What you need to know
The tricks of navigating a traditional market, from following the example of the aunties, to making friends with the vendors, are nothing more than the skills of navigating everyday life.
By Kate Lin
Any chef will tell you that the art of cooking begins with buying the right ingredients. But leaving the comforts of getting delivery and supermarkets to delve into the chaos of Taiwan’s traditional markets can be quite daunting.
The traditional markets are a raucous, lively scene, especially in the summer. Vendors hawk and shout over the tables of fresh food. Shoppers jostle for position, distracted as they mull over what they want to eat for dinner. It’s not for the faint of heart. But there are a few good reasons to brave the chaos.
Why shop at a traditional market?
The freshest ingredients await you. Products that come in single-use packaging at supermarkets can be bought in varying amounts — you can buy just what you need. You can learn to prepare the best dishes from the vendors, discovering the ingredients in season, and pick up ideas for pairing flavors.
Although I can’t go toe-to-toe with the slickest aunties of the markets, I’ve come away with a few strategies.
Don’t shop on an empty stomach
We generally have an idea of what we need to buy before we go shopping for food — some of us even make lists — but there always has to be room for buying something spontaneously. When you make one unexpected purchase, it can change an entire meal, which can call for further unplanned purchases.
All this planning and calculating occurs while other shoppers, bikes, and motorcycles weave around you. You’ll need the energy and emotional composure of a full stomach to deal with all of this.
You can take advantage of all of traditional market specialties, like fried rice noodles, and eat on-site.
Pick up some Taiwanese (Hokkien), if possible
Nothing wins over the vendors more than a few words of Taiwanese. You can expect a few extra handfuls of green onion — this kind of small favor. But more importantly, this will allow you to take in the all the human warmth of the traditional market experience. If you can carry a conversation with a vendor, you can find out the word on the street on which stalls are really worth your time. Even if you can’t speak Taiwanese, showing interest in the vendors and their products may be enough to do the trick.
Don’t be afraid to say “no”
Many people’s fear of traditional markets comes from one bad experience. Maybe it was from the prices not being clear. Some shoppers are even scammed. If you think about it too much, the air-conditioned and well-lit interiors of supermarkets may start to appear more attractive.
The solution is to be bold in saying no. For example, if you only want to buy a clove of garlic, say no if the grocer tries to get you to fill your bag. If the butcher selects a cut of dubious quality, tell him or her to change it. If you try a sample and don’t like it, walk away.
Don’t worry about hurt feelings. The vendors have thick skin, and the shopping process is much smoother if both parties are direct.
Don’t neglect the cooked dishes
You don’t always need to start from scratch when cooking. For some of the dishes that require a lot of preparation, you’re better off purchasing pre-cooked. Dishes like braised beef, radish cakes, and steamed stuffed buns can be bought ready to eat. Cao bu market (草埔市場), near Songshan airport, has a few stalls manned by professionally dressed chefs, specializing in selling braised beef. I couldn’t help breaking my budget to buy what they had on offer.
Take note, too, of the seasonal specialities, like rice dumplings around Dragon Boat Festival, or nian gao (glutinous rice cake) during Lunar New Year.
Follow the aunties
As a beginner, it’s good to pay attention to how the elders, the “aunties and uncles” go about shopping. If you stumble upon some difficulty while shopping, if you don’t know what a fair price might be, just observe and follow what the experienced aunties are doing. If you see group flocking to a stall, it’s a good idea to see for yourself what the commotion is about.
Tools are important
It’s good to bring your own bag or container, reducing the use of plastic. Sometimes you can’t avoid plastic wrapping when buying certain fish or clams, but for meats most vendors are happy to accommodate a reusable container. For vegetables, a canvas bag works best.
But a real expert embraces the ultimate weapon in the aunties’ arsenal: the two-wheeled vegetable cart. Just remember to place groceries in by weight, with the heavy items on the bottom.
The tricks of shopping at a traditional market are nothing more than the skills of navigating life and communicating with other people. What keeps me going back are the joys of rising early on the weekends, before the heat becomes insufferable and making off with my bag. I’ll engage in the usual banter, smiling, asking “What’s fresh today?” “How much for a handful of bamboo shoots?” Having taken in a full dose of the energy and human spirit among the stalls, I’ll return to home to slowly prepare a dish, to participate in the therapy of cooking.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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