When Chinese people say they like their food fresh, they mean it.

Even in this era of rampant consumerism and an almost endless range of fast-food restaurants, I often see locals carrying live chickens and fish still thrashing and flopping in bags. The commitment to fresh food can make a trip to the markets a shocking experience for the unsuspecting westerner.

The differences between Chinese and Western supermarkets are vast. If I wanted to buy a chicken in Australia for example, I’d go to the frozen or meat section to find the chicken nicely cut and packed and the feet and head removed and thrown away. If I wanted fish, I could choose from pre-frozen varieties that were caught days earlier and brought in from a warehouse.

During my stint as an assistant manager in a deli department, I had to ensure that everyone worked under strict health and safety regulations. I had to change gloves when handling different types of meat and watch videos warning us of the dangers of spreading nasty bacteria through unsafe handling practices. Now, I’m not saying that the food handling procedures are foolproof or perfect – after all, I’ve suffered from food poisoning in both Australia and China. However, the attitudes and procedures to handling and storing food are very different in both countries. 

 When I first walked into a supermarket meat section after arriving in Guangzhou, I was surprised to see fish swimming around in tanks and frogs jumping around in buckets. A small bench nearby had about three chickens hanging on hooks by their beaks while two more were cut into halves or quarters and displayed on the bench to attract attention. On another bench, a staff member was cutting up a fish that she’d just taken out of a tank.

 Looking over at the meat displays, I noticed that about half the meat was packaged, while the other half was sold loose. In just a few minutes, I saw about six people, one after the other, pick up the same pieces of meat with their bare hands, inspect it and casually throw it back before picking up another piece. The staff did the same, cutting the meat and rearranging the displays with their bare hands.

So that was my experience with a major supermarket but it was nothing compared to the local market. I was shocked when I first saw chickens crammed tightly into cages and the smell was just awful. For some reason, when I happened to be wandering near the chickens – the area that I least wanted to buy from – The staff would always yell enthusiastically at me to have a look while I slowly backed away and retreated to the vegetable section. My Chinese wife however, has no problem with ordering a chicken and watch it being taken into a dark room where it’s quickly slaughtered, plucked and bagged.

Visiting meat stands in local markets is like taking a nostalgic trip back in time to maybe 5th century Europe. When I first saw them, it was the middle of summer and I’m sure the supermarket inspectors back home would have had a fit if they saw meat displayed at room temperature, with flies buzzing around them and no hand washing facilities for the workers. Like supermarkets here, meat is also sold loose and handled many times before finally being bought.

One day my wife and I were in a local market to buy some beef. It was nap time and so, there were only a couple of stall owners active. One was a middle-aged woman who was chopping meat so aggressively, we hurried past quickly, promising each other that if we had to buy from her and she overcharged us, we’d just let it go. We went instead to the other stall owner, a portly, middle-aged man with dirty looking clothes and a lit cigarette in his mouth. He didn’t inspire any confidence in me but at least he seemed a little less likely to chop us into pieces. After shouting “yao shenma?” in a voice that sounded like his mouth was full of gravel, my wife placed her order. The man then plopped the meat straight onto an old scale, yelled out the price in Cantonese and bagged it. He then took the money, threw it under the counter and immediately picked up another piece of meat for the next customer. As we walked away, I just shook my head in amazement at such basic disrespect for hygiene.

The funny thing is that in all my time in China, I’ve had food poisoning just once, and that was quite recently. This is perhaps due to common sense (such as avoiding street food) and perhaps a little bit of luck as well. I also ensure I have a blend of both Asian and Western foods in my diet and take stomach pills when I travel, just in case. 

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Keywords: Expat Living in China Chinese food market

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