If you live in Asia, you are likely familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of the wet market. The beating heart of many communities, ask any chef and they will tell you the local market is one of the best places to pick up fresh, affordable produce, with a dizzying array of fruits and vegetables, meat and live seafood stalls. Oftentimes offering more variety than Western-style supermarkets at a fraction of the price, wet markets also afford shoppers the chance to build up personal relationships with vendors, helpful for understanding where your food is coming from and what is in season.
While some first-time wet market goers may be apt to question food safety standards, the truth is that with a certain level of discernment and knowledge of where to shop, purchasing your groceries at the market is often safer and more sustainable—meat is freshly butchered, more of the produce comes from local farmers, and the lack of refrigeration generally means everything must be sold on the same day. In Hong Kong, government-mandated hygiene practises also help to ensure a high level of food safety amongst stalls.
A key component of life in Hong Kong, browsing your local market is a great way to interact with the community and soak in the vibrant culture of our city, in addition to stocking up on weekly groceries. When it comes to savvy shopping, many of our chefs have their go-to stalls and trusted relationships with vendors. Below, we ask them to dish on their top shopping tips.
Jowett Yu, Ho Lee Fook
Buy the veggies—it can be pretty clear that they are fresh just by feeling and looking at them. Only buy seafood from vendors you can trust. Never buy the dead shellfish bargains. And never buy fruit that you cannot touch because some vendors will hide blemished fruit on the bottom of items sold by the tray.
Braden Reardon, Carbone
Recently I have spent some time at the Aberdeen seafood market and love to soak in the atmosphere and browse the variety of seafood on offer. I never buy from the front display stalls and make a point to go to the back to look for the freshest items even when I am told not to! Over the past few years I have befriended a couple of the vendors and now they just take me straight back. The takeaway? Persistence pays off!
Joshua Stumbaugh, Associazione Chianti
I usually shop at the Wan Chai market or the Causeway Bay market near the fire station. My best tip is to go early for the freshest fish and meats. The afternoon is when you have a bit more room for bargaining because the vendors want to sell as much as possible as their day is coming to an end. Talk to the meat and seafood vendors and they will cut up your product however you like to save making a mess at home. Lastly, if you only need a small amount of spring onion, chilli or coriander just sweet talk the ladies at the produce stands when you are paying and they will usually give you those small things for free!
Billy Otis, Taqueria Super Macho
The wet market is one of my favourite places to go and just see what is good. I do not speak Cantonese but I suggest if possible you go with someone who does, as it is a great way to check with the vendors on what is exceptional that day. Talking to the vendors about what is top quality will also lead into what products are good value for money: a win-win.
I always check the frozen meat shop because you can often find some really good deals on USA, Spanish or Japanese products. Consider what type of dish you are thinking to prepare; for example, if it is a slow-cooked item you can save money on using a frozen product versus fresh.
Toru Takano, Crown Super Deluxe
As with any market, try to build up a relationship with a trusted shop that you can return to every time. I think it is important to get along with the people who run the shop and have good communication. If they get to know you and value you as a customer, you will be able to obtain valuable information and have inside access to the best ingredients they have.
Gizzy Alesbrook, Hotal Colombo
I go to the market two to three times a week. The fish we get for brunch is bought from the wet market in Central every Friday for service. I always stick to the same shop because maintaining a relationship with the shop keeper is very important. I look for clear eyes on the fish and no smell if you sniff it. And if you press on the meat it should leave no mark. You will also find a good variety of vegetables you do not normally see in the supermarket—I always try to pick up something new for team meals and seasonal dishes.