In China you can get food at the supermarket or at the market. Modern markets can be found in buildings, sometime on several floors but you can also still find numerous street level outdoor markets. Freshness is the key criteria. Frozen food is not very popular especially amongst people that like traditional Chinese cooking as it is believed that the food is maintained in an unnatural way and loses its flavor. Expect to find fruits and vegetables, spices, meat, fish and sometime live animals often brought to the market by the farmers that produce them.
The big size Chinese supermarkets will often provide booths for fish or lobster for instance. Many customers need to see the animal live before buying it so they can check out the health and quality. A fish that seems to be floating upside down in the aquarium is going to die soon, hence not the best one to pick or the best one to try to get a bargain price from. The price can also vary throughout the day_ with higher ones just before meal time and lower ones towards the end of the day. Once you have selected a chicken or duck from its wooden crates, or pointed at a fish splashing in its plastic bucket, you have it weight and can get the vendors to wield a giant cleaver to kill it for your custom.
While the standards of cleanliness probably do not reach the ones of a supermarket, buying such fresh ingredients has a risk of the lack of hygiene. If sanitation standards are not high enough, disease can spread, for instance through flies that have a very easy access to the food or when carcasses are laid out on the floor to be butchered more easily. Traditionally, animals such as poultry, fish, frogs and pigs could be purchase alive, out in the open streets. Nowadays in big cities since SARS and avian flu, it is less and less possible to see such products; at best fish, shellfish and frogs will be available. Still, the Chinese markets provide the freshest of food and a colorful shopping experience in itself. Even if you don’t need to buy anything, make sure you visit one to get a picture of an everyday life in China.
Photo: Emilie Mounsaveng