Wet means everything uncovered, unwrapped, naked and exposed to the human touch…
“If I lived here,” I tell my daughter, “I would shop at Fart Mart.”
I’m referring to the grocery store next to the high-rise where she’ll be living the next two years or so. It’s real name is FMart. She goes there only when she has to.
FMart is a full service grocery store, with a Chinese accent. The store combines elements of industrial food production and distribution with the traditional Chinese “wet market.” It’s about the size of a large 7-11, well, four 7-11’s piled on top of each other. Four floors of pandemonium.
Wet? If you picture a farmer’s market such as you would find in the US, you’re almost there. Now add meat and fish, stir in some poultry, and you have a wet market. Wet means everything uncovered, unwrapped, naked and exposed to the human touch, minus any of the sanitary precautions required in the handling and sale of meat and fish in the US. Looking for chicken breast? There’s a pile of them on that table over there. Go ahead and pick up a few. Find the ones you want. How about some pork ribs? There are stacks of them not far from chicken, right next to the duck carcasses. Grab a few and take a look. Find the slab that’s right for you. Thinking about eel for dinner tonight? No, I didn’t think so. But if you are, we’ve got dried eels, recently eviscerated eels on ice, and live eels crammed in a tank. Pinch a few. Take your pick. How about some nice purple duck?
On walks I’ve taken since arriving in Shanghai, a few blocks from here I’ve seen similar stores, with names like Family Mart and Fresh Mart. The F in FMart might be short for one of those more wholesome adjectives.
I don’t know about those stores, but deep inside our FMart, where all the raw meat and seafood and poultry can be found, where all the wet is, the atmosphere is aromatic in the extreme.
Hence, the nickname.
The first meal Hong cooks for us is almost all fresh vegetables. I’m not sure of the source. Carrot and celery in a sauce that tastes, well, Chinese; boiled broccoli, sautéed spinach, and a cabbage dish with something orange mixed in it.
“What is this?” I ask my daughter, inspecting a chunk of the orange stuff.
She says it’s egg.
Of course, egg. I like egg.
Hong’s food is good. Very good. In an act of public relations genius, she gives the three-year-old a pair of starter chopsticks. He inserts his fingers and thumb into strategically positioned rings, assumes perfect stick form. There’s no fumbling, little droppage. Pleased with how competent he is, especially compared to my wife and me (we could benefit from a pair of starters ourselves), he eats everything on his plate. Including, of course, the egg. And asks for more.
I’ve seen eggs at FMart and in baskets the size of milk crates in the food stalls. I make a mental note to ask my daughter, Where’d these eggs come from?
The Chinese love their eggs. Eggs are integral to their cuisine. In a city of 24 million egg lovers, you can’t help but pause and wonder at the challenge, the miracle, and the health implications of making tens of millions of eggs available to consumers every day, seven days a week.
It stands to reason that China is the biggest egg producer in the world. Compassion in World Farming estimates production at over 450,000,000,000 eggs a year. That’s 20,000,000 tons of eggs, laid by 2.7 billion hens. The Journal of Food Protection reports that Chinese egg inspection standards, needed to watch for heavy metals, veterinary drugs, and micro-organisms in eggs, are a little squishy.
When I ask later, my daughter says Hong used the eggs she bought at City Super, Shanghai’s Whole Foods, where everything is a whole lot more expensive, a store fully evolved into the western model, by which I mean dry.
Next afternoon Hong and I are in the kitchen together. I’m making a big pot of bean soup. It’s my second soup since we got here, a food that connects us to our point of origin and restoreth the soul. The first one, pre-Hong, I made with adzuki beans I bought at FMart. Same recipe as home, except for the beans, which make a deep brown broth. It was a good soup. The five of us ate all of it in one sitting. When I tell my wife I’m making soup again, how about the FMart adzukis, she frowns. She says she doesn’t like brown food. (I know this.) She wants a nice clear soup, with a light broth, so that the vegetables visible. FMart, I tell her, does not stock navy beans or great northern beans or cannellini beans. No beans that look white. And adzuki beans, for what it’s worth, are supposed to be a super food.
