If you’re a newcomer to Hong Kong, standing at the entrance to a food market is a daunting prospect. The cacophony of noise, the effluvium from fish and meat stalls, the dirt, and the sheer vitality of activity going on can seem chaotic and, at times, violent. However, don’t be put off by it. You are standing in one of the city’s most exciting food and shopping experiences.
What you may find in the markets is far and away more exciting than anything in a supermarket, usually at a fraction of the cost and with far less environmental impact, with most vegetables and fruits being sourced locally or just over the border.
Interesting condiments and spices, a wider selection of unusual vegetables and fruits and exotic ingredients are all waiting to be found. Seasonality is important, and people will shop every day, buying only what they need for the day’s meals, keeping their diet varied and healthy.
If you fear your lack of Cantonese will hamper you, rest easy. Many expat friends have got by easily by just pointing. Knowing your numbers, weight and money in Cantonese will help you considerably, but most market people have enough English to converse with you. It is worth taking the time to talk to stall owners, both to find out where they source their produce and also to build a relationship with them. Many stallholders are influenced by their customers’ food habits and trends, and will happily try to help source what you need.
Now, here’s a bit of guidance to help you navigate your adventure.
This is where you will find a wider and fresher selection of vegetables and fruits on offer. Often, fruit and vegetables are sold together, though some stalls are will sell only one or the other. Fruit stalls will often do fresh juices and fruit salad boxes to take away. Expect to see more exotic offerings, like rambutan, jackfruit, lotus root, lily bulbs and burdock, as well as more common ones such as choi sum, kale and bak choi. Fresh tofu and herbs are also on offer. If you are buying root vegetables, many grocers will peel them for you. Find a greengrocer that you like and build a good relationship with them. You might find they will throw in extras like fresh herbs and ginger at no extra cost.
Many stallholders have established relationships with local farms and, capitalising on current food trends, organic farms are now doing a booming business.
Fishmongers and butchers
This is where wet markets got their name, with the markets frequently getting a hose-down to keep them clean – particularly the fish and meat sections. These are ubiquitous and it is worth getting to know one or two from whom you can source your meat and fish. Meat is bought by price or weight, and seafood is bought by portion, weight or whole (live fish). A selection of fresh water fish and seafood is typically available. If you are looking for something big – such as a fresh duck or rack of ribs – order in advance and arrange to pick it up, typically the next day.
Barbecue meat stalls
Most wet markets and street markets will have at least two barbecue meat stalls and restaurants, where you can grab a plate of roast duck or pork with rice for lunch, and take home a box of barbecued meat (and rice) for your dinner. Here you will find the famous Cantonese BBQ pork, roast duck, goose and pork, various spicy sausages, cooked salted duck eggs and stewed bits and pieces (innards like tongue, gizzard, liver). Buy your meat according to your budget, i.e. $20 of char siu, roast pork, etc. This is a great time-saver for families, and great to take on summer junk trips for sharing.
Frozen meat stalls
These shops sell all kinds of frozen and marinated raw meat and meat balls (ready for barbecuing or hot pot). Many source great-quality, frozen, organic meat and seafood from New Zealand, the US, Australia and Brazil. I buy great bacon and duck – of far better quality than that on offer in the supermarkets – from my local frozen meat shop. Some even stock game, such as venison.
Dried goods stalls
These are a veritable treasure trove of exciting tinned goods and pots and jars of condiments, sauces, spices, dried fungi and beans, duck eggs, preserved vegetables, teas, dried noodles and packets of pasta. If you’re feeling adventurous or looking for a gift for a foodie friend, this is a great place to source something interesting.
These shops are a rare sight, so if you see one, don’t miss out on the opportunity to explore. They are, sadly, dying out. But, in these shops, you can find dried and fresh noodles of all kinds, including handmade and hand-cut rice and egg noodles of different thicknesses, and fried tofu.
These shops sell everything you’d need to prepare your meals, from cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery, to woks, pots, pans and baking items, not to mention all and sundry for the rest of your home. Hooks, curtain rails, cheap shelving, bathroom fittings, light bulbs, jars, sewing accessories and more can all be found here, considerably cheaper than at Ikea.
Once you’ve sourced your ingredients from the local market, here’s how to use them to make easy and delicious family-friendly meals, writes Sharon Maloney. You might even get your kids involved in the cooking!
Duck and Asian Coleslaw Tacos
For the tacos:
- $50 worth of roasted duck from BBQ meat shop
- head of purple cabbage, shredded finely
- 1 carrot, peeled and sliced thinly1 small cucumber, peeled and
- ½ an onion, peeled and sliced thinly
- 8 small, soft flour tortillas (I use Old El Paso)
For the coleslaw dressing:
- 3 Tbsp mirin (Japanese rice vinegar)
- 1 Tbsp wasabi mayonnaise (Del Monte makes a good one that you can buy in the supermarket. Or, make your own by combining ½ tsp of wasabi paste with
1 Tbsp mayonnaise.)
- 2 Tbsp pure sesame oil
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 1 heaped tsp of fried garlic pieces (Jarred garlic is available from supermarkets.)
- Get your kids involved: With their fingers, they can pull the duck meat from the bone and tear it into small pieces. Place it on a small plate.
- In a large bowl, toss the vegetables.
- Mix the dressing ingredients together and pour over the vegetables. Let it stand for about 10 minutes.
- To prepare the tortillas, heat a small non-stick pan on low, and heat each tortilla for a minute or so on one side before sliding out onto a plate.
- Everyone can then roll their own tacos filled with duck and coleslaw.