How to Grocery Shop Package-free at the Wet Market
i dream of 云吞面
There are a few childhood memories that really stand out to me. One is being tortured by my older brother (“boys will be boys”) and the other is visiting the wet market and eating 云吞面 (wan tan mee) after the shopping was done. No other wan tan mee can compare to that one stall (now sadly closed) and as an adult, I really appreciate the hassle my mother went through to drag her two young, fighting children to the wet market. If you’re ever in Penang, it’s the market opposite Jenni’s Cakes.
The wet market can be a turn off, especially for those who think that chicken only comes neatly butchered and wrapped in cling film. No, the wet market experience is much more visceral and you will hear and definitely smell livestock. In Malaysia at least, you’ll see cattle carcasses hanging on hooks, slabs of pork (fatty belly? lean meat? bones?), half-alive fish flopping around on ice, and live chickens in cages. Ethics of animal agriculture aside, the labour you’ll witness is enough to silence a hungry child. Visit a wet market while they still exist, and see food in all its gore and glory.
When I decided to reduce my waste in 2017, I started with food. Trips to the wet market are now part of my lifestyle and here are the things which I bring with me to reduce as much waste as I can.
what to bring
Produce bags — You can purchase cotton produce bags or make simple drawstring bags out of scrap fabric such as an old pillowcase. I find a medium sized bag around A3 size (tabloid-size) the most useful. Plastic net bags that supermarket onions and garlic come packaged in are also handy.
Plastic or metal leakproof containers — Use leakproof metal and plastic containers for wet produce such as tofu, meat, and small items like bean sprouts. Also, bring an old egg container (mine can hold 10 eggs) and reuse it each time! Bring a reusable water bottle for liquids such as coconut milk or soy milk.
Tote bag/basket/trolley to carry everything — I used to carry a basket and the compliments I received! It is a nice accessory to carry, but not the most comfortable or practical for heavy loads. I switched to using tote bags but occasionally use my basket if I know my load is going to be light.
Hankie — The hankie has 3 uses: 1) to wipe your hands clean, 2) to “chope” (reserve) your seat at the hawker centre, and 3) to drop nonchalantly in front of possible gentleman callers. If you are purchasing seafood, sometimes the seller provides a small bucket of water for you to rinse your hands after touching fish. Put your hankie to use and wipe your hands clean before reaching for your cash.
Cash — Payment is upfront and cash only! Try to bring small bills and coins.
what to wear
Don’t laugh, this is important! Please, for the love of all that is pure and holy, do NOT wear high heels or even cute wedges. This isn’t a sartorial suggestion, this is a practical suggestion because the last thing you want is to slip and fall. Don’t wear your Sunday best, unless you don’t mind having it flecked with dirty water. Closed-toed shoes aren’t a bad idea because your toesies will stay dry, but I usually wear flip-flops or sandals which I don’t mind getting a little dirty.
Wear comfortable clothing that you don’t mind sweating in. Wet markets usually have high ceilings and sometimes fans so it’s not terribly stuffy, but we’re in the tropics and humidity is always on the menu.
Leave the designer purse and laptop backpack at home. Carry your cash, keys, and hanky (the only three things you actually need) in your pocket, a wallet wristlet (that’s a tiny little zip bag with a wrist strap), or a small side-body bag. I won’t object to the fanny pack either. As always, keep an eye on your belongings and money.
how to interact with the sellers
The first time I went to the market by myself, I was afraid. Afraid that my Chinese wasn’t good enough, that the sellers wouldn’t understand me or take advantage and mark up the prices, or that they’d laugh at my cotton bags. Most of these fears were mainly that — overblown fears — and I’m glad to say that I’ve developed a friendship with the vendors I regularly visit. They know that I’ll come with my own bags and know what produce I like to buy. Sometimes they’ll even give me freebies such as an orange or a handful of herbs. I can’t tell you how special that feels so you’ll just have to go to the market yourself and see.
If this is your first time visiting a wet market ever, here’s how to make the experience worthwhile and enjoyable!
Be proactive! Don’t wait for someone to attend to you, because you’ll be waiting all day long. Grab one of the plastic baskets lying around and fill it up. Use one basket for all your produce unless you are buying a lot of small produce such as cherry tomatoes or beans.
Get in line! Once you have all your produce, approach the seller with your basket. There might be a line, so be respectful and wait for your turn. Sometimes though, you’ll have to flag the attention of the seller if they are bouncing around. A friendly wave and “Aunty/Uncle, 我好了!” (Aunty/Uncle, I’m ready!) will do.
Be helpful! Once it’s your turn, pass them your produce basket. They’ll weigh the produce, do the math, tell you the price, and bag the produce. Right before they reach for their newspaper/plastic bag, this is when you hold up your produce bag and say “我有个袋子!“ or “I have a bag!” Help them transfer the produce into your bag, pay them and thank them, and move on. Don’t loiter and block the way of other customers.
Be assertive! Since the sellers are accustomed to using plastic bags, they may hesitate when you show them your own produce bag/container. Reassure them that it’s ok and that the produce will be fine. If they’re worried that the produce will spoil (and that you’ll return and complain), I tell them that I’ll get the veggies safely home in a jiffy. Sometimes it’s ok to gently insist and sometimes sellers will refuse to use a produce bag, but there’s no harm in trying and asking.