh produce, heat and Hong Kong streets marrying well. But after exploring the local streets, I realized that this style of selling produce was normal in Hong Kong. The prices are competitively low and the fruit and vegetables expel an addictive aroma that compensates for the stench of the uncooked and preserved meat that can be intolerable to the untrained nostril.

There is an old Cantonese saying: “Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible.”

The stalls are, oddly, both a vegetarian’s dream and nightmare. Even a self-proclaimed carnivore may get chills. Live fish and crabs move around in their shallow enclosures; butchered slabs of pork and glazed duck hang from large hooks; chicken feet sit piled in a box moments from boiling in a broth. Perhaps such a description doesn’t sell the appeal of the markets but the allure of it all is the atmosphere and unique experience.

Traditionally intended for the locals, next to none of the sellers speak English. This proposed a problem since I am pathetic at Cantonese. To break the communication barrier, I had to master my techniques in charades. But the game is worth it, as amongst the market stalls stand tables, chairs and stovetops on wheels. At lunch hour, local laborers and corporate workers gather along the makeshift restaurant to dine on sautéed meats and vegetables cooked in a colorful and delicious array of sauces and styles.

The hustle and bustle of the wet markets is typical of the Hong Kong lifestyle. Like a can of sardines, you have to slither your way through the dense crowds. I dared to take my bulky camera with me into the mass of people, and it was only seconds before I was barged or pushed aside. Despite being so busy, the locals are hardly aggressive but instead are friendly and helpful. At times I have been so fortunate as to have foreign and undiscovered ingredients recommended to me by the sellers, all of which tasted sublime.

For a food enthusiast, the Wet Markers really are the most enjoyable experience. They have become my daily substitution for the monthly farmers markets. With top quality produce imported from local growers and overseas suppliers, the sellers pride themselves on selling produce that is no older than 3 days. My previous fears, provoked by myths and doubts surrounding the cleanliness of Hong Kong fresh produce, have finally been overcome. The vegetables do not need to be deep-fried, boiled or stewed in order to be eaten; once cleaned and chopped, they can be eaten raw in any meal or snack. The quality of meat is astounding; the red meat is so tender it melts in your mouth, the seafood seeps with flavor and the pork… well, that’s next on my agenda.

Hong Kong has taught me that it’s not where produce is sold but the quality of what is being sold that remains the priority. Writing this story has compelled me to become all the more knowledgeable in discerning top quality produce and that’s a story we can all relate to. I hope my photos convey a bit of the experience.

All photos styled and photographed by Josephine Rozman.

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