There’s a rite of passage in my family. It involves getting up at the crack of dawn every Thursday morning, stumbling to my mother’s Wira with a large plastic basket in hand, and rushing over to the pasar tani in Section 17 so my mother can get first dibs on all the best produce.
Ever since I was young, my brothers and I were expected to dutifully hold the basket full of groceries and observe how to choose the best onions, check for the freshness of the fish and how to charm the beef seller. Being the youngest child, I ended up learning the most from what I called “sekolah pasar pagi” with my mom.
The sellers are more than willing to help you choose and clean the best ingredients and even tell you how to prep and cook them, all for free.
I believe that these markets, or pasars, serve a vital role in the community. It’s here that you can get to know more about where your food comes from, where you get to learn how to choose your produce properly instead of buying it shrink-wrapped on styrofoam. While some supermarkets now boast “shopping helpers”, markets have been doing it forever. The sellers are more than willing to help you choose and clean the best ingredients and even tell you how to prep and cook them, all for free.
The markets themselves are a completely different animal than supermarkets. They’re clean but terribly untidy, start operating at ungodly hours of the morning, and it’s every man and woman for themselves. I say that because the produce is much fresher than what you get in hypermarkets, but that still doesn’t stop overly fussy aunties from prodding and squeezing everything to make sure they’re buying the absolutely freshest produce they can. The bruises you see on fruits and fish in the market? Trust me, they weren’t made by the sellers. So you end up having to pick and choose, tips for which I will point out below.
But first, which pasar should you go to? There are different kinds all over the country and can be roughly divided into three types.
Wholesale markets / pasar borong
This is where produce comes in from the farms and fishermen. Gigantic shipments of fruits, vegetables and seafood come through wholesale markets like Pasar Borong Selayang. Because of the cold chain, seafood especially gets more expensive the more times it changes hands. This, and bulk sales, are why this is the cheapest place to get seafood, short of going to Kuala Selangor to greet the fishermen yourself.
While wholesale markets usually cater to resellers like supermarkets (barely a civilian in sight), you can still gather a bunch of friends to share and buy large amounts together. Seafood barbecue, yes! The catch is you’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn to join the throng.
For fish, look for clear eyes, non sticky gills and firm flesh that bounces back after a light press. Remember to press lightly near the tail, as you don’t want to obviously bruise the fish for someone else. For shellfish, live is best, so check for movements, or closed shells (bivalves don’t like to be handled and will literally clam up when touched).
RM6/kilo of lala, and between RM30-40/kilo for ikan tenggiri (depending on size of fish and amount bought). These prices are only applicable for bulk purchases, you will not be able to buy small amounts.
Farmer’s markets / pasar tani
If you’re not up for trucking to Selayang at 4am (who is, really?), then your next best step is a pasar tani. Usually situated in neighbourhoods, they open up once a week on a rotational basis – e.g. the same sellers would be in Section 17 PJ on Thursdays, Kelana Jaya on Saturdays, Kota Damansara on Sundays, and so on. Streets and open air parking lots are taken over by a bustling crowd as early as 5.30am, with uncles and grandmas haggling beef prices even before they get unloaded from the trucks.
Make friends with the sellers. They are invaluable in the long run – reserving choice cuts and parts, giving discounts without haggling, even showing you which cuts to buy for the dish you want to cook.
For beef, look for bright red flesh and avoid pale or greying bits. Offal must not stink, as that’s a sign that it’s going bad. For chicken, I like to buy whole kampung chickens and having the sellers portion it for me. I personally find using just the breast/wing/drumstick rather dull — necks and feet are great for soups! Plus kampung chickens just have more chickeny flavour as a result of being free from growth hormones.
Lower than RM22/kilo for daging batang pinang (sirloin) and lower than RM8/kg for fresh chicken, if you play your haggling cards right.
Pasar pagi / pasar penjaja
These markets are also based in residential neighborhoods, but unlike pasar tani, they are open daily. For this reason, they are the most convenient places to get fresh vegetables and fruits (read: produce that doesn’t freeze well), and dry provisions like onions and ikan bilis.
They are much less crowded and noisy, kittens gamboling underfoot as housewives gossip over choosing chillies. You can still get your seafood and meat here too, though at slightly higher prices than at other markets.
This market in Section 14’s Kompleks Pasar & Peniaga is where I’ve been going since I was a little girl – the vendors recognise me as my mother’s daughter. The upstairs is devoted to fruit, vegetables and dried produce and it’s great for store-cupboard sundries. The downstairs is a wet market.
Don’t be scared of ugly vegetables! They’re still fresh and ready for cooking, just a thorough cleanse under running water should get the dirt and bugs out. For onions and garlic, look for firm bulbs. I like to spare ten minutes and help the seller split and clean ikan bilis, as it builds rapport and I get to walk home with a cheaper bag of good quality ikan bilis.
Buying vegetables at pasar pagi is different as they go by “ikat” or bunch. So instead of asking for “so-and-so grams” of vegetables, you simply choose from pre-tied bunches that sell for convenient prices of RM1 or RM2 per bunch. Dry provisions and fruits still go by weight, of course. I like to choose my own onions, and small Siamese red onions sell for about RM15/kilo.