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You’re new to town. Your neighbor says to shop at the market for all your produce and meat. While this may sound easy to most seasoned expats, markets can cause fear for many in a new place. It may even be a little bit of love, hate, fear, and the gag reflex combined into one. Wonderful stalls of fresh, seasonal fruits and veggies scrunched right up next to the bloody butcher stalls and ladies killing choose-your-own fish. And then there is that language thing–there are no price tags or check outs that display your total bill. You’re going to have to talk to someone. You’re going to have to ask a price. You’re going to have to understand the answer to know if you’re being ripped off. You might even have to bargain. I just want to eat.
Like it or not, no matter how overwhelming it might be, you’re going to have to jump in the deep end at some point. So here are just a couple of tips for overcoming and loving the market scene…
1. Take a friend! Early on it will be very helpful to have another expat or a local friend to go with you. They can show you the ropes for bargaining. They also will have favorite stalls and sellers whom they will introduce to you. The market is about relationships. You get the best prices and have the most fun when you know the bright smiling faces you’re buying from. Bring a little notebook with you and write down the prices that your friend negotiates. Ask her fair prices for the things you normally buy. It will help with the bargaining later when you are by yourself.
2. Be prepared! As you start to go on your own, make sure you know your simple numbers. If numbers aren’t easy, maybe have a small calculator with you that the sellers can punch the price into for you. Markets will typically have the freshest things here in Asia, but grocery stores can be helpful for learning what standard prices are. Then when you go to the market you will have a general idea what prices should be.
3. Be adventurous! Once you feel comfortable, branch out a bit! Try local fruits and veggies. Explore other sellers. You may find all kinds of new things that others didn’t know are there as they may be stuck in a rut or not very adventurous themselves. Ask the sellers what they use the veggies and fruits for. They will be more than willing to let you know.
4. Don’t fear the meat! I know its hard for our western minds to get on board with unpackaged, fly-covered, unrefrigerated meat. (Don’t even think about the money you are exchanging with those sellers.) But hard as it may be, give it a chance. I successfully buy chicken breasts, ground pork, pig thighs for curing ham, and some decent pork tenderloins in even the littlest, craziest of markets. And you might not want to hear about the blood-covered slaughter yard for yaks that I often frequented in a little mountain town this summer. Befriend a seller who will save you good stuff–they might even deliver if you talk sweet. Go early when the meat is its freshest. Many will say get your un-gloved hands in there and touch it. And make sure you have some wipes and hand sanitizer for when you’re done.
5. Enjoy the fresh fish! There are several ways to tell him the fish is fresh. Use your senses. Look at the fish. You want fresh bright eyes that aren’t cloudy, shiny not dull looking flesh, red bright gills. Touch the fish. When you press your finger into the flesh, does it leave a fingerprint? With fresh fish, your fingerprint should disappear. When in doubt, get your nose involved. Smell away. Do not buy pungent smelling fish. You want fish that smells like water and fish… a nice fresh scent. If you are picking your own super fresh fish (one that has yet to meet its demise), pick one that actually looks alive! Also, don’t forget to ask your fish salesmen to fillet it for you. Often times they will, for no extra cost.
6. Take the Whole Crew! More often than not, I take all 5 of my kids with me to the market and the grocery store. If you’ve got littles, make sure you push a stroller–it helps to keep them from touching less than desirable things, they don’t run off while you’re busy buying things, and you can put all your veggies in the bottom or hang bags on the handles. Now that my big 3 are a little older (9, 7, and 6) they all have jobs when we go to the market. They know which eggs we buy and how to go pick some out. My 6 year old can say his numbers and tell the lady how many chicken breasts we need. They know which greens are cilantro and which are spinach and they feel comfortable going to pick out what we need and pay for it. Dividing and conquering can make our trip a little faster! My 9 year old often goes to a single seller near our complex gate on his own now to pick up forgotten items from our larger trips. The market can be a great place for them to gain a little independence and some language confidence, all while learning about what goes into the meals we eat and what it takes to keep our home going! And never underestimate how exciting the live fish are for little eyes!
Once you get home prepping all your fresh produce and meats can be a super confusing part of the equation. I have already written about that over on my blog Market 2 Meal. Hop on over, if you need some help or just want some delicious recipes.
As overwhelming as it can sometimes be (I usually have 5 very white, very blonde haired kids in tow), I love the market. All the bright colors, the yummy fresh foods, the busyness. I love the crazy. Its the heart of my neighborhood. As overwhelming as it might feel at first, its worth the effort.
Do you have any tips for shopping at your local market? Please share!