In the heartbreaking early days of the pandemic, Prin Polsuk, a prominent chef and scholar of Thai cuisine, was able to source many of his ingredients directly from farms and suppliers outside of Bangkok. But still, he visited Khlong Toei, one of Thailand’s largest wet markets, almost every day.
“The market makes me feel alive,” he tells me in a choppy video call, his youthful face framed by a skin of salt and pepper. “I go there to get inspired.”
One night during the year that I spent cooking in Thailand, walking around Khlong Toei, I was overwhelmed by this vitality. There were mountains of multi-colored chili paste, mounds of bright red rambutan, mounds of dried squid, and lima beans. The air was vibrant with the pungent smells of coal smoke and chili spices, and the murmur of conversation.
But as the pandemic ravages the world, the future of wet markets looks uncertain. The first reports tracing the origin of COVID-19 in live wild animals sold at the Huanan Market in Wuhan, China, sparked an international panic, with many powerful figures calling for the global abolition of wet markets.
“I think they should shut down those things right away,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with Fox & Friends in early April, citing the dangers of the wildlife trade. Five days later, a bipartisan group of 66 US lawmakers echoed him in a statement calling for the “global closure” of “live wildlife markets, known as ‘wet’ markets.” Recent evidence undermines the hypothesis that the new coronavirus originated in Huanan, but demands for the removal of wet markets have continued to spread. In its haste to act, the international community runs the risk of making a catastrophic mistake.
Selling wild animals poses health risks, although experts warn against a global ban, but wet markets rarely sell wildlife. Possibly derived from Cantonese for fresh produce – 濕 貨 (sup de), literally “wet produce” – the phrase was first used in Singapore and Hong Kong to describe markets that sell fruits, vegetables and prepared meat from open stalls, such as time with a few live fish in buckets or chickens waiting to be slaughtered. In the panic rush to cover the emerging pandemic, foreign journalists and political figures stripped the phrase of its nuances, equating wet markets and markets for live wildlife.
This confusion has proven difficult to eradicate, perhaps in part because it plays on long-standing toxic stereotypes about Asian (and more specifically, Chinese) eating habits. In his long history of American Chinese food, From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express, Haiming Liu quotes a column from 1853 in the Daily Alta California which falsely states «[r]ats, lizards, mud turtles, stale and indigestible shellfish … have been and still are, the food of the heavenly ‘no way to partickler’, where flour, beef and bacon, and other foods suitable for the stomach of ‘white people’ abounds ”. Almost a century later, in the 1944 hit, Meet me in St. Louis, Judy Garland sings: “The Chinese eats dead rats, chews them like gingerbread cookies!”
Some of the recent coverage of wet markets comes dangerously close to these old tropes. “What happens in these wet markets will give you nightmares,” warns a PETA video of vendors selling grilled, skewered rats and euthanized dogs, set to foreboding music. This video is not the only one that blurs the line between health problems and cultural attacks.
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“I admit it [wet markets] they are dirty, ”says Chalee Kader, chef at 100 Mahaseth and Surface in Bangkok. But while he believes that markets will need to transform in the coming years to meet a higher standard of sanitation, Chef Kader also sees how the traditions of Thai cuisine take into account the risks of infection or spoilage. “Every culture has its own way of maneuvering around these things to cook in a way that makes sure they are safe,” he observes. In Thailand, this means dishes with a splash of citrus or a shower of herbs rich in antimicrobial properties, and ancient fermentation technologies used to preserve fish, shrimp, soybeans and other perishable foods.
Frank Harwitch, an agricultural economist working for the United Nations, sees “dangers” in wet markets that sell unrefrigerated meat and says they “harbor all kinds of diseases.” But when I ask him about completely shifting the food supply from the informal sector to supermarkets, he says the idea is “completely crazy.” Wet markets, he explains, support an intricate network of small-scale local producers; just the kind of people, he says, who are pushed aside by volume-oriented supermarkets. With short supply chains and limited infrastructure, wet markets force competing supermarkets to cut their margins, preventing them from raising prices.
“The most established companies in the world… are fighting this informal market,” he tells me. “They want to get rid of it because it is on their way.” Wet markets, then, protect both consumers and local producers, as well as sellers, from being excluded from a rapidly industrializing and globalizing economic space. But its value goes beyond pure economics.
Wet markets support an intricate network of small local producers; just the kind of people who are pushed aside by volume-oriented supermarkets.
When I finished a two-month stint at Bo.lan, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bangkok where chefs Bo Songvisava and Dylan Jones resurrect forgotten Thai dishes and work with farmers to preserve traditional ingredients and sustainable practices, I asked the chefs a next step in my study of Thai food. Songvisava barely hesitated. Go to the markets, he told her. Wet markets, he explained, are not just sources of ingredients, but also reservoirs of cultural knowledge.
