In the harrowing early days of the pandemic, Prin Polsuk, a preeminent chef and scholar of Thai cuisine, could source many of his ingredients directly from farms and suppliers outside of Bangkok. But still, he visited Khlong Toei, one of the largest wet markets in Thailand, almost every day.
“The market makes me feel alive,” he tells me over a choppy video call, his youthful face framed by salt-and-pepper scruff. “I go there to get inspired.”
Wandering through Khlong Toei late one night during the year I spent cooking in Thailand, I was overwhelmed by this very aliveness. There were mountains of multi-colored chile pastes, mounds of bright red rambutan, stacks of dried squid and snake beans. The air was vibrant with the sharp smells of charcoal smoke and chili spice, and the buzz of conversation.
But as the pandemic ravages the globe, the future of wet markets appears uncertain. Early reports tracing the origin of COVID-19 to live wild animals sold in the Huanan market in Wuhan, China triggered an international panic, with many powerful figures calling for the worldwide 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 a Fox & Friends interview in early April, citing the dangers of wildlife trade. Five days later, a bipartisan group of 66 US lawmakers echoed him in a statement calling for the “global shut down” of “live wildlife markets, known as ‘wet’ markets.” Recent evidence undermines the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus originated in Huanan, but demands for the elimination of wet markets have continued to spread. In their haste to act, the international community is at risk of making a catastrophic mistake.
The sale of wild animals does present health risks—though experts caution against a global ban—but wet markets rarely sell wildlife at all. Possibly derived from the Cantonese for fresh produce—濕貨 (sup for), literally “wet goods”—the phrase was first used in Singapore and Hong Kong to describe markets selling fruit, vegetables, and prepared meat in open stalls, with perhaps a few live fish in buckets or chickens awaiting slaughter. In the panicked rush to cover the emerging pandemic, foreign journalists and political figures stripped the phrase of its nuance, equating wet markets and live wildlife markets.
This confusion has proven difficult to eradicate, perhaps in part because it plays into longstanding, toxic stereotypes of Asian (and more specifically, Chinese) eating habits. In his comprehensive history of American Chinese food, From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express, Haiming Liu quotes an 1853 column in the Daily Alta California that falsely claims “[r]ats, lizards, mud-terrapins, rank and indigestible shell fish… have been and continue to be, the food of the ‘no ways partickler’ Celestial, where flour, beef and bacon, and other fare suitable to the stomachs of ‘white folk’ abound.” Nearly a century later, in the 1944 hit, Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland sings: “Chinaman eats dead rats, chews them up like gingersnaps!”
Some of the recent coverage of wet markets veers 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 butchered dogs, set to foreboding music. This video is hardly alone in blurring the line between health concerns and cultural attacks.
“I admit [wet markets] are dirty,” says Chalee Kader, chef of 100 Mahaseth and Surface in Bangkok. But though he believes 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 cooking take risks of infection or spoilage into account. “Every culture has their own way of maneuvering around these things to cook in a way that makes sure they’re safe,” he observes. In Thailand, this means dishes with a squeeze of citrus or a shower of herbs rich in antimicrobial properties, and ancient fermentation technologies used to preserve fish, shrimp, soy beans, and other perishable foods.
Frank Hartwich, an agricultural economist working for the United Nations, sees “hazards” in wet markets that sell unrefrigerated meat, saying they “harbor all kinds of diseases.” But when I ask him about shifting informal sector food supply completely into supermarkets, he calls the idea “complete madness.” Wet markets, he explains, support an intricate network of local, small-scale 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 narrow their margins, preventing them from driving up prices.
“The more established companies in the world… are fighting this informal market,” he tells me. “They want to just get rid of it because it’s in their way.” Wet markets, then, protect both consumers and local producers—as well as vendors—from being priced out of a rapidly globalizing, industrializing economic space. But their value goes beyond pure economics.
When I finished a two month stage 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 for a next step in my study of Thai food. Songvisava hardly hesitated. “Go to the markets,” she instructed. Wet markets, she explained, are not just sources of ingredients, but also reservoirs of cultural knowledge.
Chef Kader, another advocate for local and sustainable ingredients, often taps this knowledge in developing his menus. “If you’re looking at some vegetable,” Kader explains, “[vendors will] ask you about it, ‘what are you going to do with it?’ That five or ten seconds of conversation, that exchange gives you this knowledge you cannot find in any book or at any supermarket. Nothing compares to it.”
