I’ve always paid lip service to Hong Kong’s wet markets, touting its fresh produce and favorable prices as an amazing, naturally superior alternative to the shelf-bound goods in same-looking grocery conglomerates.
But inevitably, when push came to shove I would more often than not find myself at a ParknShop or CitySuper, grabbing the same uninspired products in their plastic packaging — because I was too lazy and frankly too intimidated to haggle with the shopkeepers at their colorful stalls. I had my own set of excuses: I tended to shop late, and the wet markets would be closed by then; or I wanted to save time and get everything in one go.
A recent revisit to my neighborhood wet market changed my bad habits for good. I was not in a hurry for once, and while I browsed around, I encountered more than a few friendly faces who took the time to teach me that red scallions were in season, or gave me extra ears of corn for no reason. It reminded me why I should always shop mom ‘n’ pop if I could ever help it.
The better-value produce is pretty much a given, and the lessons and general food knowledge that you pick up along the way is priceless. And then the camaraderie that you feel (for the most part — there are mean and impatient shopkeepers out there too) and the sense of belonging to your community: these things you will never experience, or at least in the same way, while you push a shopping cart down the endless aisles of a supermarket.
At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s one more bonus side effect to buying streetside: cooking actually becomes simpler and more organic. Sometimes all it takes is spotting a batch of lively prawns in a shallow tank, or catching a whiff of pungent pickled vegetables, and dinner would make itself. You don’t need to plan ahead, google a recipe, or check things off a list. You just go with the flow.
By the same logic, it’s almost impossible to make a bad meal if you’ve got some inspirational produce on hand. Some of the tastiest dishes I’ve made in recent months have got my husband asking in disbelief, “That’s all you did to it?”
Same-day-made chewy oil noodles wok-fried with a splash of soy sauce and chili oil; forest-green choy sum poached in bing seen chicken broth; grilled prawns with absolutely zero seasoning… the list of easy-peasy dishes that I concocted spur-of-the-moment goes on.
I’ve been enlightened, and I ain’t turnin’ back. Now if only they got rid of those ubiquitous plastic bags that come with the purchases — a girl can dream!