A great way to experience local culture is to explore the fresh food markets. Here’s what you can expect from markets in SE Asia.
To truly discover a new place, you need to incorporate all the senses, not just sight – It’s all very well seeing a place through a camera lens, but occasionally put the camera down and experience the destination, or you may as well stay at home and watch the travel
channel. Travel and food are intertwined, fused together, inseparable. Smells and tastes can define a location as much as the scenery and it’s often these senses that trigger memories of a good holiday. Why would someone travel to a new country, only to eat the same fish and chips that they do back home, when they can offer their taste buds a gastronomic adventure?
If you really want to see how the locals eat, you need to head down to one of the local fresh food markets – there’s one in every neighbourhood. Early in the day you’ll see cooks from the small restaurants buying their provisions for the day. And at dusk you’ll battle to find a parking spot with rows and rows of scooters cramming the entrance as locals stop to buy dinner, either the ingredients to cook at home, or ready-prepared from one of the vendors.
Visiting a fresh market for the first time is not a quick event, as you ponder and pause at each stand, trying to familiarise yourself with completely unfamiliar fruits, vegetables and other fresh produce. From vivid purple eggplants, and red fuzzy rambutans, to the aptly named dragon fruit and rows of green and yellow hanging bananas, walking down the fruit and vegetable isle is visually overwhelming. Sure you’ll find your run-of-the-mill fruit -- oranges, bananas and apples, but it’s the exotic fruit that you’ll find too tempting not to try. Most vendors will offer you a taste if they see you are interested, but really, with the low prices, it’s worth buying a selection to taste. If you happen across an odd smelling fruit, that’s durian, a local delicacy throughout Asia. The smell is so odd that it’s banned in many hotels and on aeroplanes too. It’s one of those things that you’ll either love or hate, so be brave and give it a go – unless you suffer from high blood pressure, as then it’s not advised.
You have to wonder if anyone not born in Asia knows the difference between the vast array of Asian greens. Most Western cooking repertoires would include your garden varieties of lettuce, cabbage, spinach and even, for an adventurous dinner party, pak choy. But here the selection of greens is endless, and most Westerners will have absolutely no idea what they are called or how they should be prepared. Why not take a local cooking class to learn more?
The meat isle at the market is not as appealing to the eye as the fruit and vegetable section, with whole pig heads and chickens with feet in the air as if they keeled over in fright. If you buy a chicken, you can ask the vendor to cut off the head and feet, or you may find yourself looking into the dead chickens eyes that seem to plead, “I don't want to leave this earth as green curry!” No, buying meat at a fresh market is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The meat and seafood section of the market can have an unpleasant odour, and this is not from produce that isn’t fresh, but rather from the fermented and dried seafood products. It can take a bit of getting used to and if you can’t handle it, stick to the fruit and veggie stands!
Fresh markets also sell cooked meals, and popular choices included whole rotisserie chicken, crumbed deep-fried chicken and sticky rice, various curries, stews and noodle soups and of course, every type of food-on-a-stick imaginable. There’ll always be a stand selling fresh fruit shakes, delicious and cheap, or if you’re after a caffeine fix, an iced coffee or sweet iced tea or ‘bubble tea’.