Shop like the lo­cals, in the wet mar­kets

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE - By BELLE TAY­LOR bel­letay­lor@chi­

When­vis­it­ing a for­eign coun­try, some people like to visit the mon­u­ments, oth­ers the restaurants while some want to seek out the nat­u­ral won­ders. I like the su­per­mar­kets. Wal­lis Simp­son, the US so­cialite who mar­ried a Bri­tish prince, once quipped: “I nev­er­make a trip to theUnited States with­out vis­it­ing a su­per­mar­ket. To me they are more fas­ci­nat­ing than any fash­ion sa­lon.”

She was onto some­thing. Su­per­mar­kets give a unique in­sight to a for­eign cul­ture. For­get tem­ple­sand­town­halls— if you want to get a real glimpse in­to­how the lo­cals live, check out the cheese aisle in a Paris Car­refour, the frozen pies in an English Tescos and the be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of im­pos­si­bly per­fect fruit in a United States Whole­foods.

There are two su­per­mar­kets near my apart­ment in Bei­jing. One is called Wu­Mart, and you will find them dot­ted about the city. On my first visit I stared, awestruck, at the gi­gan­tuan noo­dle and soy sauce aisles. Other shop­pers must have thought I was very odd, tak­ing pic­tures of the gi­ant bot­tles of bai­jiu (liquor), study­ing the var­i­ous jars of eggs and pre­serves. But the real treat was in the meat and seafood sec­tion, where tanks of fish jos­tle for space with aquar­i­ums full of live bull­frogs. Gi­ant slabs of an­i­mal car­cass are hung on dis­play and shop­pers se­lect from piles of pigs trot­ters and chicken feet.

Wu­Mart is also no­table for­whatit­does not sell. There is no cheese, no Greek yo­ghurt, no pasta, tinned toma­toes or chick­peas. There is only a tiny amount of milk on of­fer. One of the hun­dreds of va­ri­eties of tinned fish is prob­a­bly tuna, but I amyet to de­ter­mine which.

The other su­per­mar­ket near me is Ito Yokado, which is ac­tu­ally part of a gi­ant up­scale depart­ment store. The su­per­mar­ket is smaller thanWuMart’s. This is for posh shop­pers, with ladies of­fer­ing sam­ples of the lat­est brand of frozen dumplings and spe­cial dis­plays of hairy crabs dur­ingMid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val and a fancy sushi sta­tion.

Ito Yokado has a small se­lec­tion of for­eign goods, and so de­spite the high prices, I find my­self by­pass­ing the ladies shoe depart­ment up­stairs to make the jour­ney down to the su­per­mar­ket in the base­ment to buy wine and pas­sata, capers and cheese.

But the for­eign goods aisle is pretty limited. My al­ready small reper­toire of recipes was squeezed even tighter.

It was then I dis­cov­ered the mar­ket. Hid­den away in a res­i­den­tial com­plex, I only found it af­ter an in-the-know lo­cal led me there. It was a nar­row build­ing packed with food stalls. Veg­etable sell­ers with heav­ing ta­bles of fresh pro­duce, a small butcher and a woman sell­ing eggs and grain. One small stand has a man cov­ered head to toe in flour. He spends his days mak­ing fresh noo­dles and dumpling skins, which you can buy for as lit­tle as 3 yuan (48 cents) a bag.

There is a pre­serves shop, and a hus­band and wife team who serve up freshly made baozi (steamed stuffed bun) and an odds-and-ends stall, where you can buy ev­ery­thing from a new shower head to a jianzi, asortofhack­y­sack… with­feath­ers.

And fi­nally, I had found the best place to shop. It wasn’t the su­per­mar­ket — it was the se­cret mar­ket. Where you can se­lect the best-look­ing toma­toes and the ladies stuff a hand­ful of co­rian­der into your shop­ping bag.

And with­out my sta­ples of pasta and cheese, I’ve been forced to ex­pandmy reper­toire. Mak­ing a not bad at­tempt at jiaozi (dumpling), gin­ger chicken and more stir­friesand­friedricethanI­care­toad­mit.

I still love su­per­mar­kets, but if you re­ally want to get a glimpse into China — shop like a lo­cal, find thewet­mar­kets.

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