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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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Grocer and Ham Expert, Shao Xing

This kindly camo-wearing grocer operates a stall in the big wet-market in Shao Xing. While stumbling around in the rain yesterday we practically fell into the wet-market entrance, and the first stall we came across was his. A neater, tidier little shop I have never seen (one of these days I’ll post some behind-the-scenes photos of the barely managed chaos that is my local grocery store in Shanghai).
These grocery shops can be found in the corner position of every wet market, and they sell dry goods of all kinds, from bottled sauces (soy, oyster, chili) to dried pulses (millet, soybeans, mungbeans), dried fruits (red dates, Xinjiang sultanas) and lastly dried meats, jellyfish, shrimp and fish. 
This fellow’s specialty was clearly ham, and I have never seen so many good looking pig’s legs in one place. Jinghua ham, Yunnan ham, cured pork belly, it was all here. He passed me various cuts to smell – all the different hams have different curing processes, so the aroma of each is quite different. An entire leg of cured Jinghua ham cost 150 yuan ($25) and came in its own tennis-racquet shaped plastic holder with a handle. If I hadn’t already bought two heavy porcelain bottles of Shao Xing wine I would have been sorely tempted to take one back to Shangai to hang in the kitchen for the winter.  I could take it down and saw bits off as needed, all medieval-like. 
I think you can tell a lot about a town by the state of its wet markets and grocers. Shao Xing looks to be in pretty good shape – a vibrant food and wine culture, a well-maintained and very clean wet market, and little gems like this shop here there and everywhere. Just planning my next trip there now…..

The Wet Market, Julu Lu

I love wet markets. Wet markets are the opposite of supermarkets. They’re called ‘wet’ because most of the produce is wet, and they get hosed out at the end of each day. Come here to buy the freshest fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, fresh noodles, tea and 58 kinds of tofu. I am tired of things bought in plastic wrappings, totally devoid of their origins and already a week old when you buy them. Enter the aisles of my supermarket and view the produce on offer…………

The mushroom sellers – fresh shitake, enoki, oyster, straw and button mushrooms.

Fresh winter bamboo shoots. Larger and a little tougher than the autumn shoots. Delicious stir-fried with pork and ginger!

Bok choy. Beautifully arranged. About 5c each.

And now on to the meat aisle. Viewing on an empty stomach not recommended.

The chickens are attractively displayed feet first. The feet are, after all, the best bits. The black skinned chickens are commonly used in soups.

And the site of the Great Julu Lu Fish Massacre……….you should have seen the fishmonger.

Please refrain from lighting your cigarette until you move away from the piglets.

After all that excitement you may need some calming tea…….pick up 100g of oolong and struggle home with your various bundles. Try to ignore the twitching coming from the fish bag……..