The Wet Market

Tiong Bahru staircase mural
Tiong Bahru staircase mural

There was a time when shopping at the weekly market was the way many Brits bought their meat, fruit and veg. For most this habit died with the rise of the very convenient supermarket and fewer housewives. Here in Singapore the markets thrive partly because many locals lack transport (most housing estates have a wet market nearby), partly because they are much cheaper than the supermarkets and partly because they are still a place to meet and chat as you haggle for fruit, veg, meat, fish and more. And they  open before work though I never get there that early.

Why wet market? I believe the term arises because of the ice that was/is used to keep meat and fish cool; it melts in the tropical heat and the floors become wet. But it might also be because this is where predominantly fresh food, in the past including live animals are sold as opposed to dry markets which sell goods like fabric, ironmongery etc.

view from one of our favourite bars - The Tiong Bahru Club
Tiong Bahru Market at Night

What can you buy in a wet market? Fruit, veg, meat and fish predominate; butchery stalls specialise in beef or pork or chicken and most fishmongers sell either fish or seafood like prawns, clams and crabs but not both. Some stalls sell only fruit. The result is a very social mornings shopping as you wander round with your shopping list seeking out your favourite stalls. The vendors call out cheery good mornings to attract your attention. I always make a beeline to the ones with queues though I also have a few favourites like the aunty (all your elders are called aunty or uncle out of respect) who makes mince to order by taking good Australian steak and trimming off all the fat and putting it through the machine whilst you wait – who needs lean mince from the supermarket? She’ll even package a kilo of mince into four 250g bags for me to freeze. All done immaculately dressed in a frilly blouse and spotless pinny.

But there is more – in Tekka market you can buy banana leaves and all things Indian but then again it is in Little India. My local is Tiong Bahru where you can buy all sorts of tofu and fishball products, clothes, fabric, household goods like brooms and buckets, kopi (coffee) beans from Java for making the national drink Kopi O, dried nuts, mushrooms and other Chinese mysteries, fabulous orchids, plants and every kind of cut flower. However you need to shop before noon and not on Mondays. Once done if you have the energy pop up to the 2nd floor (the 1st floor being what we Brits call the ground floor) and treat yourself to a helping of carrot cake ( a sort rosti of made with black or white radish and served with a fried egg on top) or other local delicacy with a fresh fruit juice or a kopi-o (sweetened black coffee), kopi-c (sweetened coffee with evaporated milk) or even a kopi (sweetened coffee with condensed milk – it’s like drinking treacle). The hawker stalls up here are always busy in the mornings however most are closed by 1pm like the market below.

Green oasis within Tiong Bahru wetmarket
Market stalls from the central courtyard

Is it good value? Yes even if you don’t haggle! The veg stall I use hangs bags of pre-weighed peppers, greens (a wide variety of leafy plants related to pak choi or cabbage or both, most of which I’ve no clue what they are called but stir fry or steam wonderfully), herbs and other veg from hooks suspended all round the stall in a sort of thick green fringe. Pull down the bags you need and put them in a round plastic basket, add a few things from the boxes stacked around the lower edge like onions, sweet potatoes, potatoes etc and choose handfuls of tomatoes or long beans from the display on the stall itself. The aunties will count through your items and come up with a price – roughly $2 per bag though some items like potatoes are weighed. Proffer your bag and she’ll pack it adding random other items as she goes especially if she thinks you’ve overlooked the coriander to go with the wingbeans or garlic to go with something else in your haul. A week’s supply of green veg, herbs, tomatoes and peppers can cost as little as $14 (£7).

Friday's veggie haul
Friday’s veggie haul

So Friday mornings I try to make time for a little trip down the road. Not wanting to have to carry my purchases home in the hot sun I usually drive but my local wet market, Tiong Bahru is just a 20 minute walk from home. There is a convenient car park on the 3rd floor of the market and the area around is always attractive to visit with its 1930’s art deco low rise public housing and rather trendy shops. Across the road form the market is one of our favourite bars The Tiong Bahru Club who serve a great Railway Curry and other Eurasian delights as well as excellent beer.

The market itself is always bustling with older Singapore ladies (aunties), expat wives and helpers (maids) doing their daily or weekly shop, whilst other locals hang around chatting. Market shopping is always a social experience, I am often interrogated as to where I’m from, where I stay in Singapore, what am I going to make with my purchases and so on. This week I found some fabric – 6 m of various Indonesian and Chinese produced batik, a large piece of belly pork to slow cook on Sunday (just $8, Indonesian pork is cheap here), mince for the freezer, chicken thighs (actually in my English definition whole legs) to make a Nigel Slater dish that seems to pop up as a filler piece on BBC Lifestyle ad nauseum but Kevin wants to try, veggies and two pieces of what the fish aunty said was “check fish”. I think it is Threadfin but difficult to identify from the substantial steaks which were rather expensive at $10 each but very tasty for supper with a warm tartar sauce and new potatoes.

For more on some of Singapore’s Wet Markets see here: The best 5 wet markets in Singapore


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