From San Francisco to Sydney, keen cooks love a visit to a good farmers’ market, the sorts of places where the fruit and veg are piled high, and the dirt and dents are signs of a good, chemical-free life. Here, in Hong Kong, however, anything resembling a market can have many of us expats sprinting to the safety of the nearest food hall where our carrots will be reassuringly uniform and our apples polished to a patent shine. For those brave enough, Hong Kong’s wet markets at this time of the year when the temperatures are cooler and the smells bearable can be a real source of inspiration for any lover of good food.
A hunt for new ingredients
I decided to venture forth on a hunt for new ingredients with the help of a charming and well-informed guide, food expert and new chef of The Pawn, Anthony Fletcher. Anthony moved to Hong Kong relatively recently from London, where he had just completed the launch of a new restaurant for chef of the moment, Tom Aikens. Since arriving in his new city, Anthony has immersed himself in local cuisine both for inspiration for his menus in the restaurant and for his own enjoyment. He can regularly be found wandering the wet markets of Wanchai and further afield with notebook and camera in hand.
Graham Street Market
We first head to Graham Street Market, the oldest in Hong Kong at 160 years, and reputedly the most “Western”, both in language and produce. Sadly this little slice of local colour and culture, slap bang in the middle of Central, is under threat as encroaching development will soon force most of the market traders to other locations.
We start our foodie foray at the top of Gage Street opposite the 7 Eleven at a small, but well-stocked fruit stall where we immediately spot some giant pomegranates. Surprisingly, Anthony informs me that the pomegranates are not imported: they’re most likely from China. And, while perfectly good as garnishes, they’re likely not quite as sweet and succulent as we would like because of their light pink rather than dark red colour. The cherries and clementines, on the other hand, are perfect at this time of year. New to both of us are the yellow-skinned mini guavas that are sliced open to display a delicious looking pale pink flesh smelling citrusy and sweet. Anthony scoops some up with the intention of experimenting with ice cream.
Next door is a stall specialising in local greens, everything from choi sum to Chinese spinach and garlic chives. Anthony recommends picking the darker, iron rich varieties and stir-frying them quickly with garlic and soy for a fast and highly nutritious midweek meal. Less recognisable vegetables are lotus root, which my guide slices thinly and turns into crisps for garnishes, and long orange local squash, brilliant in soups.
If you can stomach it, head across to Yiu Fat at 13 Gage Street which is reputedly one of the best places in Hong Kong for local seafood. The South China Sea maybe something of a dumping ground in places but, as Anthony points out, you can’t question the freshness of the crabs and prawns which are looking very healthy as they scamper around in their oxygenated tanks. If you buy imported seafood from more renowned suppliers then it’s likely to be several days’ old when it reaches your plate. Anthony admits that he chooses not to serve local seafood to paying customers in the restaurant but often experiments with it himself at home.
After the seafood, we take a right and head down Graham Street. If you like to cook authentic Thai at home then halfway down on the right is a mini Thai supermarket (even its name is in Thai!) stocking those hard to find ingredients such as galangal, kaffir lime leaves and apple eggplants.
Next door is one of the most Western stores we come across and our favourite for herbs, everything from mint to coriander and sweet pea shoots, perfect for salads. We even spy piles of fennel and mini garlic bulbs, which Anthony slow cooks for five hours submerged in goose fat; I plan to slow cook mine in a beef bourguignon.
At the bottom of the street on the left, just before crossing Wellington Street, is a stall dedicated to pulses: rices in every shape, from every country. Most intriguing is the black rice, which Anthony assures me is delicious. We also spy green lentils and bags of pearl barley.
Immediately across the street, Anthony is in raptures over the Japanese strawberries. The price ticket states $95 for six, which I think must be a nearly morning typo but I’m then told is the going rate for these particular specimens. We dig deep and, sure enough, these are strawberries like strawberries used to taste!
Eggs are cheap and plentiful in the wet markets and although I would immediately steer well clear, Anthony claims that The Pawn’s famous brunch dish of Duck Eggs and Soldiers actually uses the blue duck eggs sold at the market. He claims they are delicious: very rich and with a deep yellow yolk. We also spy boxes of 12 perfect quails eggs at $12, which seems rather a steal!
Although things begin to get a bit samey, it’s worth persevering to the very end of the market to watch a very friendly gentleman wash and trim buckets full of bean sprouts ready to be transformed into his own homemade bean curd.
The wet market certainly gets the creative food juices flowing, and, if you’re looking for value for money, then you really can’t get cheaper than here. The uninitiated maybe surprised with both the quality and choice of produce – not just locally grown ingredients but also imported stuff at a fraction of the price of supermarkets.
Anthony’s Wet Market Tips
Get there as early as possible when the temperatures are lower and the food fresher. The stallholders replenish their stock twice a day, in the morning and early afternoon but the best bargains can be found at the end of the day when traders try to clear their stock. Only buy fish and seafood that has been stored in oxygenated tanks.
Items are typically sold by the catty, a traditional unit of measurement equivalent to half a kilo.
If you’re worried about chemicals and pollutants then stock up on chlorine washes, made especially to remove potential nasties from fruit and veggies. Don’t wear your best Jimmy Choos: the clue is in the name, “wet” market!
Anthony Fletcher is chef at The Pawn,
62 Johnson Road, Wanchai
2866 3444 | thepawn.com.hk
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