Petanak Wet Market, Kuching, Sarawak

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This article by one of Australia’s best-known food bloggers Cynthia, aka The Food Pornographer, first appeared in my digital iPad App, Truly Malaysian, last year. This is reprinted with permission as a lead-up to my series of upcoming recipes and videos from my own visit to Kuching, Sarawak recently. All photos in this post are the property of Cynthia.

About The Food Pornographer –

Migrating to Australia when she was 10 years old, Cyn is now a proud Western Australian – but will always be Malaysian in heart and appetite. She likes her prawns bursty, egg yolks gooey and and when it comes to food she will give most things a go. Cyn takes photographs and tells stories about food and travel. Check out Cyn’s blog at http://thefoodpornographer.com/ Follow her on Twitter – http://twitter.com/TFPtweets

Morning at the Wet Market

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As a child in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I used to go with my mum to the wet market early in the morning before school. I woke up at half-past four, stumbled from bed in the dark, brushed my teeth and pulled on my school uniform. My motivation was the promise of a hot breakfast.

I dreaded walking through the seafood market on the slimy, wet, fishy floor and I slipped more than once. I was secretly repulsed by the meat market with its overpowering smell of raw pork and chicken and a tiled floor splattered with blood and guts. But after buying our groceries and before heading to school, we’d stop by the hawker stalls for noodles.

Now as an adult visiting Petanak Market in Kuching, I feel conspicuously far away from my adopted home in Australia, but I’m vividly reminded of my childhood fears of the raw meat market and perilous fishy floor.

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I recognise only some of the fish species, and they all look so fresh, shiny and plump, plucked from the net not so long ago. At every stall is a collection of items used for the different steps of the fish cleaning process; recycled plastic tubs, buckets, strainers – and at least one well-used heavy wooden chopping block.

At the meat section a large sign hangs from the ceiling listing porky parts for sale. There are slabs of meat hanging from hooks or piled on wooden planks, flattened cardboard boxes stained with blood and juice. I recognise ribs, trotters, jaws with teeth intact; a hanging pig’s head, slack like an empty mask, speared through the snout with ears drooping. Wherever you walk, there are pink bits of flesh and fat on the floor and despite the warm conditions there’s no refrigeration to be seen, but this is routine for the sweaty, knife-wielding Chinese butchers and their customers buying meat for dinner.

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It’s a comfort to escape the slippery floor and lose myself in the dry goods section. Everything there is just as evocative though; the smelly dried anchovies in sacks, bags of colourful little gem biscuits, pink bottles of cincalok made from fermented shrimps. Vegetable sellers are exchanging jokes and gossip, a woman sitting in the corner on a stool is smashing her cleaver into prickly coconut husks, a vendor is solemnly doing calculations in his dog-eared notebook; wherever I look, there’s so much life to see.

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Whether you’re a photographer, people watcher, or traveller – and even if you prefer to shop at the supermarket – the local wet market is an honest, sensory wonder that’s well worth experiencing.

Cynthia Chew

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