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To market, to market13 Jan 2015
We swap out white-washed walls, rows of ceiling-high shelves and the harsh fluorescent lights of a typical supermarket for the seemingly overwhelming scene (and scent) of a local wet market, the heartbeat of a community
"Malaysia is one of the best places in the world to shop at markets. I go to Brickfields for my Indian spices. Bangsar’s Village Grocer is a good one to go for other things like home supplies. I shop at TTDI markets too,” offers Sapna Anand enthusiastically as we chat for the first time over the phone.
Practically Malaysian, having lived in Kuala Lumpur for 14 years, the cooking instructor turned author of New Indian Kitchen is at ease at the Bangsar morning market in Lucky Garden.
Sapna exudes a determined spirit, having had to reschedule our meeting from the previous day after coming down with a fever, and insists on making it to the shoot the very next day. “Give me a day,” she says, “I’ll be fine.”
“Papaya! Nangka! Papaya sweet!” shout the vendors from their makeshift stalls — stacked plastic fruit crates and foldable wooden tables that peel and warp around the edges.
As our photographer and I wait for Sapna to return with a shopping bag from her car, we take shelter from the 10am sunrays by a lorry parked next to the fruit stand and fish stall.
The air is fresh in the outdoor market but has the predictable fishy smell of wet prawn shells. The vendors greet everyone else just the same with a friendly “Cho san! Good morning!” whether it’s a stylishly dressed local with her help, a granny with her entourage, or a seasoned expat (given away by their localised marketwear: plain sports shorts, faded t-shirt and unbranded flip-flops).
“I’m glad I came along today. It’s good to be out,” says Sapna who is still recovering from an inflamed throat.
Without missing a beat, she starts off her shopping trip, ducking under the umbrellas of vendors. Making our way over the wet patches, a mix of fish juice and water, on the tarred grounds of the market, we trail behind Sapna who breezes her way through with sturdy red ballet flats, a contrast to the vendors’ yellow and black gumboots. She stops at a seafood stall to linger over a small pile of large prawns.
“How much, half kilo?” she asks.
“RM25. All sea prawns. Take all, I give you 50 ringgit,” says the young fishmonger, who stands at just over five feet tall with smiley eyes.
Sapna tries to bargain but he doesn’t budge. Instead, armed with pearly whites, he proceeds to justify his pricing that morning.
“He is being very nice. He smiles and he gets his price,” says Sapna with the slightest hint of defeat in her voice as she fishes for her purse in her handbag.
“You see, I’m so nice. You give me one piece, I give you three piece back,” he jokes as he hands Sapna two tens and a five ringgit note in exchange for her RM50 bill.
Though the presentation style and storage methods of meats and seafood at most Malaysian wet markets — usually laid out in the open on metal trays of ice, or what’s left of it — may not be as appealing to expats who are used to the clinical presentation in deli windows, Sapna has no qualms.
“I buy most of my meat from the market. Although sometimes, when I’m looking for New Zealand lamb, that’s the only thing I probably buy from the grocery store. Otherwise, everything else I’ll get from the market,” she says, citing notable changes throughout the years.
“When I first got here and saw the list of grocery stores, there was no Village Grocer then. There was Cold Storage in Bangsar Shopping Centre and there used to be Hock Choon. But now a lot has changed since I came in 1999. It’s much more commercial now.
For culinary fans, experimenting with local ingredients — either learning to use them the old-fashioned way or incorporating them into dishes from home — is a must-do.
As for Sapna, her curiosity with the local community and specialities has led to some of her greatest market finds.
“Torch ginger flower is my best purchase by far. I used to look at it for so many years. Now I’m always using it everywhere, it’s so good. I tried it and made a salad, my mother-in-law’s recipe; I use it with mung bean and pomegranate."
"To me, I think that was one of the best things I’ve discovered and I wouldn’t have known about it if I wasn’t brave enough to ask and try. A Malay lady who I met at the market — she only carries Malaysian things from home, grown organically — shared this with me. We’ve come to a point where we exchange recipes now.
Photos by Andrew Chan