Noryangjin fish market (eryoni)

The 8 oddest food markets in the world (and what to buy there)

1st July 2010

From Paris to Afghanistan: the greatest places on earth to get your saliva flowing (and buy sea slugs)

Stefan Gates

I travel to eat.

It started when I was nine years old and my family somehow scraped together enough money for a set of round-the-world flights. The trip was both terrifying and magical, and although we met mountains, cities, monuments and new friends, what I really became obsessed with were the food markets that we came across.

After the revelation of eating raw meat and fish in Tokyo’s Tsukiji (which felt outrageously naughty) and the mesmerising cacophony of Mumbai’s markets, I found myself wide-eyed and open-mouthed in a soup of street stalls in Hong Kong, watching live frogs being nonchalantly dispatched by the stallholder’s hatchet.

It was obvious that these places were the beating heart and stomach of a country. Food is the vital stuff that flows from the land into the people, where it’s metabolised into the blood, fat and bones that make us what we are. Markets are the cultural, economic and gossip hubs that make it all happen, and they are inevitably microcosms of their countries.

I’ve spent the past few years in a culinary antechamber of heaven, exploring the most extraordinary lands on the planet making Cooking in the Danger Zone for the BBC. On my travels I never feel I know a country, city or town until I’ve visited its markets, got my bearings and understood its noises, smells and flavours.

They can be unbearably frustrating places too: I always want to buy the strange and wonderful foods on offer, but if I’m staying in a hotel room with no cooking facilities, it’s impossible to prepare them. These days, I tend to travel with a little foldaway charcoal burner, and I’ll buy a cheap pan wherever I visit so I can cook whatever I buy.

Oh, and if you visit a market of strange foods in a strange town, be sure to ask the stallholders their advice on cooking – you will occasionally find yourself invited back after closing time for the meal of your life.

1. La Merced, Mexico City, Mexico

This vast indoor market offers some of the wildest foods I’ve ever seen. There are whole sections dedicated to cacti displayed in huge circular towers. There are chilli sections where they stock hundreds of different varieties: the large chocolate-brown types are sweet and musky, but beware of the nasty little light-red ones – they are likely to smack you in the chops.

The best section is the weird food area. You’ll know it when you see it: it’s the one with large cakes of smoked duck entrails, bright-red tiny crayfish and large bags of scrofulous old tat that you’d never believe was edible (usually pre-Hispanic-era foods loved by the Aztecs and Mayans).

Try the edible flies that get stuck in your teeth forever, or the ant eggs that are soft with a creamy, sweet taste. At $80 per kilo you can buy fly eggs (they crunch on your teeth like tough caviar) that you mix with egg and chopped cactus to make fly-egg omelettes. They don’t taste of much, but the texture is like nothing else on earth.

Buy: Escamoles (ant eggs) and jumiles (large fleas)

2. Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, South Korea

This is the best market in the world for the intrepid gastronaut.

Not only can you buy every grotesque piscine nether-dweller, mollusc, crawler and bottom-feeder that ever cropped up in your nightmares, you can also take them upstairs to one of the first-floor gallery’s bring-your-own restaurants, where they will cook your shopping for you. It’s brilliant: no cooking skills are required. You just hand over your bag of slimy mess to the waitress, pay a small cookage (like corkage) fee, and buy rice, kimchi (fermented cabbage) and beer to go with it. The stallholders are remarkably friendly, but don’t expect to get much cooking advice as few seem to speak English.

I ate sea slug here for the first time. The cook started by giving it a good squeeze, popping its intestines out and handing them to me to eat (a little sour, truth be told). Then she just cut the still-wriggling slug into neat slices and handed them to me in a bowl.

If that’s too much for you, don’t worry, most things get a proper cooking.

Buy: Sea slug, percebe (barnacle), king crab, huge prawns

3. Slavutych, northern Ukraine

Just a few miles away from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is Slavutych, which has the only market in the world with a radiation-testing lab so you can check your food before eating it. In 1986 a failed experiment caused the world’s worst nuclear accident, and tons of radioactive dust were deposited across Europe. Slavutych got more than its fair share.

Now it’s effectively a dormitory town for the several thousand workers still employed in decommissioning the power station and its ‘Zone of Alienation’, where nobody is supposed to live (but which you can sometimes visit as a tourist).

The stallholders are mainly ancient babushkas selling root vegetables, hunks of the family pig, cucumbers for pickling or bundles of porcini mushrooms. But the radiation-testing station is the most amazing thing about it, designed specifically for monitoring the food on sale. Every vendor has a certificate proving that their produce is currently within safe levels of radiation. However, I went mushroom picking with the local mayor and our haul turned out to be eight times the safe radiation level…

Buy: Tiny curly cucumbers. Don’t buy the mushrooms – they are the most likely foodstuff to be radioactive

4. Donghuamen Night Market, Beijing, China

I’ve never heard as much squealing in any market as I have here, although most is actually human squealing. The Chinese seem to eat everything and waste nothing – nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than at this small strip of stalls specialising in the most extraordinary foods that ever peeped their unfortunate heads out of the ground. Try grilled snakeskins, squab pigeon kebabs (you eat the whole bird: head, bones and feet), cockroaches, vast silkworm larvae and assorted grilled field flotsam.

