Wet Market Wanderings: Shark!


The wet markets of Singapore; how do I begin to describe them to one who has never been?  Do I simply explain that they are open air food stands contained under a common roof and offering fresh food to buy?  I could write a tome listing the endless array of fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, poultry and a host of things that I don't exactly know how to classify but nevertheless look great.  Or do I describe them as a gathering of different vendors in every neighborhood in Singapore selling meat, produce and dry goods specific to the predominant ethnicity of that area?  That could become and even bigger opus.

To the untrained eye Singapore's wet markets may all look the same. Just rows and rows of counter-height stalls piled with good things to eat. You make your way along wet, slippery floors (they hose down portions of markets periodically to wash away the detritus), past boxes, baskets and coolers stacked in narrow aisles, and a rainbow of people from all over this melting pot of culture. Everyone is reaching for things to put in their round or rectangular plastic boxes to hand up to the auntie or uncle behind the food to tally in their heads or on a scrap of paper and gesture how much it all costs. It's a bustling, crowded, sometimes pushy and frequently noisy full-on sensory experience which, if you have any interest in Singapore's local food and the people who cook it, can't be missed.  But there's more to a wet market than meets the eye and not all sell the same things.

I can often choose which market to venture into depending on the category of my peckish sentiment at the moment.  If, for example, I want lamb or mutton, along with ghee in which to cook it and banana leaves on which to serve it, I head to Tekka market in Little India.  If pork tickles my palate, I avoid Tekka and head to Tiong Bahru where one can buy the entire swine's face or -- for the more particular -- just the ears or tails or trotters, not to mention all (and I mean all) parts in between.

Pig's heart/lung combo - is it still called "pork??"

If, alternatively, my menu calls for fully intact chickens or ducks; whole pigs; live frogs; squirming eels; turtles, lotus root packed in mud; any variety of live crabs; preserved duck eggs (which, by their blackened, straggly feathers and overall semi-decomposed appearance, may very possibly be the ultimate misnomer); nearly any variety of dried sea flora or fauna or piles of tender, soft noodles, it's off to the Chinatown Complex.  Of course great fish, fruits and vegetables can be had at an of these, though one gets picky over selection and price, so I have my favorites.

 And don't forget the dried foods ranging from a biology lab's worth of seaweed, dried meats, fish, herbs, prawns, fungi and countless varieties of shriveled critters and mollusks in varying stages of decomposition. The list of options available at the many Singapore wet markets goes on and on, and after only a short while you find that nothing shocks or disturbs you anymore and everything is worth at least an exploratory taste.

But every now and then something shows up that intrigues even the most well-seasoned wet marketeer and is worthy of special note.  And this particular day was no exception.  I walked into the market in search of lemon grass to make a refreshing "tea" to cut through the tropical heat that simmers within my core after a crowded morning slogging through the fish-scaly puddles and fleshy air of a wet market.  When I happened upon a shark. Not a shark like the smaller ones in every fish stall - black tip reefers or the ubiquitous dogfish used to make an affordable interpretation of shark's fin soup.  But a rather biggish shark -- stretching nearly 2 meters.  In other words big enough to cause your average expat holiday snorkeler to uncontrollably contaminate the clear waters of a coral reef.

The creature's pinpoint eyes--piercing even in death--caught my attention first, following which I momentarily scanned its length, estimating the height of its dorsal fin and, inevitably, the diameter of its wide mouth.  I stood there, admiring the catch of the day, with its tawny sandpaper skin, intricate leopard spots and creamy underbelly.

I touched it.

"You wan buy?" The Chinese fishmonger barked at me from across the crabs and squid.  I could sense from his dubious expression that he already knew the answer.

But I played along. "How much?"

"Seven per kilo. But must buy whole fish." No doubt, a "special promotion" for the sweaty ang moh with the Nikon standing before him.

"How heavy?"  I replied, eyeballing the beast as if sizing it up for my wok at home.

"Fifty five k-g.  Very nice!"

I did the math and wondered if in Princeton, New Jersey one could buy a fresh 120 pound shark for $300. That's about $2.50/pound.  Not bad, I thought, trying to picture our maid's expression when I slapped that bad boy down on the kitchen counter so she could get to work.

But apparently I was not the only one with such grand ideas, because before I knew it a more ambitious Singaporean stepped forward and, speaking rapidly to the vendor in short, sharp words, pointed to the fish.

I glanced at him, my face demonstrating disappointment at his attempt to usurp my family's dinner.  My competitive spirit flared and I nearly leaned in to begin the bidding war.

But he had the advantage -- Mandarin -- and the negotiation went fast and furious, until he handed over what appeared to be a much smaller amount of currency than previously required of me, and sealed the deal.

"Xie xie," my fishmonger friend nodded at my victor before dropping the money into a tin and turning away to address an enormous grouper in need of filleting.

And so ended my shark tale.  But that's okay, because tomorrow is another day in the wet markets of Singapore... and I'm going back for goat....

Postscript:  None of the foregoing is intended to condone the fishing for or killing of sharks. Great controversy exists over the indiscriminate killing of sharks for their fins. Often the desecrated creatures are just tossed back the sea – sometimes still alive. I believe that such a cruel practice is both inhumane and an unjustifiable waste of valuable wildlife resources. What do you think?