A Visit to San Yuan Li Market in Beijing

If you read this blog before, you already know that I have a passion for fruit and vegetable markets. Wherever I go, the local markets are the first places to visit on my list. A new friend with a common interest in food recently took me to this amazing market which offers everything from fruits and vegetables, to exotic seafood, freshly made tofu, dumplings and noodles, buffalo mozzarella and even cooking supplies.

“Anything Dried”

I suggested to our Chinese teacher to come along on a visit to teach us how to ask our questions in Chinese. Learning by doing, which in my case is the way to go. My brain was on fire, unlike usually, when I sit half comatosed in my class, which must have something to do with the subject… I now know the names for a handful of fruits and vegetables, chicken, fish and eggs, how to ask for the price and where the product comes from. I also know that youji means organic and cai ji means “green”, which occasionally gets an emphatic nod. The rest is easily found in my little book or on one of my indispensable iPhone apps.

“Chicken Feet, etc”

Initially, shopping at a market like this can be a bit daunting. It is not for the faint hearted or my friend with her background in food borne illness. Everything looks clean and fresh however and the vendors are keen to point this out. The lady selling the mussels kept tapping them to show us their reaction. The temperatures are cool, which hopefully keeps the bug population somewhat in control. I wouldn’t make steak tartar out of the meat sold here and my chicken will be cooked until the thermometer says 165F, even if that makes it a little tough.

The large fish stall has a very interesting selection and I wished I could have asked more questions. There was a huge octopus in the middle of the table, dozens of Norwegian salmon fillets and gigantic lobsters from Boston. I bought the salmon, which at $4/pound was cheaper than I have ever seen. In a particular brave moment, I bought mussels next door, without having a clue where they came from. The stall owner won me over with her enthusiastic demonstration of freshness and the ridiculously low prices.

The fruit vendors sell fantastic papayas, mangosteen from Thailand, longans, pomelos and passion fruit. I was thrilled.

We sampled Chinese pork sausage, tofu salad and deliciously greasy, onion laced, crispy flat bread. I bought dumplings, filled with meat and vegetables and smaller ones filled with large sugar crystals. I also bought oolong tea, goji berries, dried beans, lentils and buckwheat flour, a completely unexpected find.  This market is also the first place where I found fresh herbs, lemongrass, freshly shredded coconut, kaffir lime leaves and galangal and I have looked almost everywhere.

“Up to her head in veggies”

I went to the lady selling chicken, with a sign over the stall saying “segmented chicken” and looked at her selection. She has old soup chickens, young “green” chickens, black chickens and “factory” chickens. The contrast between the “green” and factory chickens was unbelievable. My teacher said the factory chicken looks like a turkey and she wasn’t far off. I bought two young “green chickens’ and asked the lady to take out the innards, chop off heads and feet and cut the chickens into 6 pieces. The breast pieces are as small as the wings… This weekend, I will hopefully finally figure out the best way to cook a Chinese free-range chicken and I am thinking that braising might be the best way to do it. You will surely find out next week.

“Smoked Tofu”

Another amazing find was broad (lima) beans and they weren’t even imported. Later when I got home, my children cringed at the site. They had falsely assumed that we had moved to a broad bean-free zone. Hah! The peas came already shelled and a pound cost about $2.50. How many times did we buy the unshelled ones in Australia for $15-20/kilo??? Anyway, I grabbed some fresh mint and zucchini and had all the ingredients I needed for my springtime risotto.

“Springtime Farro Risotto”

When we were finally done, our bags were almost too heavy to carry them to the car but we were happy and grateful. I had had one of the best afternoons since arriving in China. Most of my food shopping endeavors had been frustrating, and the lack of vocabulary a constant struggle. I was excited about the praise I got for trying out a few new words and for all the new connections I had build. We will see how far I get the next time, without my Chinese teacher right behind me…

If you would like the recipe for the risotto, you know where to ask…

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