“Hey Cimeron, do you know a place where I can buy both an eel and a bra, eat breakfast, make new friends and stock up on durian fruit?” asked no one, ever.
My friends, prepare yourself for the magical glory known as The Wet Market, which will become one of your favorite places on earth once you learn how to get the most out of it. Found throughout Penang and the rest of Malaysia, they’re open-air morning-markets (usually open 7-11am) that blend shopping, dining, socializing and sometimes monkeys hanging from the rafters. (Hurray – monkeys!) For those unprepared for controlled chaos, your first few visits can be confusing and overwhelming. So here are some helpful tips about how it all works and what to expect:
The “wet” part of the wet market
“Wet markets” are named for the live (or once-live) goods they sell, like fruits, veggies, fish and chicken. Many even sell coconut milk that’s been freshly pressed in a device that looks like a low-tech mammogram machine (which made my coconuts hurt to watch). Most stalls have colanders that you put all your items in as you shop, and then hand to the sellers when you’re ready. There’s no need to haggle – you’ll be shocked by how inexpensive the produce is. Be sure to ask the fruit sellers about their banana varietals, which are all insanely delicious, unlike those tasteless yellow sticks they sell in the US. Oh, and the fish and chicken sellers will fillet, de-bone, and skin your selection on request, at no extra charge.
Stock up on weird t-shirts, Frozen pajamas, jewelry and underwear
Outside many wet markets are stalls that sell the most random assortment of goods. You can find everything from bustiers printed with puppies who have beaver-feet for paws, to sandals and mops, to kids’ jammies emblazoned with Elsa, “Prado” sunglasses and cockroach bait.
“And what’s with the weird t-shirts?” you may ask when you see racks and racks of the bizarre prints on cheap Ts. This, my friends, is one of the world’s great mysteries. Just behold and enjoy.
Breakfast at the hawker stalls
Hawker stalls are the beating heart of the wet market. (And at some stalls, you might just see the still-beating heart of a barely-dead chicken.) Each vendor has his/her own specialty, and many (like roti cenai) are flipping delicious.
Lines don’t really exist here, vendors just kind of know the order in which people crowd around them and they’ll simply look at you when it’s your turn. If you’re buying ready-made food, you’ll pay for it right there. But if they’re making your food for you, you’ll place your order then walk away and find a table – don’t worry, they’ll find you in the crowd and you’ll pay them when they serve your food.
Oh, and here’s a helpful translation for some common things vendors say:
“Chili?” means “Want me to sprinkle on some molten lava that’s magically shape-shifted into tiny pepper pieces?”
“Finished!” means “Sorry, dude. We’re all out and not making more”
“Take away?” means “Wrap it up to go?”
“Chopstick ok?” means “I cannot wait to see these noodles land in your lap while you fumble your chopsticks and they fly across the room”
Share a table, make new friends
Breakfast here is a community gathering where people don’t stare at their phones while eating: they have actual, real-live conversations! The tables ringed by the hawker stalls are often all taken. Don’t be shy – just walk up to people and ask if you can join them at their table, which is what locals do. People here are super friendly and welcoming, and I guarantee you’ll meet some of the nicest, most entertaining people that you’d otherwise probably never get to meet. Plus you’ll get to learn some great local slang, like “You’re so chee chon fan!” which according to a hysterically funny elderly Chinese guy named Po who sat with us one morning, this translates to “you have the vigor of a limp penis.” (Note: chee chon fan is really yummy dish which you will never be able to eat, because now when you see it, you’ll only be able to think of flaccid dicks. So sorry).
Why is that lady yelling “KOPI! Tea Tareeeeek!” over my head?
No need to go up to the beverage stall – a lady will come by your table asking you “minuman?” or “drink?” Then she will yell your drink order to the stall. You can get the sweet, hot “pulled tea,” called tea tarik, or coffee, or watery juices. The watermelon juice is so damned good, as is lime, pineapple and water apple. But unless you want all your teeth to fall out on the spot, ask for “sikit gula” (little sugar added) or “tidak gula” (no sugar). Good God they like their drinks sweet here!
I love the wet market!
After a couple of trips to the wet market, you will grow to love it and the chaos will start to make sense. And yes, there may even come a day when you notice that your shopping bags contain both an eel and a bra, and at that moment, you’ll realize that the wet market is one of the weirdest and greatest places on earth.
There are wet markets in all big neighborhoods. One of the most bustling markets in all of Penang is the Pasar Chowrasta, which I highly recommend. The Pulau Tikus wet market is also quite hopping and has lots of great stalls, including one that sells beautiful batik cloth.
Every morning from about 7am-11am, depending on the market.
Have a great time!