Markets, bookshops, and the tallest spot in the city are the three places I go to first in a new city. The tallest spot gives me a layout, a view of how people perceive the city. The Bookshop gives me a perspective on what the population is interested in, and what their desired fundamentals are.
The markets give me a look into their soul — telling me how, what, where they eat, and who they choose to eat with. It’s something we do three or more times a day, and certainly finding out where food comes from and how it fills its residents is one of the best ways to know where a city is coming from.
Western European markets, aside from the gorgeous boutique weekend markets that sell polished and expensive delicacies, are quite sterile. They are well organized, well-stocked, and often quite healthy while being reasonably priced. They ooze rationality, a character trait I associate most of Western Europe with, and a trait Eastern Europe wishes to enforce by building newer cleaner supermarkets while turning away from the markets of Babushkas selling their garden vegetables.
North America is everything extravagant. The size, the portions, the enormity of it all overwhelms the senses and makes everyone entering the shop feel like royalty. They immediately give you a gigantic shining cart to push around and fill, making sure it’s big enough to stock up with enough food to last any disaster with. There is always a border between have and have nots. Canned tuna sits for several dollars, then in the fancy section that only certain “high class” people venture down sits the extravagant caviar and smoked salmon that the “lower class” wouldn’t even know how to cook. It reads everything that the United States wishes to be: overly big, extravagant, showy, and prepared for anything the world has to throw at it.
North African and Middle Eastern markets are a delight. They are quite hygienic with food, and even though the food is not refrigerated, it is most certainly clean and of excellent quality. The meat section is separate from the fish section, which is separate from the fruit section. The salespeople take pride in their stalls and make sure to compete by keeping a clean stall and having the lowest costs. These markets are the best bang for your buck, and most often served by a friend of the family that gives you a discount.
South Asian markets are the most difficult for me to navigate. It is organized chaos, like most Chinese and Southeast Asian cities, with no distance between any of the products. I was often amazed by walking around markets in Hong Kong. The pigman is butchering a pig in a small stand, letting warm pig bowels flow on to the street as he stacks pig meat into mounds to sell to customers. Right next to pig man’s stall is the mango lady, not half a meter away, chopping up overly ripe mangoes and letting juice spill onto the hot cement. Next to the mango lady is fish-man, who also happens to sell live frogs his cousin caught kept in a tight cage. He holds a fish up for a customer, and since it’s still alive it wriggles and splashes salty fish poop water out onto the street. The scents of this scene are heightened by the moist Cantonese heat that clings to your face like a warm towel. I honestly don’t have a problem with it and love the bright reds of blood, yellow of ripe mangoes, and sea blue associated with this chaos. And as long as people are getting food and turning it into deliciousness, I don’t give a fuck.
But it’s tough for me to put it into my own body after seeing this. After visiting a market in Hong Kong just like this, I went to a noodle shop starving after along humid walk. Still a bit queasy from the mixed smell of pavement steaming with pig blood, rotten mango, and fish water, I order the cheapest bowl of noodles — one I hoped would be just noodles in broth with maybe some bokchoi or seaweed. What came was certainly noodles in broth, topped in a slew of unidentifiable mashed pork giblets small enough to fool you into thinking you could flush it down the drain but requiring a lot of force to squeeze it down the fucking drain. In my mind, I saw the chef emptying delicious noodles into a bowl, pouring the slow-cooked healing broth over the top, and then taking a shovel, running it up the sticky bloody streets of Hong Kong’s market, and emptying into the bowl. I paid and left, quite rudely. But once the image came into my mind, it was impossible to take it out. I still love Chinese markets — I’ll just usually order the vegetarian option afterward.
What’s your first spot when exploring a new city?