To Market, to Market

When I was young, I hated going to the Taiwanese open air markets with my mother, preferring the air-conditioned grocery stores in the basements of department stores where produce prices would sometimes match that of the designer merchandise upstairs. During the summers it was hot and sticky and the market almost always guaranteed that your nostrils would be assaulted by a million smells from fish to pork to durian (the smelliest fruit in all the world and my mother’s favorite) and your face and vision by random billows of steam. Pushing and shoving in an endless train of other sweaty, shouting people also didn’t help, but somewhere between then and now, I grew up and while it’s not my favorite destination in Taipei, the open air market is one place where one can observe some of Taipei’s most interesting interactions: images of Taipei’s citizens from wealthy society ladies with their Philippino maids to aging grandmothers to young children dragged along by their young mothers, as I once was. People from all walks of life squeeze through, mingling and looking, all speaking the same language: food.

Now that Chinese New Year is fast approaching the markets are particularly packed with women (and some men, looking lost or hungry) on the hunt for the best meat, fish, poultry and produce to bring home so that they might prepare a meal whose quality rivals Taipei’s finest restaurants. Many families, such as mine, eat out, but it doesn’t hurt to stock up for those quiet days after Chinese New Year’s Eve, when groceries and markets close.

This is where I passed my first two mornings in Taipei: yesterday in East Gate Market and today in South Gate Market, one of Taiwan’s oldest open air markets, as old perhaps as the Republic itself. My aunt likes the company, though she complains that it’s rare for my cousin to go to the market with her. “You young women nowadays don’t know anything about picking produce and meats, and even less about cooking. I wonder what sort of wives you all will be.” I wonder too. My camera in hand, I touched nothing, occasionally bending down to take a macro shot or smell something. Most of the food was familiar to me, but only in that I knew how it tastes and not how it is prepared. My uncle laughed when I came home, looking slightly flushed from the crush of people. “To market, to market,” he said, “What’s tomorrow, West Gate Market?”

We’ll see. Here are a few photos from Taipei’s finest markets:

The Garlic and Ginger lady. 
 Pink ladies – serving up some ready made, homestyle dishes for those ladies who, after shopping for groceries all day, will be too tired to actually cook them. 
Faithful patrons waiting for their favorite brand of cured, dried pork. 
 One of many meat vendors, whose swiftness with their cleavers and calm amidst the chaos and corpses fascinates and unnerves me.
Her sister, the sausage vendor.
 At another sausage vendor, business is very good.
 Bright green chili peppers. After all that meat, some produce was refreshing.
A head above the rest. A colorful vegetable stand.
And then I turned around and saw this: a pan of roasted piglets… Just as quickly it was whisked away.
I hoped this guy was fixing something and not looking through inventory…
Roasted pumpkin seeds. 
Black chicken feet, waiting to be steamed…actually, I’m not sure Taiwanese people eat it that way.
As it is the year of the Rabbit, these lascivious images were everywhere.
As were these decorated honeydew melons and other fruit. The character means “prosperity” but it’s upside down, which in Chinese is a homonym for “has arrived.” Thus: “Prosperity has arrived in the shape of a honeydew.”
A woman working in the rare, quiet corner of the market.
This man saw me eying his large, dried fish and said, “Here, take of picture of me and my fish.” I obliged, and it is a pleasant picture. Man and his work.
Hella mushrooms. 
And in the middle of it all, a monk begging for alms.

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