For someone who strongly believes that meat, already cut and packaged nicely, grows on trees, it was an awakening to walk through a Chinese supermarket/market. It’s not that I’ve never been to a wet market before (oh boy do I remember the days when I used to follow my mom to the market) or am new to the concept of Chinese supermarkets (it wasn’t all dining-out during my internship here years ago), it’s just that I suffer from a severe case of Selective Memory and Vivid Imagination. Let me explain with a snippet of the conversations in my head: “Say what? The little chicken filets are actually cut out of a dead chicken and BBQ spare ribs are meticulously hacked pieces of a pig ?! I don’t think so! Last time I checked I was walking through a meat orchard, peering into little plastic boxes and checking the growth stage of each filet mignon, seeing which one was ripe enough to pick for dinner.”
But joke aside, eventhough knowing little cows and chickadees have to go to animal heaven in order for us to enjoy a steak, it still comes as a shock to see the actual process of how the meat ends up in little plastic bags. In Beijing there are four levels of shopping for meat and seafood:
- The least horrific and beginner version is when going to the German or French butcher or shopping at a Western “gourmet” supermarket (basically a supermarket with mostly imported products) – everything is like back home, glass counters are chilled and kept spick and span. Staff wear gloves when handling the mostly imported meat and seafood and there are also many packaged options to choose from. As I said, like any other supermarket in the Western hamisphere.
- The intermediate version is entering the local supermarket Jinkelong, in which the meat section is similar to the produce and fruit section back home – different cuts of meat are piled onto each other in plastic bins and pans and you just tell the butcher what you want. He will then chop it up for you and dump everything into a plastic bag. Sometimes they roll out a pig or two whereby the people in the supermarket swarm towards the carcasses and start hustling for the best piece as its on a first come first serve basis. No fancy glass counter included in this experience, just steel or plastic tables. Many of these supermarkets have a small chilled meat area with packaged portioned local meat. The variety here is greater as you sometimes find yourself looking at trotters, offal, heart etc.
- Then there is the advanced version, a market in walking distance called Sanyuanli Market, which is a long hall with little stalls inside, each selling either fruits, veggies, meat or seafood, grains, dried foods and spices. I absolutely love shopping there as everything is fresh. What I dislike is having to walk past the meat section in order to get to the veggies. Why they don’t chuck the meat section together with the seafood section at the back of the hall is a mystery to me. But at least some of these little stalls lay their seafood out on ice, meat however is displayed out on plastic or wooden (!!!) tables and not refrigerated (refer to pic above). Needless to say, the variety here is the bomb. From ribs, to tongue, eyeballs, heart and tail.
- The pro version is then the local wet market, which is nothing but a big hall, concrete floor and many wooden tables onto which farmers and vendors pile their stuff. Meat hangs on hooks and the butcher will chop off whatever you want and fish is either kept in plastic buckets, glass aquariums or sometimes even still flopping around on the floor. I’ve inky been here twice and I don’t think I’m “pro” enough for this.
Although I only get veggies and fruit from the market and local supermarket, the smell and somewhat taste of the meat aroma still linger with me for hours. Thus it is no wonder I have only once cooked meat at home and eventhough it was bought from one of the Western gourmet supermarkets, I could not enjoy it. We have not bought meat or seafood at a Metro or Walmart yet, but it’s definitely on our list as friends have been raving about the quality. As for now, the only meat we eat is when we actually dine out and sufficient spices and seasoning make everything taste good. Meat is now a treat rather than the norm.
I’ve been cooking mostly meat free the last two years and have only made meat when I’ve craved it once in a blue moon (can’t change a butcher’s daughter after all) or Stephan threatens to leave because he has overdosed on vegetables. And when I did “have” to cook meat, I either made Stephan cut the stuff up and used every trick possible to avoid having to touch the meat. After lugging him around these various meat counters he willingly became a part-time vegetarian, which makes cooking so much easier now.
Now you know why shopping for veggies is so much more fun than for meat. Here some insights from the Sanyuanli Market: