Anywhere people congregate en masse for sustenance is the heart and soul of a place, and when it involves food, it’s the “stomach” too. At 7 am, the frenetic energy of an Asian wet market can leave you bewitched, breathless, and bewildered…
It’s 7 am. Over and around and on top and right at you, people are yelling in dialect. You’re gingerly placing right foot, left foot, right foot, left holy cow! on slimy, grotty mosaic, slipping and sliding in flip-flops and hoping what you just trod on wasn’t really what you just trod on. There’s a stand-off between a hawker and an irate (soon-to-be ex) customer… had he swopped the unblemished papayas she had scrupulously selected for punier specimens? A moment’s indecision and someone has made off with the last of the kampung-fresh duck eggs – the rich, golden yolks of which you badly wanted for your leche flan – will quail eggs do? The tempeh that’s given to you in a banana leaf scroll is warm and alive and you almost drop it in surprise… alive! So much more threatening than the nubbly, vacuum-packed slab you get at the supermarket.
Yet where you are, this seething mass of bodies in the still-chill morning air, is so much more than a supermarket. The stalls domino one after another, and everyone seems to know where they’re going, what they’re doing – so there must be a logic to it. Never mind that the fresh noodle stall is next to the Indian drygoods stall is fraternizing with the egg stall is not talking to the Halal butcher stall. After all, it’s Singapore – where there is not so much organized religion as there are organized plots of land.
Yet it almost seems the urban planners were off having kopi and kaya toast when the blueprint for this came up. Sure, the Housing Development Board (HDB) did the ground work… in every one of the housing estates systematically plotted on the tiny island-state is a wet market and adjourning hawker centre. With over 90% of the population living in government housing, the state was able to say: No ethnic ghettoes please. We want everyone to hold hands, sing the national anthem, and love one another.
So we put one Indian family with two Malay families amidst 12 Chinese families and there – walk around a typical neighborhood, and you should spot depictions of Vishnu nestled up against crosses, crescents, and yellow talismans at sentinel duty over doors.
It also means the heart and soul (anywhere people congregate en masse for sustenance is the heart and soul, and in this case, the stomach) of a HDB estate is bursting at the seams with the varied culinary cultures, traditions, reminiscences, and the resultant bastard offspring that the pioneering immigrants brought with them.
Nowhere else – not in the extravagant Japanese depachika in the CBD, the megalomaniac French hypermarkets, the expat-serving Cold Storage or even the ubiquitous, union-led Fairprice supermarkets will you find the sheer, beautiful farrago of a wet market.
Not to nudge and prod and poke and haggle. Not to casually reach for a glistening, ruby-red litchi for one glorious taste. Not to seek out the arrogant hawker who point-blank refused to sell you the last frothing crab, and to evil-eye the hawker who did.
Trays and trays of tofu quiver in light bulb glow; plastic-bagged hands plunge into tubs of pickled whatsits; frogs croak their frog songs (swan songs?) dismally in wire cages, eyeing the skeins of gleaming flesh impaled upon ceiling hooks across the aisle. Every so often, live fish spurt across the paths of nonplussed shoppers in a bid for freedom. Only the young ones, with hands tightly gripped in their Ah Ma’s fingers, squeal.
Every Singaporean child grew up amongst this. Sometimes with mom, sometimes with Ah Ma, their job was to remember all the stalls that the womenfolk of the family would patronize—so that on the occasions when it would be daddy’s or Ah Gong’s turn to make the expedition, they would be able to point out: that’s the stall Ah Ma buys the vegetables from; that one sells the freshest fish; that hawker sold mummy fermented beancurd; that’s where we sit down to have teh tarik and min jiang kuih for brekkie after…Fifteen years down the road, when you’ve long since doffed your school uniform and no longer need Ah Ma’s steady grasp to keep you scooting off to mischief, the hawkers remember you. You’re so tall now; I know you’re after the sweet water chestnuts, your daddy loves them; you don’t want those for soup… use the fresh lotus roots instead; I hear your sister topped her class; how is your Ah Ma?
Sloppy housewives in flowing housedresses jostle next to Liz Claireborne-clad Tai tais (with Filipino maid in tow) for the best pickings.
“I wouldn’t have that if you paid me to take it off your hands!”
“That looks like it’s been lying around all week! I’ve eaten more salt than you have rice, boy! Do you take me for a fool?”
“I want the ones at the back, not those ratty ones in front!”
“I’ve been buying from you for the past 10 years and you sell your best fish to someone else?”
Ahead, you catch the unmistakable whiff of fresh ground coffee, but are distracted by the sight of a sow’s dour, decapitated mein, suspended above neatly quadruped sets of pigs’ trotters. It used to be everything would be put out on display, with mammoth blocks of ice keeping meats cool. Markets would come alive at 4 am, winding down at noon when the tropical heat began to take its toll. But sanitation concerns have led the government to impose stricter hygiene measures – several years ago, butchers were ordered to install glass-fronted chillers for meat storage. This meant no more poking and pinching by expert fingers, no more curious peering at pig innards by inquisitive little eyes.
Thank goodness then, for the piles of baby shark that still lie in the open on ice chips, the clickety clackety coconut milk-extracting machines, the hawkers who wink and press candied melon strips into sticky hands when mummy isn’t looking.
A hawker raises a call, and you have five seconds to step out of the way before the passage ahead is soused with yet more brackish water, entrails and other squishy things spilling into the surrounding drains.
It’s 8am. Maybe it’s time to go look for some of that coffee