What do you do at a wet market?

You just take tons and tons of pictures, and look like a silly tourist. Duh.


If you ever go to an Asian country, and find yourself in the middle of an open air market...with the freshest, eye-catching ingredients at your fingertips...It's truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

I'm starting my series of posts about the Philippines with this market trip for a very simple reason. I traveled with my mom and 5 of her sisters, and we all stayed in my aunt Jessica's new house. There would be a total of 14 of us under one roof, so what was the first thing we had to do when we got there? Go grocery shopping. Stock up the kitchen. 14 adults x 3 meals a day (+ snacks)...That's a lot of food. However, grocery shopping is a little different out here. While they do have commercial supermarkets, these require a bit of a drive to get to the downtown area. The "palengke", or wet market, is the first choice for fresh vegetables, meats, and pantry needs. The "wet" part comes from the water needed to wash down the concrete floors and other surfaces, since a lot of raw meat, poultry, and seafood are sold here. These markets are a foodie's Disneyland. Let me take you through the wet market in Mangaldan, Pangasinan (my mom's family's hometown province!), and show you why :)

Wet Market: Round 1 included my mom, Auntie Jessica, and my cousin Sam. At the top of our shopping list: the meat. This included fish, shellfish, chicken, pork...all of it. The province of Pangasinan sits on the shores of Lingayen Gulf, and almost everywhere you look there are fishponds. In fact, this place is well-known for their milkfish. Since seafood is in such abundance here, we naturally loaded up on the stuff. (Hello, we're in an island country, we HAD to!)

When you walk into this area of the market, you see rows of tiled countertops with nothing but fresh fish piled on, the sellers either standing nearby or cleaning/scaling an order. Some stalls might sell extras, such as eggs, bagoong (shrimp paste), or pickled vegetables.

My cousin, Sam, actually warned me before we arrived, "Don't speak English. They'll know you're American and jack the prices up." My mom, in a very I-won't-let-them-bullsh**-me tone, absolutely disagreed.

"Take all the pictures you want. Say whatever you want."

Mom has lived in the United States for over 25 years, and when she came to the market, she definitely looked like an outsider. Nice clothes, pretty purse, designer sunglasses...But once she started speaking in their dialect and picking products, she fit right in and it was like she never left the place.

Shrimp and tilapia are staples in a Filipino household, something you just grow up eating. But what caught my attention was the size of what was available. The shrimp were huge! No dinky ones here. These were plump and meaty. Also, in a complete 180, the tilapia that we bought were a lot smaller than what I was used to. Their baby size made them perfect for frying whole and for individual portions when eating. (I'm pretty sure I usually grabbed 3...or 4...at dinnertime.)

The oysters here might look a little sketchy, with their shells dark and muddy-looking. But, they're as sweet and succulent as an oyster should be. They are smaller, so it's easy to gobble up twice as many as you normally would. (Which I did...Every. Time.) 7 out of 10 stalls had a pile of oysters on the corner of their countertop. Some vendors had pre-shucked ones available, for dishes like stewed oysters or a ceviche-like preparation. And those funky, grape-looking things in the bottom-right picture? Sea grape seaweed! Not as briny as you would normally expect seaweed to taste, sea grapes have a very mild, salty flavor and have a texture similar to tobiko (tho orange specks on top of your sushi). They're a refreshing pop in your mouth when you eat them, whether as-is with fried fish or mixed into a salad of tomatoes and onions as a side to grilled dishes.

As eye-catching as nearly everything was, there was one more standout: the mussels! We didn't actually buy any, and unfortunately didn't get the chance to eat any during our trip, but they looked so pretty that I couldn't help but snap a photo. (Just look at the pretty green and blue!)

Because of how bright and open the seafood area is, it's quite a drastic change in scenery when you walk through all of the meat vendors. It's darker and a lot more crowded. And loud, too. You hear cleavers pounding through meat and striking butcher block, one bang after another.

I walked by huge cuts of pork, just hanging from pipes on thick hooks. It was like a Bloomingdales for meat, the freshly butchered pigs like pricey clothes on a rack. Oh, and chicken. Chicken. Everywhere. Whole ones, halves, chicken sliced into drumsticks and wings. I did love their butcher blocks, though! Cut from tree stumps, they still had their natural shape.

After chicken and pork, sausages were the next most common item. But, first, I have to tell you about Lolit. Lolit is the older woman in the top-left photo (I really wish I got a better photo of her :/), and my grandmother was, what the Filipino would call, a "suki" to her before my grandmother passed away. The "suki system" is when a relationship develops between a loyal customer and a specific supplier, lasting for a very long period of time. The "suki" usually goes back to that same supplier because of product quality and their pricing. My mom didn't color her hair before our trip, so when she showed up at Lolit's stall in all her gray-haired glory, Lolit had one of those misty-eyed moments when she thought she was seeing a vision of my grandmother. I watched them laugh and chatter away. It was a touching moment...right there, amongst the pork...

