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Dear Culinary Backstreets,
I’ve heard about “wet markets,” but what are they exactly? And where can I find the best wet markets in Shanghai?

Stocked with all the fresh produce and live seafood that hungry Shanghai residents could ever cook up, wet markets are an essential alternative to the brand-name supermarkets vying for their slice of the market share of 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. They are, however, under constant pressure from the central government’s drive to urbanize the population and modernize facilities, which has led to the steady destruction of the more traditional ones.

Nevertheless, dozens of independent stalls make up the scene in each market, and competition is fierce, resulting in low prices – even cheaper if you bargain a bit – beautiful displays of produce and the freshest fish and fowl cut and cleaned before your eyes. You won’t find shrink-wrapped plastic or expiration dates here, and that’s for the best.

Vegetable seller at a wet market, photo by UnTour ShanghaiWith the fish jumping in open tanks and concrete aisles hosed down throughout the day, the term “wet” really does apply. Choose your footwear accordingly.

We’ve selected some of the city’s most typical 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 and wider suburbs, but these neighborhood hotspots offer a wide range of goods in convenient locations.

Most stalls are open by 6 a.m. and have packed up by 6 p.m. Nap time is usually observed somewhere between 1 and 3 p.m.

Most compact, with great variety
This tidy little market sits indifferently above a Dia supermarket chain. Just 10 small stalls ring the market perimeter with dry goods, eggs, seafood and meat, with a few in the middle selling fruit and veggies. There’s only one stall of each, but you’ll find everything you might need for some Chinese home cooking and be out in a jiffy. The egg stall owners are particularly friendly and indicate which area their goods come from. Grab some of the free-range eggs in the baskets with red mesh.

Best backstreets atmosphere
With the Tangjiawan Lu market closing soon, head over to the intersection of Penglai Lu and Ninghe Lu in Old Town. Deep within the oldest part of the formerly walled historic block, you’ll find an amazingly authentic atmosphere filled with fresh ingredients, street food, dumplings and more. This is old Shanghai at its most authentic – a must-visit for anyone curious about what China was like before rapid modernization.

Fresh noodles at a wet market, photo by UnTour ShanghaiYou won’t be able to take a taxi directly into the deepest depths of this network of narrow alleys, so the best bet is to locate it on a map and walk from the Xiaonanmen metro station or get dropped off in a taxi at the intersection of Henan Lu and Penglai Lu.

You can easily spend an hour or two wandering the market-lined streets with the locals. You’ll find the cheapest noodles and wontons at small shops here as well – we’re talking big bowls of 3 RMB (US$.50) soup wontons. And hey, you’ll even find haircuts for 5 RMB. It’s all here, and it’s not to be missed for food shopping, photo expeditions and even nostalgia.

Best for snacking
This two-story location 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. When you enter at the top of the main steps, the first small stall on the right makes a delicious selection of Chinese pancakes (并, bìng). Some are topped with sesame seeds and a fiery chili oil pork sauce, while others are milder, topped with egg and green onion. You pay by weight here, so even as little as 2 RMB 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 still come out of the wet market with an appetite, there’s also a soup dumpling (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.

This feature was originally published on February 26, 2013, and has been updated to reflect closures.

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