Dear Culinary Backstreets,
I’ve heard about “wet markets” but what are they exactly? What are the best wet markets in Shanghai?
Stocked with all the fresh produce and live animals that hungry Shanghai residents could ever cook up, wet markets are an essential alternative to the brand-name supermarkets vying for their slice of market share in the country with the planet’s largest population. These markets are so named because the floor tends to be wet, thanks to the live fish flopping around and the vendors’ habit of throwing water on the ground to keep the area clean. With dozens of independent stalls in each market, competition is fierce, resulting in low prices (even cheaper if you bargain a bit), beautiful displays of produce, and the freshest fish and fowl to be had, butchered and cleaned right before your eyes. You won’t find shrink-wrapped plastic or expiration dates here.
Shanghai locals and restaurateurs alike still depend on these independent neighborhood markets for the freshest goods, a bit of social interaction, and the opportunity to keep their bargaining skills sharp. With the unending time, social and economic pressures facing young Chinese professionals, the profile of the average shopper tends to fall squarely in the “well past retired” category here. Cooking is a pastime enjoyed mostly by those with the luxury of time, or carried out dutifully by ayis, salaried ‘aunties’ who find themselves working in the homes of so many Shanghainese families.
You’ll find the best pickings and largest crowds early in the morning, but even in the afternoon there is plenty to choose from, in a somewhat quieter atmosphere. Buyer beware, however: the fewer the crowds, the more intensely the vendors will peddle their goods to you.
We’ve selected some of the city’s best wet markets that are open to visitors and locals alike. There are more specialized seafood markets, wholesale markets and smaller fruit and vegetable stalls throughout the city, but these neighborhood hotspots offer the widest range of fresh goods. With fish jumping in open tanks and concrete aisles hosed down throughout the day for cleaning, the term ‘wet’ really does apply – choose footwear accordingly. Most stalls are open by 6 a.m. and close for the day by 6 p.m.
Best crowds and people-watching: [Editor’s note: We are sad to report that Tangjiawan will be torn down in summer 2015.] Tangjiawan Lu has truly got it all, and the crowds know it. Get your elbows locked and loaded, because you’re going to be jostling with hordes of fussy grannies, bikes, and mopeds, with fish scales flying, to boot. Just one block long, this outdoor bazaar street combined with a two-story indoor market on the corner offers every Chinese foodstuff imaginable.
It’s easy to see what’s in season from the pushcarts set up outside, but regardless of season, everything here is fresh, and the fish, frogs, turtles and chickens are probably still moving. With gentrification encroaching on the area, it’s hard to know how much longer this street will survive, so visit soon.
Address: 149 Zhaozhou Lu, near Tangjiawan Lu
Most ‘backstreets’ atmosphere: [Editor’s note: We’re sorry to report that Taiyuan Lu has been completely torn down.] A sprawling, single-level wet market, Jiashan has all the charm and authenticity you’d expect in this former French Concession location. From the claptrap tin roof with more preserved sausages and fish hanging from it than lights, to the slippery wet floors, Jiashan wet market embodies the idea of shopping locally. If you’ve got a weak stomach, remember that meats and live seafood generally are sold along the perimeter walls.
Address: 219 Taiyuan Lu, near Jianguo Xi Lu
Best for snacking:
The two-story Fuxing Lu wet market has all the fresh goods you’ll need and gets bonus points for overall cleanliness and lack of noxious smells, even in the humid heat of the Shanghai summer. The first small stall on the right after you enter at the top of the main steps makes a delicious selection of Chinese pancakes (并, bìng). Some are topped with sesame seeds and a fiery chili oil and pork sauce, while others are milder, topped with egg and green onion. You pay by weight here, so even as little as RMB 2 goes pretty far. Immediately to the left of the entrance you’ll find baskets of breaded chicken strips. After a quick deep-frying, they’re also pan-fried with garlic and onions, then tossed with a five-spice mix that puts KFC to shame.
If you’re still hungry after leaving the wet market, there is a soup dumplings (小笼包, xiǎolóngbāo) shop next door that serves up baskets of steaming dumplings from a long, narrow shop that’s just about a meter wide.
Address: 1239 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Xiangyang Lu
How to find your local vegetable market:
Aside from the obvious fruit and veggie stalls that line many streets, the bigger covered markets may take a bit of hunting. Here’s a quick guide to searching online to make finding your local wet market (菜市场, cài shìchǎng) a bit easier:
1. Go to Google Maps
2. Enter your address
3. Click “search nearby”
4. Copy and paste: 菜市场
5. Achieve fruit and vegetable nirvana
– Kyle Long
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