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January 26, 2012

The Quest - Wan Chai Market

Wan Chai Market Dominic Armato

I found myself with a free morning in Hong Kong, and decided to embark upon a quest. Of course, when I left the hotel, I thought it would be more of an errand. But sometimes what we expect will be a simple task ends up being a little more involved than we anticipated.

Visual AidDominic Armato

Facing Heaven Chiles. A legendary cornerstone ingredient of Sichuan cuisine. I say legendary because, good golly, are they difficult to get a hold of. Can't find them in the supermarket. Can't find them in the Asian markets. Can't find an online source. Heard rumors of them popping up in Southern California from time to time, but never seen them for sale in person. Now, Hong Kong is in the heart of Cantonese country, but I thought to myself that we're in what is now China in an incredibly cosmopolitan city with a vibrant international food scene. Surely, an ingredient so vital to one of China's most notable regional cuisines will be attainable in a major market area. I'll stroll around until I find some, buy a big bushel of them, toss them in the extra empty suitcase I brought with, and bring them home with me. But just in case I encountered any difficulty on what would surely be a trivial errand, I armed myself. I prepared a page with the name of the chiles, including the English translation, the Roman character transliteration, and the original Chinese characters. I also pulled up a clear picture of the chiles since the value of a visual aid can never be overstated. And hopping on the MTR, I set out for Wan Chai Market, presuming that I'd return with a massive pile of the purportedly fragrant and wonderfully flavorful dried chiles to bring home for myself and some friends.

Fresh. Very Fresh.Dominic Armato

Though there's a small portion that's indoors, the larger indoor market having been closed a number of years ago, Wan Chai Market today is primarily a street market, combining a chaotic collection of makeshift street stalls and carts with small street-facing storefronts. It covers a large area south of the Wanchai stop on the MTR, and for those without a good sense of direction, the bustle combined with angled streets make it easy to get turned around quickly. Which is just as well, because wandering the market is a dizzying experience that it's just as well to get lost in. With hundreds of carts, stands, stalls and stores, surely, I thought, facing heaven chiles are somewhere within a three blocks' walk of here... it's just a matter of finding them.

FishDominic Armato

So I wandered for a while, and was at first taken aback by the sheer size of the market. I've wandered amazing markets in Asia before, and though I never tire of it, I'm accustomed to the noise, the smells and the utter chaos. But Wan Chai market stretches on for blocks in every direction and the amount of ground it covers is something to behold. So I walked, stopping only sparingly to take a photo or two, until I started to come across storefronts that specialized in dry goods. I would ask if they sold facing heaven chiles. If I was feeling ambitious, I'd try to pronounce the Chinese name. But since I encountered a furrowed brow every time I asked, I quickly resorted to immediately offering my phone, the various versions of the name and the photo prominently displayed. What I expected was sudden recognition, "Yes, yes!" whether in English or Chinese, followed by either an apology or the presentation of a bushel of dried chiles. If the latter, I imagined in my head the ways in which I might attempt to convey that I wanted the whole thing. No, all of it. Yes, the whole bushel. What I did NOT expect, and what I got at every single place I stopped, was an even more deeply furrowed brow after I presented my visual aid. Most tried to sound out the Chinese name. Had I inadvertently selected a different written version than was commonly used in Hong Kong? Surely, the photo would get the point across. But stall after stall, all I got were shrugs.

Live PoultryDominic Armato

So I wandered on, and I saw butchers who brandished massive cleavers, hacking apart flesh and bone with swift, strong strokes, and hanging their wares on hooks for display. I saw coops full of chickens, finally back after the avian flu scare, their throats slit so they could be bled, scalded and plucked on the spot, a fresh chicken in your hands moments after you looked it in the eye as you selected it. I saw all manner of fish, slung across wide tables, all sold whole, not a fillet in sight, since you obviously know how to clean them and the bits the Westerners throw out are the tastiest anyway. I saw shops that sold medicinal herbs, gleaming white oases in the wet, grimy and bloody market, where perfect rows of dried plants and animal parts, only a tiny fraction of which I could identify, sat in large glass jars, waiting to be weighed on precision scales. I saw produce stands brimming with fresh greens, radishes, greens, mushrooms, greens and more greens, most likely plucked from the earth that very morning. I saw tiny dry goods stores, their walls so packed with boxes and bags and parcels that the only floor space was a tiny area no bigger than a phone booth, where the proprietor would stand and sell to customers on the street, retrieving merchandise from the walls and ceiling with a hook on the end of a long pole. I saw BBQ stores, pickled vegetable stalls, flower carts and pet stores. I saw a store that sold fine foods from Canada, for cryin' out loud, but what I did NOT see were facing heaven chiles.

The Final Insult Dominic Armato

I wandered Wan Chai market for nearly three hours. I stopped and inquired at no fewer than 20 stalls and stores that I thought looked promising. I learned that maybe that store over there would have them. I learned that that store over there didn't. I learned that Saturday morning is a very, very bad time to drive around Wan Chai. I learned that from ten feet away, dried Chinese dates look enough like facing heaven chiles to tease you for a moment. I learned, once again, that there are few things on earth more exciting to me than a crowded, musty, energetic, vibrant food market, exploding with meats and fish and vegetables and people of every kind. And I also learned, much to my dismay, that the dry goods merchants of Wan Chai have apparently never even heard of facing heaven chiles, or chao tian jiao, or 朝天椒, much less thought to keep a bushel of them on hand for a wandering gweilo whose stupid assumption that he could get a Sichuan ingredient in the land of Cantonese cookery had turned his errand into an impossible quest. But it was still a good morning.


Hi Dominic! Love both of your blogs (this and TCPR). In Hong Kong, I'm afraid the Facing Heaven Chilies ( "Chao Tian Jiao" 朝天椒 in Mandarin) are referenced as "Gee Tin Jill" - 指天椒 in Cantonese. Sorry that no one you asked in HK could figured that out for you. Btw, this is Frequentcrasher's wife. Next time if you are in the Baltimore area and want to go to Grace Garden, feel free to contact us.

LemonGinger, your comment is hilariously well-timed!

I just did a presentation last night and spent about half of it talking about Grace Garden. Go figure :-)

Of COURSE it was a Mandarin/Cantonese problem. Ugh. Oh, well. Thanks for solving the mystery, anyway. Someday I'll have those chiles... someday..... someday.............

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