A Dujiangyan Market
Local markets are one of the best places to feel the pulse of China. They not only sell a whole host of the weird and wonderful, but also are a delight for the creative photographer looking for snapshots of the unusual. Normally these places are at their most frenetic during the early mornings of the designated market days. Then there is a hectic bustle of buyer and seller, local smallholders trying to offload their produce while customers haggle for the best price. The very foundations of modern China were set in the market place for it was here that free-enterprise re-emerged post revolution – small holders, free of the old agricultural collective system, able to sell their wares independently of the state.
Although modern China is rapidly picking up the global taste for the big supermarket shop, towns the size of Dujiangyan still contain a market in each district. Chengdu is also a great place for hunting down a market – colours, textures, weird foods, strange smells, exotic spices, people-watching, fantastic hardware, pots, bamboo, tofu – remember your camera!
Pepper is god in Sichuan - food is so important and chilli is one of the staple ingredients to Sichuan cuisine. At the market chillies are an important sales item, dried peppers being ground and powdered on site. That last shot is of a typical Sichuan dish, bamboo and beef, a hot chilli soup that certainly shows how a "few" peppers can colour up a local dish.
Some of the more unusual stuff you can buy. From Left to right; quail eggs, Harry Potter style brooms, raw sugar, “1000-year-old” eggs, hand scales and dried kelp. The sugar is wonderful stuff, unrefined, full of vitamins from sugar cane, where the molasses has not been removed. So different from normal granulated white sugar. A great article on Chinese brown sugars can be found here. Those 1000-year-old eggs are far younger and pickled. The hand scales come with small weights that balance a load on the other end of the beam – looking like something from an antique shop. The kelp is a favourite in soups, especially one made with pig trotters. Considering the distance to the nearest coast, just over 1000 kilometres from Chengdu, this must have been quite a luxury foodstuff in the past.
Tofu comes in many varieties at the market. Some is smoked, other types are fermented and strong tasting, while you have hard and soft tofu and of course chilli covered variations. Tofu is basically coagulated soybean milk but there are also equivalents made from other beans types. It’s a very cheap food and dishes containing tofu are often flavoured up using chilli and other stronger tasting sauces. The fermented tofu has a strong flavour that is hard to describe. Maybe the best equivalent to the western palate is a ripe flavoured soft French cheese. By the way to say tofu in Chinese say doufu – dou means bean.
Edible fungi are another Chinese favourite, and they can be found in abundance on the vegetable stalls. Cultivated mushrooms species include Oyster Mushroom, Chestnut Mushroom and the strange looking Wood Ear. But other stalls sell dried wild fungi, of which many are gathered from the same forest habitat as used by pandas. Being wild they are considered by many to be a medicine food, and varieties that are reputed to counter certain health conditions can fetch high prices.