Made in China(town)

Where in Chicago can I find live turtles? Unless this is your usual follow-up question to “What’s for dinner?” a visit to any one of the many markets lining the streets of Chinatown is sure to expand your culinary horizons.

For a decent starting place, you might want to follow a local to any of the several markets within easy walking distance of the Cermak-Chinatown subway stop, either dispersed about Chinatown plaza or along Wentworth Avenue. While these mom-and-pop establishments–complete with aisles of preserved goods surrounded by butchering blocks as well as tables of vegetables, fruits, grains, and roots–can’t quite compare to the open-air wet markets of China, they still manage to stock an impressive enough variety of food that rivals that of most massive Asian retail outlets.

In China, many families visit open-air wet markets daily for ingredients meant for immediate preparation. Wet markets–so named from floors perpetually slick from hosing down–usually feature live animals available for butchering on-site or at home, as well as greens brought from nearby farms. The availability of live animals in Chinatown, on the other hand, is limited to a few stores (Fat Lee Grocery, Starlight Market), including turtles, blue crabs, shrimp, and lobster. Meat is generally pre-butchered in sides and sold per part, with some particular specialties restricted to a single store (pork liver at Chinatown Market, chicken’s feet at Fat Lee Grocery). The vegetables found in markets in China–bok choy, bamboo, chives, lotus root, napa cabbage, water spinach, and bean sprouts, to name a few–are seldom missing from the shelves of authentic Chinese grocery stores in Chicago. The only difference between those markets and the groceries in Chinatown is that the greens here are imported, not fresh from the field. A few goods come from overseas, while many more commonly found vegetables, such as tomatoes and broccoli, are grown in Indiana, Florida, or Mexico.

That’s not to say that Chinatown residents are anything but satisfied. At May Flower Food, Inc. on Archer Avenue, one mother identified herself as a regular, saying, “It’s a good store. It has a good selection.” Though one might from time to time question the freshness of a few of the leafy greens, usually a conversation with the workers in the back will land you a fresher batch. Not to mention, an often overlooked nook of Chinese fare is made up of preserved goods. With these products, a distant expiration date is a better mark of quality than purported “freshness.” Dried shrimp, salty duck egg, various pickled vegetables, century eggs, dried fish, and preserved plums crowd the shelves adjacent to a array of sauces ranging from soy to spicy tofu. Even a Japanese customer at Chinatown Market deemed the selection appropriate for her style of cooking, finding the shiitake mushrooms just right and the Chinese King mushrooms “just a bit larger than Japanese King mushrooms,” but still to her taste.

Non-Chinese visitors to Chinatown markets are a more frequent occurrence than one might expect. The stores certainly aren’t English-friendly–the labels for the vegetables and meat are often handwritten in Chinese, and the store employees speak only Cantonese. For those monolingual Chicagoans who appreciate a change in palate, however, the markets in Chinatown can offer many uncommon pantry items and snacks. Prices are also a large part of the stores’ appeal (lobster at $8.50 per pound), as is the chance to ogle bizarre foods from the other side of the world.

Some stores have noticeably adjusted to the influx of non-Chinese patrons. One interesting indicator is the in-store music–while Hong Kong Seafood City plays soft strains of Cantonese ballads, the air at Chicago Food Market is usually filled with pop melodies from Billboard hits. The new customers may be instrumental to the groceries’ continued success. One worker spoke to the fact that business has been a bit difficult. “We were established twenty years ago, but now there’s been more competition. More stores have been built nearby because on this street there are a lot of tourists.” The counter she worked behind was lined with what looked like the contents of a child’s Halloween basket–Butterfingers, M&M’s, Kit Kats–all facing the doorway and contrasting sharply with the rest of the store’s traditional assortment of Chinese ingredients.

At the same time, some grocery stores still remain largely unconvinced of the need to reach out to an American customer base. At Starlight Market, located a floor down and tucked away from the main street, most of the patrons were Cantonese-speaking residents living in the neighborhood. “Americans usually only come in during the holidays,” the cashier admitted.

While the rise in foot traffic from outside of Chinatown is sure to be welcomed by local business owners , the authenticity of some stores like Tai Wah Grocery and Hong Kong Seafood City that include small altars with meat or fruit offerings to Taoist gods would be out of place in a Chinatown that was trying too hard to assimilate to mainstream American culture. At the end of the day, Chinatown seeks to live up to the promise of authenticity made by its name.

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