Before I came to China, one of the first things I heard about was the live animal markets; a place, my colleague told me, where chickens and ducks are crammed into wooden crates, fish splash about in tin buckets, and vendors wield giant cleavers ready for your custom. During my first year living as an expat in Nanjing I never really crossed paths with this side of life in China. Over the past six months, however, my mother-in-law has been instructing me in the purchase and preparation of wholesome, VERY fresh Chinese produce.
Always gunning for freedom. Photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie
Frozen food is generally unpopular in China as the Chinese believe produce loses its flavour the longer it is kept in an unnatural condition. Therefore, there is of course a high demand for fresh produce. In cities, it's usually only fish and seafood that is bought live due to the regular scares of Avian flu and the forced closure of whole poultry markets.
Identifying Fresh Meat
Outside the cities, you'll be able to find street vendors standing around with their clutch of chickens. Such chickens are actually highly prized, as they have likely been reared over two or three years, allowing them to mature to a desirable weight naturally. They are also likely to have lived a semi-free-range existence, which, it is said, improves the flavour. The chicken meat available in most big cities often comes from overfed, battery farmed birds.
Whilst beef and pork are rarely sold as live produce, the meat you find in the wet markets will be very fresh, and the most desirable cuts will sell out fast. The freshest meat is the reddest; the pinker it is, the older it is. Meat is often sold on the bone with all the fat intact. This is how it will be weighed unless you are specifically buying a lean cut, which is more expensive. You can ask the butcher to remove the bones and excess fat if you wish after it has been weighed.
Tips for Buying Fish
River fish are locally sourced, usually from smaller satellite towns within the province. Some of these fish are line-caught, which raises the price, whereas others will be electrocuted en masse. My husband told me a story of how he was laying explosives on farmland in rural Jiangsu last year (long story), which mistakenly rendered a whole fish farm braindead. Rather than wasting good food, the workers decided to buy all the fish from the farmer and have a barbeque in the early hours of the morning. That's how treasured fresh fish is.
Food safety is an important issue to consider when buying live fish. Farmed fish are generally thought to be safer than river varieties as they are (presumably) raised in clean water, whereas rivers can be polluted, sometimes giving fish a strange flavour and even making them poisonous.
Another concern is the level of mercury in sea fish, which some studies have traced to Chinese coal-fired power stations. A report by the Taipei Veterans General Hospital claimed the problem was limited to deep-sea fish such as shark, as the large size of these fish increases their concentration of mercury. The report advised people only to eat these types of fish once a month, although obviously if you're a decent person you won't eat shark at all!
Other studies have, however, contradicted the findings. An article by Chinese scientists, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2010, found mercury levels in rice to be higher than those of fish (though that doesn’t mean mercury levels in fish are at a safe international level). The study was conducted in the inland province of Guizhou, which they dubbed ‘the mercury capital of China’.
To check the quality of a live fish you need to hold it by the tail and see how vigorously it flaps about – the more energy it has the fresher it is. Then check the body for any cuts or damage. Fish that are floating upside down in the tank are obviously dead or almost dead.
Haggling over the price of fish is difficult, as each variety has a different price tag. The only way to know the right price for sure is to shop at your market regularly, preferably with someone experienced. If you discover you’ve massively overpaid, you can ask someone to go back with you and challenge the price. My mother-in-law has done this many times since I started shopping at wet marklets. In a supermarket there shouldn’t be a problem as the price is fixed.
Buying Prawns and Shellfish
When you buy live prawns or shellfish, make sure to rake through the basket and discard any dead ones. The freshest prawns have a transparent body. The prawns you choose will be bagged and weighed, and then you need to haggle over the price. The price in a market varies throughout the day; higher prices before meal times, lower prices at the end of the day.
Buying from a wet market is of course considerably cheaper than buying from a supermarket. In Nanjing, 500g of live prawns cost about 22 RMB from the market, compared to the frozen variety where 22 RMB gets me only 230g. Prices also vary according to the origin of the food you are buying. Seafood has to be transported from coastal cities such as Qingdao and Dalian, with a 24 hour arrival deadline, which raises the price. However, if the produce comes from within the province it tends to be a little cheaper.
Preparing You Catch
In China most seafood is cooked live. Crabs will often be sold with their claws tied together to avoid them pinching you, but be advised: they run quite fast if they escape. Last summer, as we were waiting for lunch, we heard the pitter patter of tiny feet as several hairy crabs made a bid for freedom having climbed out of the pot of boiling water. Always remember to cover the pot with a lid!
Live seafood will stay fresh for a day in the winter if stored in a bucket of water. In the summer, however, it needs to be cooked the same day as there will be less oxygen in the water. If you’re keeping any live seafood in your house prior to cooking, be aware that it will try to escape. My mother-in-law keeps eels in the shower as they tend to jump out of the bucket and wriggle all over the floor. Look forward to that!
Learning to prepare food in the traditional Chinese style can be an interesting cultural experience. Just a few months ago I stumbled upon a man skinning the bloody carcass of a large dog. It was a horrible sight and not something I ever want to see again. To the people gathered about waiting for the meat, however, it wasn’t a pet, but a farm-reared animal.
In conculsion, I feel it is important to know where your food comes from, and appreciate that something died to provide the meat on your plate. Visiting a Chinese wet market is an experience in itself. Even if you choose to buy nothing, you’ll take something away.
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