Ask anyone about Wet Market, and different people will give you different responses. To the young, you might see shudders and the involuntary move to cover the nose with the hand. Maybe, and hopefully not all. When I was young, not ready for school yet, I loved going to the wet market with my mother.
In those days, a wet market is a natural evolution where the sellers congregated and the buyers converged. Chances are it might be a few streets or lanes. Those were the days when anyone could get a cart and hawk. It was a day to earn a living than staying unemployed.
In my pre-primary school days, I lived in this downtown place called Turn-Tiam-Hung, meaning Pawnshop lane in Hokkien. I was and still puzzled as I could only count, at best two pawnshops. But the official road name is Craig Rd. Nearer towards Tanjong Pagar Rd, there was a lane. This lane marked the entrance to the wet market from Craig Rd side. It was connected to Narcis St at the other end of the lane.
A trip to the wet market was going to end up with black feet upon return. The thin "Japanese flipflops" were no help. Some ladies were better prepared by using on the clogs - these clogs could be seen in the kitchens of the then houses of many households, and then relegated to the bathrooms in the HDB flats and probably are moving towards extinction.
My task then was to help by carrying the market basket. Talk about the "green" days. No, there were hardly any plastic or paper bags. Besides most things were going to be wet. There were so many kind of market baskets, some soft and some hard made from cane. Some ladies would hang the baskets on their lower arm to carry. Most of the Chinese ladies in those days wore samfoos (two piece dress) to market.
Walking into the lane, there was a noodle stall selling prawn noodles and lor-mee (if I remember correctly) on my left. I was always eyeing this stall for a bowl of noodles, but it was a luxury. So, it was so near yet so far. Moving into the lane, there were the usual stalls, and there were the occasional stalls that appeared once in a while. Most of the stallholders knew the people doing the marketing there. It was the nearest for those living in that vicinity. The next one will be the bigger one at Smith St/Trengganu St enclave.
"Any pork today," the butcher would call out to my mum in Hokkien. "Hor guy chia bak, ka chia eh hor," my mum would ask the butcher. (Give me the lean meat, leaner ones) The butcher would try to get mum to buy more. "How about the liver, it is good and fresh. Ah, the hoon-chng (powdered intestines) is good." It depends on how much money Mum had in her tiny wallet. (^^)
It was not just meat alone that she had to buy. There was fish to buy. Ah, I learnt how to select the sliced sting-ray. "Smell it," instructed mum, "see if there's any urine smell." Apparently, if the fishmonger cuts the fish wrongly, the smell from the innards would permeate into the meat. I never really tried to find out. Ah, sting-ray fried with kiam-chye (salted vegetable) was and is still my favourite. Here, the leafy part of the kiam chye is better.
With a small budget, we had to get the cheapest and freshest fish. I think that's where the "Chi ka Pi" (fresh and chip) came from. (^^) Ikan Kambong, Ikan Selar and Ikan Kuning were amongst the cheapest. I kati of Ikan Kuning was 30 cents. Ah the cockles were even cheaper, 5 cents per kati.
Chicken seemed to be rather expensive and most were sold live. One could ask for it to be slaughtered and defeathered. Before big days like the Chinese New Year, mum would buy one or two chickens, and one duck, to bring back home, live, fatten them before slaughtering them on New Year eve. So, chickens were luxury then, only to be eaten during big days such as New Year, Hungry Ghost Festivals, and Anniversaries of the Death of ancestors. As children, we looked forward to these days, oblivious to the fact that Mum might be worrying where to get the extra money to buy them. Living in a multi-household house did not help because the kids were going to see what their neighbours ate.
So, instead of chicken, we would be looking for the frozen chicken hearts shipped from Australia. They were cheap and when fried with sesami oil, ginger and dark soya sauce, would make a good meal. Ah, I know where I got my cholesterol. (^^)
The cooked seafood was another source of relatively cheap food. The fish were apparently caught, put on trays and steamed before being brought to the market to be sold. We called them "Sic Hi" (cooked fish). The steamed tiny sotongs (squids) were a delight and so were the boiled prawns (that were much smaller than they are these days).
Marketing in those days was based on what's available. Mum never had any shopping list. She could not write and so, it was all committed to memory if she needed to buy anything specific like soya sauce. For fresh food, it was what was available and cheap. (^^)
When I was in Primary 6, I started going to the same wet market to buy and cook. Mum had to go and work to bring in additional income. Costs were increasing. The familiar faces in the market helped in that they would not overcharge me. There was no fixed price and unless one could read the Chinese weighing scale, one would not know if one was overcharged. There were many horror stories about how one could manipulate the scale.
I love to visit wet market, even if I am not buying anything. The range of things on sale is just big, and sometimes, exotic. I also do this when I go overseas. Wet markets are a lure for me.