WET markets are fascinating and whenever I visit a new destination, they will be one of the must-see places on my itinerary.
Whether it is a huge facility in a big town or a couple of stalls set up by the roadisde in a small village, I rarely give the wet market a miss. Things that you find in the wet market can add interesting memories to your trips.
Earlier this year, for instance, I had sought out the wet market in Endau, near Mersing, Johor, when visiting the coastal town for the first time.
I was fascinated by this wet market because it was located adjacent to a fish landing area as well as some shipyards. Like most coastal markets, this one was probably as old as the town itself.
Most wet markets in coastal towns in the country came about as a fish trading area, set up by the riverbank or near a jetty at the beach.
People gathered there to purchase the freshest catch from the sea and as the town grew, more traders came and sold a wider range of merchandise, and it eventually became a proper wet market.
It was at the Endau wet market that I had come across an odd-looking severed head of a marine creature that I first mistook for a dolphin.
When I walked closer, the fishmonger read the concern written all over my face and was quick to reassure me that it was only an eagle ray.
“Locals call it pari lang. Not much commercial value,” he said.
This species of ray is common in the seas off the Pahang coast but are seldom caught in large numbers or in big sizes because they are believed to be solitary creatures, he explained.
When I asked the man why the head was displayed on the box and not sold with the body, he laughed and said he was waiting for some Chinese to buy it for fish head curry.
I didn’t know whether he was joking and but if I know fish head curries, I have never heard of head of such rays being used in the Malaysian favourite. But I could be wrong — ray head curries could be a less-known delicacy among the community in Endau.
One of my most memorable ventures to wet markets was the one in Kuantan town, near the bus station. When I was there sometime early this year, I saw a fishmonger cutting up a monster of a fish.
It turned out to be a large game fish with its dorsal fin and snout chopped off.
I gathered that it could be a full-grown marlin from what was left on the chopping table. In less than a minute that we were there, the fish was all cut up and sold off to ready buyers.
When I asked the fishmonger what the fish was, he said it was a todak. I told him it was pity to have killed such a magnificent fish. I told him that such fish were usually “caught and released” by game anglers.
Scientists tag them for research. It was such a waste, I told the man who nodded in agreement.
“But when the fishermen go out to sea, not many return with bountiful catch,” he explained. “During such times, even fish like this one will be brought back and sold.”
When I asked if the flesh cooked into a palatable meal, knowing how tough the meat of big fish could be, he replied: “Yes. We make fishballs out of them, but usually we use it for keropok (fish crackers).”
I stumbled upon another fish that was less favoured by fish eaters at the Pasar Kedai Payang of Kuala Terengganu. The fish is known as aruan tasik or cobia in English. The Hokkiens call it hai lui — loosely translated as “snakehead of the sea”.
My wife, who had been with me on many fishing trips, mistook it for a huge toman (giant snakehead).
The head of this fish is similar to that of haruan or the toman. But if you look at the tail, you will be able to know the difference — the aruan tasik has a V-shaped tail while the freshwater namesake has roundish ones.
In Muar, not too long ago, my wife stumbled upon a tray of a species of flat fish being dried as salted fish.
It was a rarely seen fish, just like the cobia, but I had seen it many times when I was a kid. It turned out to be ikan kapak, or the razor moonfish.
Apparently this species is abundant in the waters of the Malacca Straits and people make salted fish out of them.
Wet markets are not only about fish but it is also where you can find local fruits as well. Many times I have stumbled upon indigenous fruits that I did not know exist on our land.
For instance, it was my first time to see buah perah at the Kuala Terengganu wet market sometime this year. This jungle fruit (or nut) is a favourite in Terengganu and Pahang, and could be made into crackers.
During my last trip there with my in-laws, I also managed to buy a bag of buah keranji (or velvety tamarind), which my 70-plus father-in-law had never seen before, let alone got a taste of. It was an eye-opener for him, my wife told me.
Wet markets are not just about discovering fish, fruits or other local produce but a place to get to know the local community better and understand a little more about the lives of the people there.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the wet market, you can sometimes catch a fleeting glimpse of what living in a particular place is like.
I often take visits to wet markets of smaller towns as an opportunity to gauge the economic health of the locality, in comparison with our living standards in the city.
It also helps me appreciate the resilience of the local community, which can be poorer than ourselves, in meeting the challenges of their own lives.
Many years ago, I was at a small wet market in Malacca when I saw an old lady selling a few bundles of fern shoots and several oddly-sized sweet potatoes.
The meagre collection of merchandise was laid out on a small piece of soiled plywood board. At the old lady’s side was a tortoise with its leg tied with a raffia string to her stool.
She was trading outside the fence of the market and during the short period that I was watching, she did not appear to have sold anything, so I thought I’d give her a helping hand.
When I approached her and asked to buy her fern shoots and potatoes, she asked if I was a tourist. When I said “Yes” and that I was staying in a hotel nearby, she asked if I knew how to cook fern shoots or potatoes. When I nodded, she smiled and told me she was not selling them to me.
“You want to buy because you are taking pity on me?” she asked. When I said “No”, she asked: “If not, how are you supposed to cook the fern shoots or potatoes if you are staying in the hotel? Don’t buy something you don’t need. I will wait for my customer.”
I was taken aback by her response. This Chinese lady must be in her 70s and from her tired expression it appeared that life had taken a toll on her.
Despite so, she was so filled with pride that she would not accept my help which she sensed was a handout. Still trying to assist her, I asked if her tortoise was for sale instead.
She said she was selling it for RM20 but asked why I wanted to know. I told her I wanted to buy the creature, only to keep as a pet.
Only when I managed to convince her about that was she willing to part with the toirtoise. Of course, I had later released it in a ditch just outside of town so that it could find its way to freedom.
* Former journalist E.S. Tung took early retirement to catch up on his love for art. If he is not browsing through galleries or doing outdoor sketching, he indulges in his second love — writing. He is founder of KL Sketchers, a Facebook-based sketching group.