Wet Markets: Where no one cares what you wear...

Friday, September 01, 2017

Who cares what you wear? 
I find wet markets fascinating. Don't you?

I used to follow my Mother regularly as a young boy. There I learn that a good cook needs to know how to market his or her produce. That was of course before the advent of convenient supermarkets. Even with the likes of NTUC and Cold Storage today, our wet markets are irreplaceable for the variety, freshness and competitive price of the produce.

And there is also the wisdom of the sellers to tap on. The experienced ones can tell you which farm or area in Australia the produce comes from.  Often all I need to ask is, "Mr Tan, what is good today?"

I was surprised  - and perhaps I shouldn't be - when a friend in his late thirties told me that people his generation hardly visits the wet markets here. I suppose most avoid them because it is assumed that wet markets are crowded, smelly and dirty. And... "no air con lah."

I find that strange as the wet markets here are mostly very clean.

Those we have here are a far cry from the ones I went to, while accompanying my Mum as a young boy. Her favourite market was at Sungei Way in Petaling Jaya (Malaysia), which used to be a village area on the outskirts of the city. However, the dirtier the market was, the cheaper the produce would be. As my Mum was marketing for her food business, this was important.

I can recall the potholes of smelly fishy water which everyone had to navigate around. And when there was a mis-step, my slippered feet could feel the slimy cold water oozing in.

Squid, ikan kurau and kembong flavoured feet. Squishing as I walked. Boleh pengsan.

Now, that is history. It really is. Faint not. The wet markets today in Singapore are hardly wet or smelly.

I find it a very pleasant experience walking the market aisles early in the morning.

The birds are chirping away merrily. The air is fresh and crisped. The butcher is chopping the meat in rhythmic fashion. The fish monger sharpening his knives in swishing motion along with the sound of rustling newspapers being crumpled for wrapping services. And there is the constant chatter and laughter all around, in all kinds of dialects and languages. Nice and very local.

You can almost sense that everyone is about to break into a song, like the way they did in the opening scene of The Beauty and the Beast: Bonjour! Bonjour!

And you wonder why they are trying to Sheng Shiong away all our local wet markets.

Ok, I am getting carried away. If they do sing, they are more likely to break out in a Hokkien song or Cantonese opera. And oh well, a few do look unfriendly and depressed, like Liverpool or Arsenal fans in recent times. Don't you cross them. Don't show off your Man U shirt. The sharp looking meat cleavers are in their hands, not yours.

Wet markets today: Clean and smoking not allowed
Fresh and cheap
The fact is, most of the time, the produce here is cheaper and fresher than those found in the supermarts. And more importantly, knowledgeable and experienced veg sellers or butchers can tell you what is good for the day, deal with your questions and share all kinds of helpful tips for cooking. I have learned a lot from them. And if you are a regular customer, they will throw in some bunches of spring onions and coriander leaves for free.

When I was learning to cook Nasi Ulam, the makciks at Geylang Serai Market were very friendly and helpful. The many stalls also sell herbs that I am not acquainted with. Just ask. "Makcik, ini masak apa?" (Translation: How do you cook this?) You will never get this kind of service in supermarkets.

So which are my favourite markets? Tekka top the list due to the variety of produce (Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indian) and the reasonable prices. Likewise Geylang Serai. Lots of unusual Malay produce there and all types of palm sugar from Indonesia.

Heartland markets are generally a lot cheaper. Kid you not, you can buy a huge bunch of spring onions for just a dollar. You may think that the few stalks of the same at NTUC, nicely packed and going for $1.20 is cheap. Visit the wet markets and you will know the difference. Chinatown Market is good for some items that is not sold elsewhere, such as parang fish paste and yes, lots of frogs and toman fish. The prawns there are generally cheaper. Good range of crabs too. Markets near suburbs are generally more expensive i.e. Ghim Moh and Bukit Timah. It is okay to spend a bit more for the convenience if you live near them. And these days, in most wet markets, you can get fresh salads and meats for Western style of cooking.

When two professors visited me recently from Canada, one of their top priorities is to visit our wet markets. I would have done the same if I am abroad. There is nothing like observing new produce which represents the land and cuisine culture of the people. Wet markets can be touristy spots.

And did I say that the wet markets are some of the few places left where you can dress like you are at home? Shorts, singlets, stained shirts, rolled up trousers and slippers are all welcome.

So, don't give the wet markets a miss. Let yourself and your family experience this important bit of our local culture. Visit them yourself occasionally and don't send your domestic helpers to do the marketing all the time. You will find it enjoyable, educational and inspiring.

And if you do bump into me, excuse my attire.


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  1. Wet markets are the best... you exchange recipes from fellow shoppers and traders alike, and best of all, buy only what you need even instead of the whole bunches in the supermarket which can sometimes be more than what you need for a recipe. The wet markets in Singapore is a far cry from what we have in Malaysia, very hygenic and shielded from the hot sun. Best of all, you get good and cheap food from just short walk away.