During my visit to Singapore in March earlier this year, I visited a place that I’d long heard about but had never been to while still living in Singapore. Called Tekka Centre, it’s well known throughout the country and located in an area called Little India. The place has two levels and consists of shops on the upper level, with the lower level hosting a hawker centre and a wet market.
Tekka Centre is full of colour, and in no other part of the place is this more apparent than where the shops are. Many of the retailers on the upper floor sell traditional Indian clothing in just about any colour one could think of.
The outfits are intricately decorated, too.
From the upper level one also gets a good view of the wet market. This photo was taken in the afternoon, where the mood was somewhat relaxed. The market would be much more crowded in the mornings as that’s usually the time when people purchase their groceries.
Ah, yes. This certainly brings back memories.
As a child I used to visit wet markets from time to time. (Not Tekka Centre, of course.) I can vaguely remember the sights, sounds and smells of the markets. They’d be full of people in the mornings and, after lunch, most of the stalls would be closed. Sometimes I’d see people hosing down their stalls with water while wearing wellies, or grandmothers slowly shuffling through the market holding a bag filled with either groceries or food from the adjacent hawker centre. (It was common for hawker centres and wet markets to be sited next to each other.)
By the way, this is why they’re called wet markets – because of the water on the ground. Back then the markets were a lot grimier and seeing puddles of dirty water all over the place was quite a gross experience. The Tekka Centre of 2019, in contrast, was much cleaner despite also being rather wet in places.
One feature of wet markets is fresh fruit and vegetables. In fact it’s normal to be told that the produce at these markets is a lot fresher than those in the supermarkets (which I can agree with, because some supermarkets in Singapore sell rubbish items).
Where the wet market has left its indelible mark on my mind is, however, in its dried goods and seafood. Dried seafood has this strong, briny odour that is very distinctive. The same goes for the dried chillies (not pictured), which tend to have a smell that I can’t describe hinting at how spicy they are. (And the smaller these dried chillies are, the spicier they’ll be.)
I remember being thoroughly fascinated by the fresh seafood. Fish and shellfish of all shapes, sizes and colours would be laid out on beds of crushed ice for shoppers to inspect.
I’d often stare at the fish, taking note of what they looked like and, especially in the case of crabs, the small details of their bodies. The pincers, tips of legs, serrated carapace edges, stalks on which the eyes sat – it was just so interesting to observe all of these.
My favourites were the flower crabs. Unlike the mud crabs, which had a dull and dark brown appearance, the flower crabs were blue with white spots on their carapaces. Very beautiful to look at.
With fresh seafood, every once in a while there’d be something interesting to see – like this shark for example. I don’t ever remember seeing a small shark being sold in a wet market, and I have no idea what anyone would want to do with it. I mean, their flesh is full of urine to help with buoyancy so it’s not like anyone would fillet one and eat it like salmon.
Seafood aside there was also meat from land animals for sale. Those weren’t so interesting to me back then, certainly not in comparison to the fresh (shell)fish. There was also an odour associated with the butchers’ stalls, but these weren’t as sharp as those coming from the dried goods.
In addition to dead poultry or cuts of pork or mutton hanging off hooks, I’d see fresh offal put on display. Those were interesting to look at too, but since I never developed a taste for organs, I didn’t think much about them. Till today I’m not one to enjoy offal, except for the small intestines of a pig in one specific dish – that is the one exception I make for innards.
Tekka Centre reminded me of scenes I saw a long time ago, but which I’d since filed away in the deep recesses of my mind. Sadly, I don’t know how much longer wet markets like this one will persist. Several have closed down over the years and, like much of the industrialised world these days, supermarkets are the go-to outlets for groceries.
Now that I think about it, it’s actually quite special that many Dutch cities have open-air markets at weekends – Utrecht even has an additional one on Wednesdays. You’ll also find smaller stores selling fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as other groceries, throughout the city.
I doubt that these alternatives will ever take root in Singapore. However, as long as wet markets like Tekka Centre are still around, there’ll still be a chance to see an aspect of the country that’s been a fixture in many Singaporeans’ lives growing up. And there’ll still be opportunities to stare at seafood arranged in interesting positions.