An Inside Look At China’s Mesmerizing Food Markets

Here are the food markets in China that you must visit.

By Patti Morrow, Epicure & Culture Contibutor

Danny Tang, 48 years old, has been the Chef de Cuisine for Viking River CruisesImperial Jewels of China tour for 10 years.

It’s a plum job.  China’s flourishing inbound tourism has led it to becoming the world’s second largest travel and tourism economy.  The Asian country has sustained its international fascination, particularly in America, where it has become one of the world’s most-watched bucket list destinations.  This rise in interest has opened new avenues of employment for Chinese nationals.

Danny’s position also has its challenges — his work keeps him on-board for nine and a half months a year, only returning home to his wife and 12-year old daughter for two and half months during the winter off-season.  The rigorous cruise schedule runs continuously, starting with land tours in Beijing and Xi’an, cruising through the Three Gorges, and ending in Shanghai.  In Shanghai, they unload passengers, reload supplies, and proceed to run the whole trip in reverse.

markets in China

Wu Gorge, one of the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River.

Viking’s Tour of China

The cruise portion of Viking’s China tour sails through the Three Gorges which are three adjacent gorges snaking around 75 miles along the Yangtze River.  The scenery along the river is stunning, encountering towering craggy cliffs, sparkling green tributaries, and often cloaked in mist.  The Gorges has received the highest AAAAA rating by the China National Tourism Administration.

Jinzhou, A Ports Along The Yangtze

In the central region of the Yangtze River, we made a stop at Jinzhou.  It was at this port that Danny offered to give me a private tour of the local markets of Jinzhou for a look at the “real China.”  I immediately gobbled up the invitation, knowing visiting food markets in China would be an eye-opener.

Jinzhou is ancient city with 2,000 years of history and culture. During the Three Kingdom Period (220-589), the city was the focus of many disputes and wars. Subsequently, the city was established as the capital and political center by 11 emperors and is one of 24 famous historical and cultural ancient cities.

The Marketplace — An Eye-Opener!

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Entering one of the markets in Jinzhou

The city has a number of markets in residential areas where residents and retailers go to bargain for vegetables, herbs, seafood, meat and even alternative medicines.  Danny took me to a market housed in a large hall, separated into small individual stands, each with a counter and a small floor space for displaying goods.  Generally, the sellers offered just one category of food, such as vegetables or meat.

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A vendor selling herbs used since ancient times as Chinese remedies.

As soon as I entered the market, I was astonished to see the skinned carcasses of….dogs hanging in the stall.  Apparently dogs are raised on farms just like any other animal for consumption. The practice of eating dog meat remains controversial, with some cultures claiming it is traditional cuisine while for others it’s a taboo.  For me, the prospect of eating Rover was more than I could fathom.

Want to experience the 'real' #China? Head to a local #food #market! Click To Tweet
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Just a little freaky…

The stalls were clustered around similar products, which make shopping easier.  The vegetable stands were a cacophony of color and texture. The pleasant smells wafted at passersby.

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Dried chili peppers are used in many Chinese dishes.

The fish section was a different story.  The floors were wet and strewn with fish guts. Scattered around were tanks displaying live fish, squiggling eels, floating squid and other seafood, which when chosen, were taken from their tanks and filleted or dissected on the spot. Nothing is wasted, not even the heads, which I was told are used to make delicious soup, stock, gumbo, and stews.

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Fish is filleted on the spot.

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Live squid for sale

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Tiny, wiggly eels

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Fish heads for soup stock.

Towards the back of the hall was the section with meat and fowl.  Maybe I should have said “foul.”  This area serves as butchery, where all manner of cows, pigs and chickens are for sale. Some parts I could identify, others I didn’t even want to try.  But one thing’s for sure – it doesn’t get any fresher than this.  If you have a hankering for chicken feet or pig snout, ears or feet, this is your place.

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Any cut of beef you want.

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Every part of the pig imaginable, and some you’d rather not imagine.

The section that fascinated me the most was the duck area. Duck carcasses, heads and all, were hung from rafters to dry.  Some were pressed flat and skewered.  Peking Duck is arguably this country’s most traditional and recognized dish, dating back to imperial China. It is famous for its fine, crackling skin that comes from air being forcefully pumped through the neck cavity to separate the skin from the fat. The duck is then boiled for a short time, hung to dry, and glazed with maltose syrup. The thin meat underneath is tasty and the dish is served with sweet bean or hoisin sauce.

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Ducks, hanging to dry.

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The finished produce, Peking Duck (credit: schermpeter42)

The Jinzhou market is not one frequented by tourists.  In fact, I was the only Caucasian, non-Chinese speaking person on the premises.  With every step, I was followed by curious stares.  But one thing is universal, and that’s a smile.  I got a lot of those.

