Beyond a culinary taste: Freshness as cultural heritage in China.

Supermarkets are the only food shopping facilities available in most developed countries. In China, things are a little different. They still have a very strong rival: traditional wet markets.

Three researchers, two from China and one from Europe, decided to look closer at the vitality of Chinese wet markets. The results appeared in Agriculture and Human Values, one of Springer’s scientific journals.

Even in urban parts of China, wet markets do not seem to be giving up easily. Guangzhou alone has 400 wet markets, say the researchers. Local governments do not really support them, especially, in big cities, such as Guangzhou and Beijing. On the other hand, medium-sized cities like Sanya, with a population of 0.5 million people, still host quite a few wet markets. Sanya has 33 of them which amounts to 1 wet market per 21,000 people. 

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The study has shown that up to 77% of the city’s population in Sanya uses wet markets as a primary source of their food. It also remains the ultimate source of fresh food. The majority of the study respondents even visit wet markets on a daily basis.

Fresh food possesses a particular value for Chinese people. They sometimes resist food refrigeration and the consumption of canned products. Instead, the Chinese prefer to buy fresh food in the early morning hours or go to a wet market after finishing work.

Following the tastes of their customers, the wet market’s vendors only buy food from suppliers that do not use any cooling or freezing techniques.

As a result, the food in wet markets tend to be sourced locally. This makes the customers feel a particular connection to the marketplace itself. Moreover, walking between stalls full of fresh and fragrant vegetables creates a particular sensation that the Chinese value a lot. The study authors quote a respondent who explains her passion for shopping in the wet markets as a method to relax after a busy day in the office.

Another interviewee pointed to the sense of trust that he has towards his favorite vendor. It is even a kind of relationship that the two have and that means much for both. As a matter of fact, not only vendors and customers consider themselves good acquaintances, but also vendors and suppliers — typically, local farmers — are closely related to each other.

The demand for freshness has worked its way through the whole supply chain. And since the supply process remains the most important prerequisite for any grocery business, Chinese wet markets continue to exist, using what is already there. They do not have to build any new supply chains as the newcomers — big supermarkets — have to.

Fresh ingredients are important for Chinese cuisine. Recipes suggest them to be recently harvested and not processed. Freshness stands for quality. For the wet market buyers, freshness is more than just a promise from the vendor or an absence of a stamped expiration date. It is an experience of being at the market, smelling the fresh food, tasting small pieces, touching and seeing them.

Wet markets remains a part of an old traditional China that still lives in the urban areas. It provides its inhabitants with places where they can feel closer to their original roots while also enjoying social interaction and shopping.

The study concludes that it is not possible to state that wet markets are not in danger of extinction, though. They struggle when local governments sometimes decide to relocate settlements or roll out economic programs that favor supermarket chains. They also struggle when they get accused of low hygienic standards and spreading diseases, as happened with the Wuhan seafood market.

Still, wet market vendors work hard every day, and as long as their customers keep valuing the experience and services offered, wet markets will be remain in existence, providing quality food and socialized space for urban citizens.

WORDS: Yulia Lukashina.

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