As for the sausages, longanisa is another staple in Filipino households. It's a garlicky, seasoned sausage that can be spicy, salty, or sweet, depending on the region in which it was made. There were also regular hot dogs sold alongside the longanisa. The sausage links were everywhere, almost at every other vendor. Some stuffed theirs by hand, and others stuffed theirs mechanically. Either way, it was fascinating to watch all the work they put into their products and to see the process firsthand, from start to finish.

My mom, Auntie Jessica, Sam, and I already navigated our way through plenty...but we had barely scratched the surface of this big market. While looking around, I noticed a couple of things that weren't exactly new, just different. The eggs here are piled high on woven baskets and organized by size. The prices were per egg, and you can buy any number of them that you like (not just the standard dozen or 18 ct that we're used to back home). The rice is also sold in bulk, priced per kilo, and not in the 25 lb or 50 lb bags like at stateside Asian markets. My mom explained that the large quantities and packaging we're used to aren't exactly affordable for those living in the province. This way, anyone can just purchase the specific amount they need. Just enough, not too much.

Coconuts are definitely not a new thing to me. Having gigantic piles of them everywhere, however, is a different story. My aunt's explanation: The brown, mature coconuts are cracked open, and emptied of their water. The coconut is then grated, using an automatic machine that has rotating, jagged-edged blades. You then take the freshly grated coconut home and squeeze it for fresh coconut milk. While this process requires much more effort than...oh, say...using a handy can-opener to open a 14 oz. can of coconut milk, I'm sure the flavor of freshly squeezed, creamy coconut milk is much more delicious. (I'd stick a straw in that bowl. Seriously.)

Whenever I shop at Asian markets in California, I'm already blown away by the variety of fruits and vegetables that are available. Shopping for produce in the Philippines was just straight up euphoric. There were bamboo shoots (the dark brown, pointy things at the bottom of the first photo...did you know that's what they actually look like??), squash blossoms, okra (a lot bigger and longer than what I'm used to seeing, too), eggplant, a variety of leafy greens, banana blossoms (the purple, pod-looking ones at the top-leftt corner of the first photo), tomatoes, chili peppers, and even young green jackfruit (the spiky, green pods also at the top-left corner of the first photo).

After all of the vegetables, the fruits didn't disappoint either...Bananas, beautiful golden papayas, green mangoes, and rather large avocados...These avocados have either a bright green or deep purple skin, but the inside of both is yellow and super creamy. The flesh of the green mangoes were crisp and sour. The bananas and papaya were extremely ripe and sweet.

I noticed how some vendors would cut up certain vegetables and pack them in plastic bags, selling these pre-mixed veggies at a single fixed price. For example, this photo has squash and long beans that can be stewed in coconut milk (ginataang sitaw at kalabasa). Another vendor had cabbage, red pepper, and carrots for stir-fried noodles (pancit). It reminds me of buying salad mixes or frozen mixed veggies at the supermarket, only better!

As I was walking, I thought there couldn't possibly be anymore for me to see. But nope...MORE FRUITS! Bananas, again. So many bananas. Don't get me wrong, though, I'm not complaining. I absolutely loved snacking on these little bananas at all hours of the day. These ones were shorter, thicker, and a lot sweeter than the bananas I'm used to. (Yeah, small size...easier to gobble up twice as many as you usually would...you can see where I'm going with this...) The round fruits with the orange-brown peels are called "santol," and I was told that they're a sweet and sour fruit. However, after also being told that accidentally ingesting their seeds can cause some serious damage to your intestines and possibly kill you, I...uh...kept my distance. They were sold alongside even more green mangoes, and a few over-ripe papayas. A couple stalls over, there was a ton of calamansi. These small, round citrus fruits have green rinds, but have pretty orange pulp on the inside. If I had to compare its flavor to other citrus, I'd say it's a cross between a lime and an orange. Their flavor is very unique, sour at first with a sweet finish. They can be used to make calamansi "juice", which is made similarly to lemonade, to flavor sauces, or to serve alongside dishes as a condiment.

Oh, you thought I was done talking about the fruits? No. Hang with me, I saved the best for last. My hands-down favorites throughout our entire trip were the longans, rambutans, and lanzones. If the flesh and flavor of a grape (think real grapes here, not the purple artificial stuff) and the appearance, texture, and flavor of a lychee had love children...longans, rambutans, and lanzones would be those children. They're all sweet, juicy, and everything you'd want a tropical fruit to be.

More often than not, I found myself with a plate on my lap...piled high with sweet and delectable lychees, longans, rambutans, and lanzones...sitting on the veranda or in the living room with my mom, aunts, and cousin.

The benefits of shopping at farmers market are not limited to simply having the ability to cook with fresh and high-quality ingredients, but also include finding rare items that pique your interest and push you to learn something new, appreciating the labor that goes behind getting products from farm to stand, and savoring the flavors of something raw and natural.

So, equipped with our market fresh produce and meats, my family and I were ready to create delicious dishes. My cousin Sam and I were eager to watch, listen, and learn as our moms thoughtfully and expertly transformed our market buys :)