Blood, Guts and Frogs - Food Shopping in Shanghai

Wet markets are visceral, bloody places. 

Small deaths happen every minute as live fish, ducks, chickens, frogs meet their end, necks neatly snipped with a strong pair of scissors, blood dripping on to the floor. I can't recall that ever happening in Woolworths. As I walked the brightly-lit neon aisles of my local supermarkets in Australia last week, marvelling at the clearly displayed prices and the general orderliness and lack of shoving amongst my fellow customers, I couldn't help feeling a pang of nostalgia for my local wet market here in Shanghai.

Let me introduce you to the way I shop for food every day. There's no barcode-scanner, no chocolates and lollies aisle, and no set prices. Everything - from the tiniest mushroom to a hindquarter of sheep - is up for negotiation on price, which can be exhausting or exhilarating, depending on your mindset and level of energy that day. When I walk through the doors of the market into the huge, dimly lit space, full of noise, movement, energy and interesting smells, I feel excited about food, and excited about cooking. Supermarkets don't give me the same level of buzz, and never have - you're never as close to your food as you are in the wet market, whether you like that feeling or not.

So what can you buy in a wet market? Wet markets are where you go for the best, freshest food, delivered in the dark before the day has even started from smaller farms, wholesalers, and guys on motorbikes with sacks of vegetables stacked to handlebar level. Mushrooms, bamboo shoots, meats, live ducks, chickens, pigeons and geese, frogs and eels, seafood, river fish, snails, cockles, and a hundred varieties of tofu and home-made pickles, duck eggs, quail eggs, free-range eggs - they're all here, fresh today.

Meet the bamboo shoot and mushroom lady - her hands are covered with nicks and cuts covered with small bandages - the result of day after day of peeling the tough outer layers of the winter bamboo shoots off with a huge sharp cleaver. It's not that she's especially careless, it's just a really difficult job and she's always doing it in a hurry, with a big smile. 

She sells an incredible array of mushrooms too - cloud ear, oyster, enoki, shitake - in little red plastic baskets neatly lined up on her stall.

I have a soft spot for the eel lady, even though I don't really love cooking eels - she's shy and had to be coaxed to have her photo taken. Her hands move fast and skilfully, killing, gutting and splitting the eels. Friends at nearby stalls tease her remorselessly - "She's so fat! Look at her face! Why do you want to take her photo?" but she ignores them and smiles a quiet smile.

Banter, kind or otherwise, is an integral part of going to the wet market. Vendors banter with one another, customers banter with vendors, and with each other. There is a constant back-and-forth discussion on prices and freshness and quality, interspersed with jokes, and teasing, and people develop close relationships with their favourite vendors, greeting them like old friends. Ot at least, old friends who might be known to cheat you from time to time.

Vegetable sellers are the market's mainstay - selling only produce that has been picked that day. For freshness, wet markets beat supermarkets hands down, and the very fussy Chinese customers will quickly boycott any stall that tries to sell less than premium fresh produce - I've witnessed many stand-up arguments over the age of freshly-picked beans.

I found the meat sections of the wet market quite confronting at first, all those slabs of glistening fatty pork and pieces of beef tendon hanging on hooks, Sweeney Todd style. But now I like walking the rows, looking at the interesting cuts of meat and asking for something particular. 

The chicken/duck/pigeon coops are a different matter. The birds are chosen by the buyer, weighed first and paid for, then taken to a glass-fronted room where the buyer can watch as their chosen bird is killed, dipped in a vat of boiling water to loosen the feathers, plucked, gutted and cleaned before being passed through the window, limp and pink, into a plastic bag. I'm working my way up to buying chicken this way.

There are bullfrogs too, also sold alive and killed, skinned and trimmed to order.

And every wet market has a dry goods stall, filled to bursting with dried beans, rice, dried mushrooms, dried berries, cooking oil, spices, sauces and condiments.

It's a totally involving way to shop. No two days are ever the same in the market, as foods come in to season and go out of season.What will I find today? To walk in and find the first spring bamboo shoots, the autumn hairy crabs, to enjoy the brief, sweet, week-long season of yang mei in mid-summer, or the last of the winter bamboo shoots, the wet market marks the passing of the seasons, and the bounty of nature.

If you have a favourite market where you live, I want to hear about it!

Jiashan Wet Market

Corner Taiyuan Lu and Jianguo Lu
Open 7 days from 5am til dark


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