Chef Kader, another advocate for local and sustainable ingredients, often uses this knowledge to develop his menus. “If you’re looking at any vegetables,” explains Kader, “[vendors will] Ask yourself about it, “What are you going to do with it?” Those five or ten seconds of conversation, that exchange gives you that knowledge that you cannot find in any book or in any supermarket. Nothing compares to that.
And in contrast to the simplified uniformity of products and typical supermarket products, wet markets, particularly in Thailand, display regional specificity and a variety of ingredients that I find astonishing. “You can be dropped in a wet market in Thailand,” says Austin Bush, a photographer and author who has spent the past 15 years covering the complexities of Thai food culture. “If you were familiar with Thai food and looked around a bit, you could probably determine which province you are in just by the things on offer there.”
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Traveling across the country by bus, following the advice of Chef Songvisava, I was able to taste the diversity of the markets. In Nan, a city in northern Thailand, I saw market stalls filled with mouth-numbing bundles of makhwen; piles of dried and fermented soy cakes called tua nao; and wild vegetables such as bitter dragon’s tongue, to roast and serve with laap. In Trang, a southern city near the Andaman coast, the markets filled with vegetables harvested from the nearby hills; tannic purple green cashew leaves and mango shoots; fresh fish a few minutes from the sea. Even the hour-long bus ride was reflected in the changing contents of the markets, the kaleidoscopic display of a culture deeply in tune with the place.
The value of wet markets can, perhaps more directly, be measured in their resilience, even in the face of pressure from government and business. In 2002, China instituted the “Transforming Wet Market into Food Supermarket” program. But an article from 2015, published in Consumer and Retail Services Magazine, describes the transformation attempt as “painfully slow”, citing consumer preference for traditional markets as a key factor. When I ask Chef Kader if he thinks supermarkets will eventually replace wet markets in Thailand, he shakes his head. “I think they are the soul of each city, the soul of each town. No supermarket can replace that.
The push to eradicate wet markets, in China and beyond, is nothing new. At the beginning of the 20th century, New York’s Lower East Side was filled with more than 2,500 handcart vendors selling affordable produce and other goods. But in 1938, in preparation for the World’s Fair, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia cracked down on pushcarts, bankrupting many vendors and driving others to covered markets designed to hide them from the public eye.
Food historian Sarah Lohman sees this as a factor in the Lower East Side’s eventual depopulation, as a thriving neighborhood was deprived of a critical source of food, income, and community. Far from being an inevitable march of progress, Lohman sees this transformation as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In its contempt for the market, LaGuardia remade it as less vital, less useful to the community, than it had been.
When I mention to Chef Jones the latest determination by US lawmakers to eliminate wet markets, he doesn’t beat around the bush. Idiots, he spits. In the international community’s rush to condemn wet markets, Jones sees that fear of infection runs the risk of meshing well with government and corporate interests. “If you really want to protect humanity,” Jones suggests, “you should probably stop industrial agriculture altogether and localize food chains and food systems.” This may be unworkable, but the research seems to support it.
As Takeshi Watanabe, a food historian and professor of East Asian studies at Wesleyan University, says, “A slaughterhouse is not necessarily more hygienic than a market.” Although industrial meat production is accompanied by a wide range of sanitation technologies, from antibiotics to cold chain storage, research suggests that it is still more risky than low-volume backyard farming. The total replacement of wet markets (which tend to support local small-scale agriculture) with supermarkets (which favor internationally consumed meat and large agriculture) could accelerate dangerous trends in the food system.
The value of wet markets can, perhaps more directly, be measured in their resilience, even in the face of pressure from government and business.
Extrapolating the dynamics in the system, Watanabe imagines that this transformation reaches almost comical extremes. “Let’s say China completely closes wet markets,” he muses. “Does it mean we’re going to have more pigs flying to China, you know, on Boeing 747s? It’s not really as extravagant as it sounds.
As the food system changes around you, wet markets are changing too. “Now everything is commercial, chemical, big farms, they don’t focus on quality,” says chef Polsuk. “It’s not the same, I feel, as before when I was young.” As large agribusinesses expand and small local farmers are threatened, some of the variety is lost. Whereas in Polsuk’s childhood in rural Lampang, the local market was filled with produce freshly picked from the fields, now refrigeration allows multi-day produce to reach markets and wither within hours of the day. purchase. With increasing competition from supermarkets and pressure to improve their sanitation practices, there is no doubt that wet markets will continue to transform in the years to come.
Chef Polsuk agrees that more changes are coming, but on this he seems melancholy. Many markets in Bangkok, he tells me, have already tightened their regulations. But he thinks Khlong Toei, whose heavily choreographed chaos has swirled through the pandemic, is the most alive. And while Bangkok shakes after months of confinement, that’s where you’ll still find it, in the wee hours of the morning, for inspiration.
Have you ever been to a regional wet market in Thailand? Let us know in the comments.