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Friendly family vendors at the market.

This is the real China.  The one that few Westerners get to see.

Street Food in Jinzhou

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Tiny street food vendor, tucked away on the street.

As we exited the market, Danny led me over to a tiny food cart nestled on the street.  “These are the best noodles in Jinzhou,” he said.  I ordered mine extra spicy and….  foodgasm!  This was one of the best dishes I’d had in all of China!  My test for whether the food is spicy enough is “did it make my nose runny?”  Indeed, the noodles passed the test.

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Yummy, yummy, yummy! I couldn’t get them in fast enough!

Danny laughed.  To my surprise, he had ordered his noodles “no spicy.”

“Because my hometown is Shanghai, I love the Shanghai food,” he said.  “It’s not as spicy as inland in Chongqing or Jinzhou.  They like chili here, but it’s too strong for me. Like today, the noodles, too spicy for me!  That’s why I bought some mineral water.  I like more sweet food.  The food in Shanghai is more sweet than spicy.”

What's your favorite street food? Patti loved these noodles in #China! #foodie #travel Click To Tweet

Working for Viking

Prior to joining Viking, Danny got his formal training at Beijing Culinary School, and then worked for 24 years as a sous chef at 5-star hotels in Beijing, such as the Peninsula Hotel and the JW Marriott. He also received special training with Viking on their Cambodian cruise ship.

As an added treat, upon returning to the Viking ship, Danny gave me a tour of the ship’s kitchens.  State-of-the-art, immaculate stainless surfaces were everywhere. Stacked heating trays with perfectly portioned pieces of salmon were at one end, while at the other was a chef searing sizzling chunks of fillet mignon. The room was equipped were massive stacks of pans and an impressive line-up of cutting, slicing, and chopping apparatus.

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Danny shows me the Viking kitchens

“I like Viking very much,” said Danny, handing me a sample of his thick, to-die-for, home-made, secret recipe, coffee-flavored yogurt.”  “For me, it’s very simple to work here. I’ve developed a routine that works.  In a 5-star hotel, every three months you need to change the menu.  Here, I have a special kitchen, I create a delicious set menu for 5 days, and because people do not come more than once, I can use many of the same menus.

I like this life!”

Disclosure:  The author was honored to be the guest of Viking River Cruises during her stay in China, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.

What are your favorite markets in China? We’d love to hear in the comments below! 

Further Exploration:

Sips & Consumerism: Is Asia’s Civet Coffee Craze Ethical? [Blog Inspiration]

Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments [Travel Safety]

Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking [Great Reads]

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Patti Morrow is the founder and editor of Luggage and Lipstick – a travel blog for baby boomer women adventurers, author of the book Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone, and freelance travel writer with bylines in over 30 publications, including The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, International Living Magazine, Travel Girl, CNN iReport, Epicure & Culture, and Ladies Home Journal.  She has traveled throughout most of the USA and around 50 countries and islands abroad, and was recently name by TripAdvisor as one of the “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”

10 Comments

  1. What a wonderful experience to have Danny show through the Jinzhou marketplace. I could almost smell it as you described going through it. It would be fascinating to visit, even I didn’t know what many of the items were!

  2. I love going to markets, especially those ones that are less frequented by tourists than by locals. But I think I might have found that one a bit much, with all the different types of meat on display…

  3. Viking always does such a wonderful job with everything. I love that you explored so many markets during your cruise. We’d do the same thing. What a marvelous experience.

    1. Viking is fabulous! China is a difficult country to maneuver around and they took care of all the nitty-gritty details. I really enjoyed spending time at the markets!

  4. The Three Gorges river cruise sounds breathtaking and I can well imagine how spectacular the scenery is when seen from the water. Your behind-the-scene look at the markets sounds fascinating too although I have to say, I’ve never left a foreign meat market (I’m thinking especially of Central & South America when I say this) where I haven’t thought about a vegetarian! Give me the vegetable, fruit and spice markets any time.

    1. I was amazed at how stunning the Three Gorges are, and Viking was the best way to see it. Stopping in Jinzhou gave me the opportunity to explore that market — it was great to see the “real” China!

  5. I loved poking around markets when we traveled in China. I also loved the street food markets there. It’s safe to eat at them because all of the food is either boiled or wokked at very high temperatures. So at a street market you can see what’s being cooked and make your choices using hand gestures. No matter what we ordered, it was delicious and very inexpensive! This post brought back memories!

    1. I love that too, Rachel. For me, eating street food is synonymous with absorbing culture. If you use your head, you won’t get sick. And you’re definitely spot on about being able to see everything, unlike a traditional kitchen restaurant. So happy I could help you re-live some fun times!

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