And in contrast to the streamlined uniformity of produce and products typical of supermarkets, wet markets, particularly in Thailand, display a regional specificity and variety of ingredients I find staggering. “You can be dropped into a wet market in Thailand,” says Austin Bush, a photographer and author who has spent the last fifteen years covering the intricacies of Thai food culture. “If you were familiar with Thai food and looked around a bit you would probably be able to determine what province you were in just by the stuff on offer there.”
Traveling the country by bus, on Chef Songvisava’s advice, I got a taste of the markets’ diversity. In Nan, a town in northern Thailand, I saw market stalls heaped with bundles of mouth-numbing makhwen; stacks of the dried, fermented soy cakes called tua nao; and wild-foraged greens like bitter dragon tongue, to be grilled and served with laap. In Trang, a southern town near the Andaman coast, the markets were filled with vegetables harvested in the nearby hills; tannic purple-green cashew leaves and mango shoots; fresh fish mere minutes from the sea. Even an hour’s travel by bus was reflected in the shifting contents of the markets, the kaleidoscopic display of a culture deeply attuned to place.
Wet markets’ value can, perhaps most directly, be measured in their resilience, even in the face of government and corporate pressure. In 2002, China instituted the “Wet Market Transforming into Food Supermarket” program. But a 2015 paper, published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, describes the attempted transformation as “painfully slow,” citing consumers’ preference for traditional markets as a key factor. When I ask Chef Kader if he thinks supermarkets will ultimately replace wet markets in Thailand, he shakes his head. “I think they’re 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 hardly new. In the early 20th century, New York’s Lower East Side was filled with over 2,500 pushcart vendors selling affordable produce and other goods. But in 1938, in preparation for the World’s Fair, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia cracked down on the pushcarts, driving many vendors out of business and herding others into covered markets designed to hide them from the public eye.
Food historian Sarah Lohman sees this as one factor in the eventual depopulation of the Lower East Side, as a thriving neighborhood was deprived of a critical source of food, income, and community. Far from an inevitable march of progress, Lohman views this transformation as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. In his contempt for the market, LaGuardia remade it as something less vital, less useful to the community, than what it had been.
When I mention American lawmakers’ more recent determination to eliminate wet markets to Chef Jones, he doesn’t mince words. “Idiots,” he spits. In the international community’s haste to condemn wet markets, Jones sees fear of infection risk dovetailing nicely with governmental and corporate interests. “If you want to really safeguard humanity,” Jones suggests, “you should probably stop industrial farming completely and localize food chains and food systems.” This may be unfeasible, but the research seems to support him.
As Takeshi Watanabe, food historian and professor of East Asian studies at Wesleyan University, puts it, “a slaughterhouse is not necessarily more hygienic than a market.” Though industrial meat production is accompanied by a whole range of sanitation technologies, from antibiotics to cold chain storage, research suggests that it remains higher risk than low-volume, backyard husbandry. The wholesale replacement of wet markets (which tend to support small-scale, local agriculture) with supermarkets (which favor international commodity meat and big agriculture), could accelerate dangerous trends in the food system.
Extrapolating existing dynamics in the system, Watanabe imagines this transformation reaching nearly comical extremes. “Let’s say that China shuts down wet markets completely,” he muses. “Does it mean we’re going to have more pigs flying to China, you know, on Boeing 747s? It’s not actually as outlandish as it sounds.”
As the food system shifts around them, wet markets are changing, too. “Now everything’s commercial, chemical, big farms, they don’t concentrate on quality,” says Chef Polsuk. “Not the same, I feel, as before when I was young.” As large agro-business spreads, and small scale local farmers are threatened, some of the variety is lost. Where in Polsuk’s childhood in rural Lampang, the local market was filled with produce fresh-picked from the fields, now refrigeration allows for days-old product to make it into the markets, only to wilt within hours of purchase. With growing competition from supermarkets and pressure to improve their sanitation practices, there is no doubt that wet markets will continue to transform in the coming years.
Chef Polsuk agrees more change is coming, but on this he seems wistful. Many markets in Bangkok, he tells me, have already tightened their regulations. But he thinks Khlong Toei, whose tightly choreographed chaos has swirled on through the pandemic, is the most alive. And as Bangkok stirs after months of lockdown, that’s still where you’ll find him, in the small hours of the morning, searching for inspiration.
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