X-Pro1 Diaries: What 30 Minutes in a Wet Market Will Teach You About Food
Firstly, for all readers unfamiliar with the concept of a wet market, a brief introduction is in order. A wet market is predominantly a fresh food (meat and vegetable) market commonly found in Asian countries. Think of it as a farmer’s market, but one that exists not only on weekends but everyday, and wet.
Why the ‘wetness’ you might ask? This part is rather more literal, the floors are usually wet, with water being used to keep the premises clean and the produce fresh. Liberal amounts of it are sloshed about daily, resulting in a perpetual ‘wet’ state. It is typically run by a collection of independent stallholders, each with his own produce.
Raw does not only describe the food being sold, but also the experience of visiting a wet market. Supermarkets with their rows of neatly packaged and indeterminable cuts of mystery meat are the polar opposite of what you would find at a wet market, where you can sometimes find live animals awaiting slaughter upon purchase by the customer (although this practice has long been ended in Singapore due to hygiene and animal welfare concerns, but can be easily found elsewhere in Asia). Hunks of meat hang from hooks and vegetables of all manner and variety are presented in wooded crates and cardboard boxes, unwashed and sometimes with bits of soil still hanging on the roots. Don’t need an entire packet of oregano for your one man pasta later? Pick a couple of sprigs and be charged for just that, prices are equally fluid, usually being rounded off. Its as if decimal points never made it past the (wet) entrance to the market.
One’s connection to the food they are buying and consuming is certainly a lot more intimate, picking the exact cuts of meat and quantities, and dealing with a butcher that has been plying his trade for most of his life, and not a 17 year old student on a part time stint at the deli counter. A chicken or pig is an animal here, celebrated in all its usefulness to the human race, not a bloodless, deboned, generic cut of protein from ‘animal origin’.
Whilst there are a few markets still holding their own, wet markets are largely being shut down as consumer preferences shift towards 24 hour shopping and convenience (wet markets typically operate in the mornings till noon) and an increasing disconnect between the food we eat and the source from which it comes derives. Whilst a grandmother might take pride in picking the fattest and healthiest chicken for her family dinner that night, her grandson might prefer his meat pre-flavoured, stabilised, par-cooked and “Ready to Eat in just 3 minutes™!”
One of the largest wet markets in Singapore and a short walk from my home is Tekka Market, which has been in existence since 1915, one might call it the Tsukiji of Singapore and is to Singapore what La Boqueria is to Barcelona. From Sri Lankan crabs and Japanese Wagyu to Sicilian olives and Taiwanese mangoes, and every other permutation in between, is somewhere to be found in Tekka Market. The rows of stalls are stacked high with produce and the lanes cramped with shoppers, all sloshing about on the trademark wet floor, definitely not for the Louboutin shod crowd. But for everyone else, it is a promise of fresh produce and reasonable prices.
La Boqueria | Barcelona 2010 (taken with Canon 5D mkII)