“They’re so brown,” she says.
That afternoon we find cannellini and borlotti beans in cans at City Super.
“Cans,” I say.
“I just don’t like brown food.”
Hong kind of watches me make the soup. Diced onion, peeled and diced carrot, diced celery, all sauteed in olive oil. While I’m about this knife work, I picture her beautifully cut carrots and celery in the first lunch she cooked, and in every meal since then. I go about my chopping feeling slightly ham-handed. I open three cans, pour beans and their broth over the sauté. Cans, I think. I’d bet anything Hong has never used anything from a can.
That night she sets the table, lays out the food she has prepared: hand-made wontons with a vegetable filling, more broccoli and spinach, and another cabbage dish, this one with onion and ground pork that tastes, well, Chinese. My soup stays on the stove. I get it. We don’t want Hong to think we don’t like her food.
After she leaves that evening my daughter says to me, “I have to talk to Hong about meat.”
We’re launching the dishwasher Hong has loaded.
“The pork,” I say.
“I think it was Fart Mart.”
“Well.” I happen to know it was from Fart Mart. I saw the package, the little yellow Styrofoam tray, the tennis-ball-size clumps of ground pork Hong formed, partitioned, wrapped, and froze for future reference. The cabbage, I figure, was a two-clump dish.
“It was packaged,” I say. To its credit, FMart does have a meat counter. They don’t allow the clientele to sink their hands into ground meats in the wet section of the store.
“Still,” she says. “It’s kind of gross.”
In 2015 China revised its Food Safety Law. A Brookings publication refers to China’s “food safety woes,” adding, “China has done relatively better in enforcing food safety and quality standards for its food exports than it has for its domestic food market.” Good news, I guess, if you live in Detroit; bad news if you live in Shanghai.
The revised law will require regions to establish “a standardized safe meat supermarket… to help stamp out tainted meat.” Good! Each town and municipality will have a “demonstration store” to establish a food safety benchmark. According to Global Meat (I love the name of that publication), Fang Xin! will soon be the catchphrase for food safety, meaning “rest easy” or “be assured.”
No amount of reassurance will be enough for my daughter. It’s City Super or bust.
The month we’re here, I’m in and out of FMart a number of times. At first I’m put off by the noise. A guy is always posted mid-store, with a microphone. He talks continuously, in a tinny, amplified voice, calling customers to what’s special today. Competing with him is another guy, back in the wet section of the store. His delivery is not enhanced by technology. Lacking a microphone, he just shouts his invitations and blandishments. Obviously he was hired for his vocal chords.
Along with the noise, FMart has an old lady situation. Under other circumstances, I love an old lady, the more the better, but these old ladies are aggressive. Tossing bean sprouts in a plastic bag, they look at you with a pitiless expression that says, Get out of my way. You’re going to die. I eat entrails.
When the store is full, like at 5:00 in the afternoon, truckers continue to dolly food on pallets through the front door. The sea of shoppers parts. Evidently there is no back door, no storage space in the back of the store. The blue smocks stand and yack, arguing, laughing. At that time of day you don’t walk the aisles in this store; you shove through them.
It’s crazy, but if I lived here, I would shop at FMart. Not for meat. Not for adzuki beans, if my wife had anything to say about it (which she would). But fruits and vegetables, yes. I can find the basics I need, onions, eggplant, cabbages, greens. And I would try make sense of stuff I don’t recognize: dragon fruit, Chinese green dates, oval white gourd, long sponge gourd, crowndaisy chrysanthemum, winter bamboo shoots, iron yams, arrowhead. That’s just a start. In bin after bin, there are other fruits and vegetables and dried foods with no name in English, at least none that’s printed.
In this strange, exotic country, for me the gateway would be FMart.