The market feels a little touristy – all the stalls are decked out in the same colours, and the stallholders have clearly got their Englishesque patter from years of flogging bugs to foreigners. That said, the tourists are mainly Chinese. It’s a classic place for a young Beijing lad to bring his girlfriend on a night out to shock her with his gastronomic bravery. Hence the squeals.

Buy: Scorpions, skewered alive and then dropped into boiling oil

5. Mercado, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

This is Africa’s largest open-air market, a seemingly endless network of streets and shops. It can be pretty overwhelming, and at first it seems like there’s not a lot to buy except dodgy shirts and shoes. But look closer and you’ll spot weird little shops selling ecclesiastical tools-of-trade to the Ethiopian Orthodox church folk – indoor umbrellas, incense-burners, fabulous hats and robes in spangly designs.

The spice shops sell the famous Ethiopian chilli called berbere – a smoky, hot speciality that’s essential for making the great doro wat curry – arguably the Ethiopian national dish alongside injera (a blanket-like bread that looks like tripe).

There are also stalls selling raw beef and whisky, another local speciality. The whole cow carcass hangs in a booth at the front; just point at the bit you’d like and the butcher chops it into a few large steaks. He’ll give you a rusty-looking knife (I’d bring your own, if I were you), and a small pot of spices. A liberal slug of whisky traditionally accompanies the beef, although I’ll admit to preferring beer. It may seem odd to be eating raw beef in Ethiopia, but it’s great.

Buy: ‘Fake banana’, a mash-like stodge with a good sour kick

6. Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand

This is the largest market in Thailand, with around 15,000 stalls, many of them small-scale traders selling a single product. The best way to get there is by noisy, daredevil-driven tuk-tuk, which helps prepare you for the frenetic and cacophonous feel of the market, with its shouty traders, raucous hagglers and booming music stalls. Thai markets, more than any I’ve visited, give you a real insight into the people and the ordered chaos of the country.

The markets are full of food stalls offering the usual selections of pad thai and tom yam that are dirt-cheap but often taste fantastic. I love the myriad insects, rats and bats, and I recommend trying grasshoppers and cockroaches, but bear in mind that they are a little like crisps – the oil delivers most of the flavour, so if the stall has a large pot of dirty brown oil that’s clearly been around for weeks, the insects will taste musky and murky. Try the deep-fried quail eggs –surprisingly refined for a market snack.

Buy: Roasted cockroaches and deep-fried grasshoppers

7. Microrayn Market, Kabul, Afghanistan

Markets in Kabul are fascinating for being there at all. While Afghanistan is broadly failing to improve its levels of human development, its vibrant markets are a testament to the power of food to bring order, structure and employment to turmoil. Also, the vast majority of Afghans are warm, helpful and exceptionally friendly to Westerners – that legendary Arab tradition of hospitality lives and breathes throughout all the difficulty the Afghan people are facing.

Kabul has a great tradition of picnicking, so at the weekends you should buy some meat and charcoal at the markets and head out with the rest of the city to find any patch of land you can for a barbecue. Although most of Kabul’s food markets seem to float on a sea of mud and excrement, the oddly named Microrayn is a little more structured, with tarmac roads and many permanent stalls plus decent-looking butchers and vegetable stalls. The butchers are fantastic: they have mincing machines that are made from old car engines, and once you’ve bought your meat, they will turn it on using a car key and rev it using an accelerator pedal. I’d avoid the livid-pink deep-fried Coronary Express Afghan Hamburgers though. Nothing good can come from them.

Buy: The testicles of the fat-tailed sheep. Apparently they have the potency of 1,000 Viagra!

8. Rungis, Paris, France

Rungis is where the world’s most refined chefs come to find the finest, most exquisite ingredients available to man. It’s on the southern fringes of Paris (about 11km from the centre), it opens at midnight and closes by 7am. This is the world’s largest wholesale market, covering a vast and, frankly, unattractive plot of 2.3 sq km. It’s so big that it has its own train station and motorway exit. The Pavilion de la Chasse (the Game Hall) is one of the great highlights of Rungis – it’s crammed full of the finest pheasants, hares, pigeon and woodcock. The Triperie is also spectacular: an intestinal festival, whose ingredients go to make the famous andouillette sausages the French are so fond of, but which taste largely of sweaty pants.

This is a wholesale market, so you’ll need to join an official group tour (find out more at www.visiterungis.com). If you can’t arrange a visit to Rungis, any large French city market is a great experience both for the fantastic range of foods on offer and the extraordinary level of respect that the French traders show to their produce.

Buy: Elvers – tiny baby eels, which are practically impossible to find anywhere else in Europe.

Stefan Gates' latest book On E Numbers is out now

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