Whether it is the souks of Morocco or the myriad by-lanes of Crawford Market, walking around markets is exciting! Especially when you're in a new country or city. From squawking chickens to colourful mounds of roasted spices, markets offer a great sneak peek into a country's produce, what the locals love to eat and of course how its people shop.
It's for this reason that when I found myself in Guangzhou, I decided to go explore the markets of Liwan once I was done with my eating adventure along with my guide Wai. While I happily strolled around taking in the sights, Wai helped translate what some of the strange-looking things were. The Chinese are great believers in natural remedies and this really shone through in the market. Here are 10 cool things I spotted that really made the Liwan market stand out for me.
1. Black sesame paste
Black sesame paste is a common ingredient in many Chinese desserts and there was a huge queue for the freshly ground paste this vendor was selling. One popular preparation is hot and sweet black sesame soup, which doesn't sound appetising but is quite a nice thing to try.
2. Herbal teas
The Chinese take their tea very seriously and you can get just about any kind of flower/leaf there is. Rather than by flavour or name, all the teas are sorted according to the benefits they offer. I picked up a peony tea which promises a healthy digestive system (the real reason I picked it up was because it was a pretty pink).
3. Gigantic mushrooms
I am not quite sure what you'd do with a dried mushroom that was the same height as yourself but it sure made for a great photo opportunity and can be a good hiding place I suppose. While I've seen dried mushrooms in Hong Kong markets too, nothing prepared me for how big these ones were.
4. Deer's foot
At this point, the market starts feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland. I pointed curiously to a stack of what appeared to be legs only to be told that they were dried deer feet! Turns out, a soup made of these feet is extremely beneficial for pregnant women. Each foot can cost upwards of a rather steep RMB200.
5. Baby scorpions
On your walk in these markets, you may see a couple of women hunched over and picking something out of a big red tub. No, they are not cleaning rice. They are instead sorting baby scorpions for the evening stall. For me, this was by far the strangest thing I came across in the market and the sight of those scorpions climbing on top of each other trying to get out of the tub was a bit like being in a bad scary movie. I hear, however, that scorpion skewers can be quite tasty and crunchy and taste a bit like chicken. Hmm, not too sure if I could get myself to try one of those.
6. Exotic fruit
Whenever I travel, I love trying the local fruit. It is a healthy way of sampling another culture -- especially if eating scorpions is not your thing. The local market in Liwan was stocked full of exotic tropical fruits like dragonfruit and longan. My favourite? The mangosteen. To eat it all you gotta do is pierce the skin with your nail and remove the peel. The flesh is sweet and juicy and is worth the mess.
7. Dim-sum and noodles
Just like you'd find a vada-pao vendor tucked away in one corner of the market in Mumbai, in China you'll always find someone making fresh dim-sum and rolling out all kinds of noodles. This shop we passed had over 15 different kinds of noodles and just as many varieties of dim-sum wrapped and ready to go. The good part was that you can take these home cold and steam them fresh when you're ready to feast. Sadly, they don't stay for long so I couldn't bring any back home, but I'd definitely pick up a few if I had easy access to a kitchen.
8. Black chicken
Apparently there are several black chicken breeds in the world but the most popular is the Asian Silkie. Silkie chickens are a highly prized breed of chicken that has beautiful silky white plumage, and startlingly black skin. Chinese women consume black chicken after they have given birth to get a boost of energy, but it's also said to have a positive effect on the yin, blood, lungs and stomach. To take full advantage of its curative properties, the Chinese mainly use it to make an amber broth laced with ginseng , dried wolfberries and jujubes. Apparently it has a really gamey flavour and is getting quite popular with high-end Asian chefs across the subcontinent.
9. Tofu in all shapes and sizes
In the same way that every market will have a paneer vendor (at least in Delhi), Chinese markets have someone that sells tofu. You get it in all shapes and sizes and it can be fresh or pre-cooked. The weirdest tofu I spotted was called "stinky tofu" - it's a ready-to-eat fermented tofu which smells a bit off but is actually really delicious when paired with the sauce that comes with it. You will find it at night stalls too but it's fun having it while you wait for your veggies to get packed up in the market.
What's so unique about eggs you say? Well, the fact that in a Chinese market you'll spot all kinds of eggs. Offering everything from tiny and delicate quail eggs (which were surprisingly the cheapest), to large goose eggs to regular chicken eggs (the most expensive), egg shops can be quite a treat and even though I am not an eedu lover, I presume this would be quite the haven for a Parsi.
So there you have it -- 10 random things you can look out for the next time you find yourself in a Chinese market. Have you spotted something unique during your trips? Do share in the comments below.