Asian wet markets are essentially where people across the region shop for their food – everything from fresh seafood to smoked fish, from fruit and vegetables to herbs, spices and condiments. Not every wet market in Asia sells wildlife, so why is there a movement to shut them down?
As Wuhan in China recently emerged from a 2.5-month lockdown and wet markets started to re-open, the world went into a frenzy, with conservative media commentators in the US and celebrities from Paul McCartney to Ricky Gervais calling for wet markets to be shut down.
This was despite the fact that Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where 27 of the first cluster of 41 patients with COVID-19 had visited in December, remains closed and under guard.
For people who don’t understand what Asian wet markets are exactly, the move to reopen what are essentially the equivalent of farmers markets, has been seen as a disregard for the tragic outcome and likely cause of the spread of the novel coronavirus that has resulted in a global pandemic and many of us around the world staying home.
So what are Asian wet markets – because they are not unique to China, they are found all over Asian, including here in Southeast Asia – and why shouldn’t they be shut down permanently, and what should be done instead?
Asian Wet Markets – What Are They and Why Shouldn’t They Be Shut Down Permanently
What is a Wet Market?
Asian wet markets are the region’s equivalent of farmers markets. There’s everything sold from seasonal local farm produce to fresh fish and seafood and butchered meats. There’ll be herbs and spices, and smoked and fermented products, homemade items such as relishes, pickles and preserves, and snacks, sweets and baked goods, to commercial products, such as bottled and jarred condiments and cooking oils and fish sauces.
At local wet markets here in Cambodia and nearby Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, you’ll find everything represented from fresh produce sold direct from local farms – from small growers of vegetables and herbs planted and foraged from the backyard to large plantations specialising in seasonal fruits – along with produce imported from neighbouring countries.
Occasionally we also see seasonal produce that has travelled from Australia, Europe and the USA, everything from strawberries and blueberries to apples and stone fruit that aren’t grown in the tropics that might be purchased as a special treat.
Markets can vary in size from small markets found in villages with a dozen or so ramshackle stalls that are rented by sellers to more organised medium-size neighbourhood markets and massive sprawling markets in cities with hundreds of stalls that are permanent and more like shops.
Why Are They Called ‘Wet’ Markets?
The term ‘wet market’ is said to have originated in Hong Kong and Singapore to distinguish markets that focus on fresh ‘wet’ produce from ‘dry’ markets that products that are packaged, from the homemade to commercial. Although across most of Asia, you’ll find wet and dry sections of markets under the same roof.
Asian wet markets are ‘wet’ for a couple of reasons. While the markets also sell dry goods – fresh produce, smoked and preserved products, herbs and spices, condiments, etc – there is nearly always a ‘wet’ section where you’ll find freshly-caught fish and seafood sold sitting on ice, and freshly slaughtered poultry and butchered meats.
The ‘wet’ comes from the melting ice used to keep the products cold as there’s no refrigeration, and that ice will inevitably drip down from the stalls and form puddles and creates wet paths, the buckets of water that live seafood and fish swim in, as well as the water from hoses used to keep the ground clean, particularly in the butchery sections.
Why Are Wet Markets Loved by Locals
Asian wet markets are where people shop for their food and other household goods on a daily basis right across the region. While there are supermarkets, grocery stores and mini-marts in cities, suburbs and large towns, there are countless smaller towns and villages where the main place to shop for food is the daily market.
Even in big cities where there supermarkets, such as Bangkok, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, and Yangon, many locals still prefer to shop at local markets, as the produce is fresher (often grown on local farms rather than imported) and cheaper (for the same reason, because it’s come from just down the road, rather than halfway across the world). It’s also perceived as being healthier, particularly as everything is sold on the same day.
Here in Siem Reap, we might buy some products from supermarkets, but we’ll also head to the wonderful local markets for other things, particularly the fresh local herbs and spice pastes, locally grown vegetables and fruit that are native to the region that we can’t find in a supermarket, and smoked and preserved products, such as the fermented fish, prahok.
Wet markets are also loved by locals because they are a part of everyday local life and local culture, especially social life. Shoppers build relationships with vendors and stall-holders become as close to their fellow stall-holders, just as colleagues do in any workplace. They’ll enjoy a bit of gossip or at the very least a bit of banter. They’ll share meals and look out for eachother.
As I’ve seen in my Cambodia culinary research, markets also play an essential role in the preservation of culinary culture and knowledge, whether that’s in the choices the vendors make as to what products and ingredients to continue to sell, perhaps in spite of their diminishing popularity, or in the exchange of recipes and tips on how to butcher, prepare or cook ingredients with their customers.
Why Shouldn’t Wet Markets Be Shut Down Permanently
While the level of cleanliness is never going to be of the standard of a supermarket, most Asian wet markets are well-organised, clean and safe, particularly in countries like Vietnam, such as the historic Hoi An market on the waterfront you can see in the images above.
Although, of course, there are many markets where hygiene standards are not the best, where cooked products are sold alongside fresh produce, where fish are gutted beside other raw and cooked foods. And we have seen outbreaks of Covid-19 in local markets that have required a temporary closure of markets while vendors get vaccinated and the markets deep-cleaned.
Some cities and countries have greater regulation and rules when it comes to markets than others and this is what’s needed: more regulation and enforcement.
The vast majority of Asian wet markets do not sell exotic wildlife, either live or slaughtered, as the market in Wuhan did. Although of course there are markets that do and it’s these markets that provide a breeding ground for viruses which can mutate and move between species. It’s these markets that need to be shut down and their traders banned. Not all Asian wet markets.