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WET MARKET FOOD
I am a slight woman but I do enjoy food. Years spent working in a family restaurant and then working my way through university slinging plates and juggling tables and customers means that I am a somewhat critical diner. I like to work out what flavours have combined on my plate and what spices were used. I like to try new dishes and restaurants.

Moving around the world has added some fuel to this fire. In Hong Kong I had friends who enjoyed taking me to the seedier restaurants on the island where I had everything on offer and, after arriving in Hong Kong, I decided that I needed to educate my palate as far as congee was concerned.

[KON-jee] A soup of boiled rice and water, which serves as a background for a variety of condiments including fish, shrimp, chicken, peanuts, sesame seed and eggs. Also known as jook or juk.

Each Friday, a number of local friends and I would do a congee crawl of Hong Kong. Usually, we would go to the wet markets for this - Sheung Wan was one of our favourites and it was located near to Central. I also liked the North Point markets and the Chi Fu Fa Yuen wet markets.

These markets are kind of hard to describe. Generally the restaurant area would be on the top floor of a two or three story building. Wet markets tend to be tiled on the outside in white tiles (good for hosing down) and they have concrete floors. On the ground floor is where you find the fruit and vegetables piled high on wooden tables. Old fashioned scales hang from the ceiling and you buy your food by the catty or the boon, an old fashioned weight measurement. Goods would be bundled into paper bags, or, if they were more contemporary, a small white plastic bag. If what you were buying was a hard measure to work out, the stall owner would throw in a few green shallots to compensate in case you felt cheated. As a consequence to this, I always had fresh green shallots in the house. The vegetables and fruit would always be beautifully arranged in artful towers or cane baskets. Each stall would also have small red alter with lit joss sticks, a representation of a god or Chinese characters on it and a small brass bowl with oranges, flowers and other offerings.

Towards the rear of the floor would be the meat stalls. Usually there would be a butcher standing there in his blood stained singlet and shorts, a two foot wide shopping board on a table and a pile of cleavers by his side. He would invariably have a cigarette tucked in one corner of his mouth and he would be wearing slip on plastic shoes or flip flops. Above him lit by bare red light bulbs (to make the meat look pink) would be a range of hooks with tongues, heads, sides of meat and offal all hanging up. No refrigeration. You would simply point to what you want and the butcher would thump down the meat and hack off as much as you desired. Lamb was almost never around - goat, pork and beef were the norm.

In the same general vicinity would be the fish man. He would be surrounded by a range of burbling tanks on the ground. These would have a huge assortment of fish leaping and squirming in them. Occasionally one would leap out and flop on the ground until the fish man got his bamboo net and scooped it back into the water. On his table top (which was stainless steel) would be a range of eels. These would have their heads still on and if you wanted some of this fish they would simply whack off a few inches. The fish would slither around in this chopped off state for hours. Each customer just shortening it serve by serve until it dies.

To his side would be a large number of cylindrical wire baskets. Each basket would contain something different. These baskets were made of a sort of chicken wire with a lid on top and they would contain toads, turtles or eels depending on what was available at the time. If you wanted frogs they would be thrown into a plastic bag and then whacked on the head with a cleaver.

The first time we bought fish, they were hit on the head by the fish man and when I brought them home to our apartment in Wan Chai I realised that they were still alive. They had survived the trek home and being slightly squeamish, they lived in our kitchen sink and enjoyed gold fish food much to the delight of my children until our domestic helper came home and, with a laugh at our western sensibilities, fried them up with the shallots.

Three other stalls remain.

The tofu stall was normally a small stall. Enormous slabs of shivering tofu lay waiting to be cut up. One could either buy hard tofu or soft tofu depending on how you wanted to cook it. Hard tofu is better deep fried (delicious fried with chilli slices, salt and black pepper). Soft tofu is good steamed with slivered carrots and bean sprouts. Slabs would be cut off and you carried this shivering mass home careful not to bump or drop it as it would deteriorate into a scrambled mess

Speaking of bean sprouts, most markets had a bean sprout lady whose job was to neatly remove the tail of the bean sprouts with a small pair of scissors. The tiny root would be cut off and then the sprouts neatly laid out.

The other stall was of course the egg man. He would have a white hanging light bulb near him so that you could hold your eggs up to the light to check the quality. From here we would buy our small quail eggs (known as bird eggs). These eggs are very cheap and we used to hard boil them as snacks - our fridge always had a bowl of them.

The last stall was one I didn't really frequent as we were not as fond of Chinese soups as perhaps we could have been. This stall stocked funguses, dried sausages, dried seaweeds and other assorted dried goods. It also sold strange lumpy things that looked kind of like green brains (I still have no idea what they are) and these would lurk in large plastic buckets near the front of the stall. They would be swimming in bright orange sauce but the look and the smell were something that I couldn't get past and so we never tried it.

The next floor up would usually have stalls full of Chinese clothes. Patterned and padded velvet jackets and pull-on trousers (which most of the elderly Chinese women wore). There would also be a few stalls selling children's wear - matching sets of clothing, T-shirts, and jackets.

And I almost forgot the towel man. He would have a stall selling hand towels, face towels and polishing cloths. These small face cloths are widely used in Hong Kong. In restaurants when you sit down you are usually handed a steaming one in winter or a cold one in summer. In the height of summer most people would carry a small wet facecloth with them to wipe their face, put on the back of their neck or clean their hands with. Children would also take these small cloths to school and you could buy very tiny plastic boxes (about 2 inches by one inch) that could hold these small wet clothes - covered in lurid Japanese cartoon characters, Hello Kitty or flowers!

After negotiating this maze one would head up the escalator at the back through to the food stalls. Here would be another assortment of singleted men sitting on steel stools. A range of small Tables would be laminated and in the middle would be chilli oil, toothpicks, chilli flakes and a roll of toilet paper which would serve as your serviette. You simply tear off as much as you need. In Hong Kong you could buy Louis Vuitton toilet roll covers so if you wanted to be truly upmarket your toilet roll napkin holder could be a designer one although I doubt very much that Louis Vuitton would have agreed to this!

The menu would generally be written entirely in Cantonese and my limited Cantonese meant I could order a number of favourites. Sai Gwa Do Si (basically French toast although it usually a peanut butter sandwich made on white bread and soaked in egg and then deep fried in a wok). A slightly different version than that which we were used to but one that became a firm favourite with my children.

As far as our congee tasting was concerned Hazel would order for us. Pig's Ear congee left me cold as did liver congee and eel congee but the fish congee was delicious. A large steaming bowl of rice porridge with chunks of fish, green shallots and ginger. We would add oil, chilli and other condiments according to taste. The congee would also be served with a large fired dough column, about eight inches thick and you could dip this in, nibble on it to break up the smoothness of the congee, or break it up and add it to your bowl.

And now, living in the UK, our tastes have fundamentally altered. Late at night after a night out on the town a bowl of congee is exactly what I want before heading to bed. Something soft and soothing and warming.

A hamburger just doesn't do it for me anymore!

I think my friend Mrs Cheung would be proud of me.

Dr Amanda O has been an expatriate for eight years and is learning to love UK supermarkets.

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Posted 06Apr05