If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you might want to skip this post entirely and come back tomorrow for the last Hong Kong post. I’m a carnivore and even I almost converted as I faced the visual reality of seeing the live or nearly live versions of the protein I consume. But that’s looking at things from a very Western lens where we are used to our proteins in nice, flat, cellophane-wrapped packages in neat rows lined up in refrigerator units housed inside large, well-lit supermarkets.
In Asia, they’re a little closer to protein in their natural forms. They aren’t necessarily nice, neat, shrink-wrapped packs but they’re definitely very fresh. Culturally, they’re also not as squeamish (as me) and are more pragmatic. Less affluent populations literally cannot afford to forego cheaper sources of nutrition (fish harvested from the sea, poultry and pork, etc).
Our last full day in Hong Kong was a team-building activity where we gathered as a group to be taken on a tour of Kowloon’s “wet market”. In the Philippines, we would call them “palengkes”. In the US, they’re like farmers’ markets on steroids where not just produce is for sale but also poultry, fish, pork, beef, etc; some cooked and ready to eat, some raw and available for purchase in family-consumable sizes.
Our guide said he wouldn’t call himself a food guide but he had spent years learning about the history of food and its culture in Asia and he had some interesting stories to impart about where certain practices came from and what those common practices were. For instance, he showed us a stand where selections of freshly cooked pork was laid out on a table. Customers can come up and choose what they wanted and walk away with their selection, the meat ready to eat and to supplement a family’s dinner.
Ovens are not common in Hong Kong (as they aren’t in the Philippines) and certain meats were rarely cooked by a home chef but were instead always purchased from vendors who had developed the expertise and had the facilities and sources to prepare the meat. It was easy for consumers to stop by on their way home from work to purchase parts of their dinner. This is the same in the Philippines so the practice wasn’t foreign to me. It’s no different than Europeans picking up a baguette on their way home from work to include as their dinner. There are many bakers who produce superior bread and have the facilities to do so and it’s culturally appropriate and easy to buy a fresh loaf than to spend the hours making it yourself.
We walked through various parts of the wet market. There were rough groupings of types of food; some were stalls, others were more traditional stores. The stalls were mostly the freshly cooked meats and poultry or raw seafood while the more traditional stores sold fresh produce. We did go to a particular building that housed 3 stories, the first two floors of which were stalls upon stalls of fresh seafood or produce. And when I say “fresh seafood”, I actually mean “live fish” you can select. Some were freshly killed and keeping in water. This was the umpteenth time I considered going vegetarian even though I don’t eat a lot of vegetables. But I could definitely understand why people go vegetarian and vegan.
But I wasn’t there to judge (or be a hypocrite). It was an interesting, close-up look at Kowloon’s wet market, an exposure to a different type of “foodie” experience, one that is more real than I usually get. It gave me a huge appreciation for the amount of work that goes into providing a food supply for the population and it’s probably normally thankless work.