Yesterday I endured the Market of Doom.
Earlier this week, I saw parts of a market, while I was on an adventure run through the city. I was moving through a crowded street, curbs and sidewalks lined with carts, blankets and tarps, all stacked with myriad vegetables, usually green vegetables, usually vegetables foreign to me, un-nameable, but all clean, bright and wholesome. Continuing down the road, I was drawn to the small entrance of a wide, low-slung aluminum warehouse, and I entered the indoor part of the market.
I entered at Corner #1 and the first merchandise I saw was a pig’s head, neck chopped and sitting flush on the wooden table top, snout sticking vertically into the air. Okay. Fine. Then I saw about 2-dozen 3 ft tall, 2 ft diameter, rough welded, heavy metal baskets. Each contained a freshly slaughtered pig – all 4 quarters, neck, ribs, flanks. A basket was a complete pig, excluding organs and head – those were sold separately. in a different area. Here, in the baskets, it was about meat, skin and bones. 2-dozen ‘pig in a basket’. I saw two fellows heft a basket onto a scale. Another fellow lifted and examined a large piece of flesh and bone, steam rising from the still warm flesh. Behind the ‘pig in a basket’ area was a double-sided row of cut-pork sellers. These stalls sold slightly more processed ‘primal’ cuts – also steaming fresh pork, but in sizes more appropriate for a small restaurant or large household. Things like a whole tenderloin or a whole ribcage. Each purveyor wielded a cleaver, a thick heavy blade, held with casual familiarity.
I had never seen anything quite like it.
So that was a week ago. Corner #1 of this market was a bit ‘darker’ than your usual quirky or whimsically unusual produce market. But it was still just a ‘market’. Yesterday, though, a meandering walk happened to take me back. I entered the building from another street, toward the back of the building. At first, I thought it was a different market, but no, there across the expanse of the low-ceilinged warehouse was Corner #1, the fresh whole pork, the pigs in a basket.
This day I walked into Corner #2, and it was more aligned with my mental model for a ‘market’ in China. There were red peppers – fresh, dried, crushed. I took a video of all the different kinds, then all the different kinds of green onion and chives and scallions. It was all very pretty, colorful, stacked on the benches and tables. Then there were a couple rows of fish, presumably caught from the nearby 40 kilometer long Erahai Lake. They were silver colored freshwater fish, all in ‘kiddie pool’ basins filled with a few inches of water and oxygenated by a jumble of extension cords, fish tank aerators and plastic tubing.
Along the back wall and into Corner #3 were 5 or 6 coveys or stalls built against the wall, all eateries. It was dim, the air smokey with spices and fryer oil. Men and women sat at very low tables, each group gathered around a spread of many dishes. These weren’t just noodle joints – they were doing real cooking, they were slicing and dicing and spinning up complex and beautiful dishes with the fresh produce of the market. This was banquet-hall quality food, coming out of anything but a high-end restaurant. The heavy air, the dark stained concrete floors, the eyes following me closely – this was ‘blackmarket banquet’ food.
I had read about sour and spicy fish soup being a local specialty, and in one of the eateries I saw men picking at what appeared to be this sour-spicy soup dish. The broth was red orange, almost like curry, and I recognized cubes of tofu, wilted greens, bits of this and that vegetable.
I gestured to the waitress/chef that “I’d like one of those.”
The fellow eating it was following this scene, and he caught my eye, then held up his chopsticks questioningly. The end of the chopsticks held an approximately 2½ inch minnow. Hmm.
“YES. OKAY. ONE,”I state one more time.
“Okay,” the waitress replies in the affirmative.
Can I sit there?I gesture.
No, she gestures. Sit at that other table there, she gesture-suggests.
No, this one, please?I gesture and say out loud.
No.She gesture-insists that I sit at the other table.
Ooookay then, fine!
I sit at the insisted upon table, taking a seat on the low stool, my knees coming up to mid-chest, and I survey the market from the deep and dark corner of the eatery. A moment later the waitress/chef comes back. She has an order pad in her hand, and 4 or 5 Mandarin characters are written on a line. I look at the characters, tell her I don’t understand. She writes the same characters, bigger. Nope, sorry, still don’t understand ;)
She heads back to the kitchen, 10 minutes later I’m presented a ridiculously tasty and complex dish of vibrant red-orange broth with greens, tofu, potato-ish vegetables and many, many softened but still slightly crunchy whole minnows. It’s a huge dish and a wholly excessive number of minnows. I eat it all.
I pay the lady, small bow a couple times and I’m out of there. I move toward Corner #4. The thickness in the air, turns out, was not just spices and cooking oil. There were actually fires back here, in this final corner of this impossibly unexpected market. There are three partitions, each with a smoldering fire. The smoke is thick, and I take a few steps back. There are people working in these stalls, right next to the smokey fires, doing what they do every day. Which, seemingly, is slaughter fowl. There is gore covering, encrusting, the floor and the walls and the barrels. Old blood, bits of feathers and down.
Two of the stalls appear to be cleaning up for the day, tossing bowls of clear tap water across the tables, the sheets of water dripping onto the floor pink and carrying bits of this and that carnage. In the final stall, a man works on one last bird, hefting the headless, naked duck from the table and flushing the chest cavity out with several saucers of water, the splashes and drips transitioning from crimson to pink to clear with each successive dousing.
I left by walking down the double-sided row of pork butchers. I didn’t feel so welcome. I had seen too much. My imagination had been primed and was running wild. The eyes of the butchers followed me intensely, the hefting of the cleavers no longer nonchalant and meaningless. This market was no longer for me. “No! Not for you!” The ladies stood behind the meat laden counters, elevated on a platform, wielding their heavy cleavers. They picked up cuts of meat with their free hand, extending them toward me, suggesting, insisting. I think they knew full-well I was not there to buy, that I was there just to see. I truly was not there to judge, but the universal language had failed, and assumptions and imaginations ran wild, and misunderstood intentions added a tension to the hazy air. This was no longer simply a ‘market’. It had taken on a persona. This was the Market of Doom.
I’ve killed animals. Cleaned deer. Become fully intimate and intertwined with a bull elk, from the from the Colorado backcountry to the meat grinder, freezer, stove and dinner table. I understand what food is and what meat is. I get it. But, boy, this one was a little much. I left the Market of Doom thinking rice, a piece of fruit – that sure would be a nice dinner tonight.
The Market of Doom snuck up on me. I was just out on a free-flowing morning adventure run, marveling at the people and their small morning activities. Maybe I'm the only one that's surpised. Maybe everyone at home expects this in China. To be clear, the Market of Doom is not representative of my experiences in China. It sure does exist though.