Foreigner's Perspective: Traditional Markets in Taiwan

Foreigner's Perspective: Traditional Markets in Taiwan
Photo Credit: Herbert Hanreich

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So-called traditional markets in Taiwan are quite popular among the older generation. It’s usually elderly people who buy food there in the morning, which they later on that day prepare for the family at home or for customers in restaurants.

The younger generation here, mostly non-cookers, prefers rather the gayer atmosphere of night markets with their abundant offers of ready-made snacks, no matter how unhealthy they are. What you get at traditional markets are mainly fruits, fish, meat and vegetables from surrounding local producers often harvested in early morning of the day of your visit. They have, therefore, the advantage vis-à-vis supermarkets that at least fruits and vegetables there are fresh and cheap, hence their popularity.

Sometimes I go to such markets, but not too often. I don’t find them attractive for various reasons. It’s not that I don’t like the produce offered there. Fruits and vegetables made in Taiwan are wonderful sources of good and healthy nutrition. But it’s the surrounding circumstances, which prevent me from visiting local markets more often. They are quite different from the ones in the West (where you can find them as often as here). Some local characteristics here are quite staggering, sometimes even appalling.

One of the most striking differences is that people here find it utterly acceptable to shop while continuing to ride on their scooters. It’s convenient, that’s true, but only for them. You sometimes get literally stuck in traffic jams on the small paths between the stands caused by scooter drivers who seem to be glued onto the seats of their vehicles. Those narrow paths frequently do not even provide enough space for two people passing from opposite directions at the same time. Yet drivers patiently move on their often badly maintained motorbikes from one stand to the next, ordering, paying and receiving the product not only without leaving their seat, but also without turning off the engine.

Lacking a sense of the public good is indeed a remarkable feature of traditional Taiwan. But at least it reveals the friendly side of so many local people. I have never been bullied by those drivers when slowly strolling in front of them from booth to booth, thus considerably impairing their advance on wheels, and I am sure they would immediately offer tissues in case one has a coughing fit caused by the air quality there. People here indeed are very nice, helpful and extremely patient.

One may imagine the smell of exhaustion fumes from which you cannot escape once you are trapped between those vehicles, making shopping somehow an adventure. Often, a scooter behind you means that there is also one in front of you, its driver being impeded by pedestrians who are in turn slowed down in their dawdling by the scooter before them because its driver is just buying something and so on. It also offers a new olfactory experience when the smell of fumes meets for instance the smell of fish coming from a nearby booth selling products from the sea. It’s not only the smells that combine, but also bodies that unify. Each scooter with a running engine provides layer after layer of burned lubricants softly descending on anything laid out within its polluting reach, especially in locations of the markets covered by roofs, giving the products there a special culinary touch.

There is something else which quenches the passion for such markets and I have witnessed many times. The meat and fish offered there are quite often on display without cooling devices or ice that would keep them fresh. Instead, they are laid out for sale on tables for hours in temperatures often exceeding 30 degrees Celsius. My favorite stand in the village near which I live is a small truck parking every morning in the scooter lane of the busy main street just opposite a traditional market. There, a man offers various sorts of meat sometimes hanging from hooks fixed on the roof of the truck. He offers his delicacies nearly each morning from the same spot, for hours. One might think that on hot days, there are plenty of them here down in the south, such meaty arrangements help reduce the cooking time of the meat bought from there. It’s already “smoked” and pre-cooked by means of “natural” forces. Is this an innovative, energy-saving method of cooking à la Taiwanaise?

There is another aspect that deserves attention, and it comes with an unlikely advantage as well. Traditional markets are great opportunities for children to observe living rats in action, which is of course much more exciting than looking at pictures of that animal from books. Rats are not rare in such places. I have always admired the food-snatching skills of these incredibly agile and intelligent rodents. Just a few days ago I observed a hamster-sized rat skillfully climbing up the metal scaffold on which various sea products were offered. Once on top of it the rat didn’t hesitate. It rushed straight to the right basket, took a shrimp from there and quickly sneaked away, only to return a few minutes later, repeating the same procedure. The smartness and daringness of such creatures are simply admirable.

I have to admit that the scene just described occurred at the seafood restaurant close to the market where I had dinner. But this demonstration of animal chutzpah could have easily happened there as well. There are plenty of rats around such places, sharing the spoils with even more agile cockroaches. Sometimes the nasty idea comes into my mind that the meat dangling from those hooks of that car mentioned above might be the skinned flesh of one of those unlucky creatures caught in flagrante delicto, and presented there by the catcher for the public as a warning after punitive measures had been put in place.

I wonder what local health officials are doing in their offices during the day. Maybe they are busy with putting stamps and signatures on documents certifying that existing hygiene regulations are being taken care of. It appears that Taiwan officials in charge of food safety standards have been doing nothing but this in the past years. Is there anybody there who takes people’s health concerns seriously without having to be kicked first?

What about working smart, for a change?

PS. As I was writing this article, a friend informed me about a YouTube video touching similar points I am making here.

Edited by Olivia Yang


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