Header image courtesy of Adli Wahid (Unsplash)
Supermarkets and food halls are great and all, but shopping at Hong Kong wet markets is a whole different experience that savvy shoppers and home cooks won’t want to miss out on. Given that it’s a place that locals frequent, we decided to ask our network of Hong Kong aunties for some basic tips on how to make the most of shopping at Hong Kong markets, and guess what? It’s not all about haggling!
As with markets all around the world, it’s best to go to the wet markets in Hong Kong in the morning from 8 am to 11 am when most of the delivery trucks have finished offloading and fresh produce is put up for display. Aside from reaping the benefits of best picks before they get snatched up by other shoppers, you will also find the largest variety of products in the morning. If you are keen on scoring goods on a budget, then consider going to the wet market after 6 pm; prices tend to drop as vendors look to sell off ripe produce and close up for the day!
If you consistently go to your neighbourhood wet market and buy from a stall that you have visited several times before, make sure to let them know! Reminding the vendors that you have bought from them before leaves a better impression on them, which can lead to exclusive offers of the best products and deals. An easy way to namedrop yourself is to casually mention, “Hey, it’s me again!” and that you’ve bought so-and-so product from them before and it tasted great in a so-and-so dish. Make them feel proud and valued and you’ve got yourself a friend in the market auntie or uncle.
No one is going to be more of an expert on the market products than the vendors themselves, so whether you are shopping for vegetables, fruits, or seafood, don’t be afraid to ask the aunties or uncles tending the stall about what’s good. No matter if you are a regular or sporadic visitor, you are essentially asking them what is in season, what fresh product came in this morning, or what’s something new to try all in one question. If you manage to gain the friendship of a vendor, they might also let you know if a good batch of pak choi came in earlier in the morning and you can work your dinner menu around the freshest products.
Most of the products and groceries you find in a market will need to be cooked—except at fruit stalls, of course. These are really the only places in a Hong Kong wet market where you can have a mini tasting before committing to your buy. Usually, tastings are limited to small fruits like grapes or lychee that you will buy a bunch of, so don’t expect the vendors to cut open a watermelon just for you to have a bite. If the seller lets you try the fruit on display, that usually means that they are confident in the quality of their produce, and also that they are generous merchants that you should definitely become friends with!
Fish and shellfish play important roles in Hongkongers’ diets, so naturally, a big part of Hong Kong wet markets are dedicated to all things seafood. When it comes to seafood, the key to buying the best is properly assessing how fresh the products are. Obviously, fish and crustaceans that are still swimming are classified as top-notch and the best in terms of freshness, but they also tend to be uber-expensive and hard on the wallet.
Our Hong Kong aunties recommend looking for something that is “freshly dead.” Through an extraordinary combination of luck and vigilance, you might be able to catch the exact moment when a fish dies in one of the tanks, upon which you can instantly point it out to the fishmonger and the price of the product will likely be cut in half.
Of course, these jackpot opportunities aren’t easy to come by, so if you’re not looking to empty your wallet or waste hours staring at the fish tank at the Hong Kong wet market, look to the fish that’s spread out on the ice. Look for ones that still have clear and glistening eyes—that usually means they are just freshly dead. Find a few that you like and ask the fishmonger to flip open their gills for you, and pick the one with the most vibrant red colour.
Butchers in Hong Kong wet markets hang up meats on the massive rack at their storefront and let people pick whatever cuts they prefer from the display. If you don’t spot anything you like, don’t move to the next shop yet—there’s always more to the butcher’s stall than the eye can see. Feel free to go up to the vendor and ask them if they have anything else better that is not on display, and most likely they will go to the back of the shop and open their fridges where the best meats and cuts are kept!
Vegetables from different market stalls might all look the same from afar, but you can always train yourself to find the best produce. Take the classic choi sum, for example: Excellent choi sum will have vibrant colours, firm stems, and leaves that can almost stand upright. If you’re looking to buy a certain type of vegetable to prepare for dinner but they don’t look all that good, just ask the market auntie or uncle what’s best for the day. Don’t be afraid to take your time and look around more stalls before you start buying and introduce a bit of flexibility to your menus to take full advantage of the freshest produce.
You might think of the Hong Kong wet market as just a place to buy groceries, but it is also a gathering of expert chefs. We’re not talking about professional cooks who buy their ingredients there—we are talking about the vendors themselves! If you are shopping for an ingredient you’re not too familiar with (maybe a type of fish you’ve never cooked with before), you can always ask the fishmonger for the best way to prepare it. If you’re looking to make your own soup, ask the auntie or uncle selling spices what to include if you’re looking to target particular health issues and they will be more than happy to help you out!
We always say that a true explorer should go down the path less travelled to hunt for treasure and experience something authentic, and the same applies to Hong Kong wet markets, too. Don’t settle for the first stall you—take your time exploring. As mentioned earlier, look for vibrant colours rather than the biggest and flashiest shop to get your hands on the best goods. Also, be sure to bring spare change when you visit the wet market; it’s not good form to burden the vendors with finding change for the twenty-dollar cabbage that you paid for with a five hundred dollar note!
We mentioned a couple of times that it’s important to make market friends, but being too nice doesn’t always work in your favour. Some market aunties or uncles may try to persuade you to buy more than what you want or need, whether it’s a fish that's too big or a few extra cherries, just so they can charge you slightly more than necessary. Make sure to stand firm in what you want to buy and if their wheedling makes a difference in price that you don’t want to settle for, just remember to be polite about declining it.