Asian Market Madness

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, August 14, 2009
            I saw the chicken truck. Good, I thought, I didn’t get up at 5:30 for nothing. As I drove by, I saw a line of about 10 people waiting in front of a livestock trailer. Inside, I could see the caged chickens. I thought I was in time to see a transaction, maybe record a cluck or two.
            But by the time I trolled for a parking spot, harnessed myself into my gear and walked across Broadway, a rolling door, like a garage door, was lowered with a bang.
            You have to get here by 6 if you want to buy a live chicken. It’s 6:45 and they’re all gone.
            “No more chicken?” I begged the chicken lady.
            “No more.”
            “Not one chicken?” I persisted, hoping one last bird would materialize.
            That’s what happens when you’re late at the southeast Asian farmers market. Oh well. I may not have gotten a chicken, but there was before me a crowded produce market full of unusual gourds, chiles, eggplants, shoots and leaves. I heard people greeting each other in Punjabi, Cantonese, Hindi and what I later would come to recognize as Hmong. There’s no question this market is by Asians and for Asians, but anyone can go.
            Kuoa Franz, who works for the Hmong Women’s Heritage Center, came to help translate so I could learn more than I’d ever be able to discover on my own. She took in the landscape.
            “You have a lot of Southeast Asians, a lot of Eastern Asians, a lot of Caucasians, African-Americans, so it’s quite neat to have something like this here in Sacramento,” Kuoa said.
            It’s no accident that many of the growers are Hmong.
            “In our culture and our tradition,” Kuoa said, “growing is something that we do naturally.”
            Most Hmong came here as refugees after the Vietnam war. The Hmong were farmers back home and they just can’t help themselves. They’ve got to put seeds in the ground and sell what comes up. Kuoa spoke with one grower who speaks just enough English to sell the distinctly Asian ingredients at her booth.
            “Her name is Gyha Hunong. She came to the US in 1980,” Kuoa translated. She’s got Hmong cucumber, Chinese radish, fuzzy melon and a gourd called capachuia [which is definitely spelled wrong here] but phonetically it comes out right.
            “Capachuia is a kind of pun’kin,” Kuoa said. “Gyha will use it as a tea, for the juice.”
            The squashes today are so weird – fluted, speckled, humongous. One thing’s certain; they’re not going in zucchini bread. One is chartreuse and looks like it’s got a rash.
            “That’s bitter melon,” Kuoa said. “It looks like a snow pea inside out.”
            The term pun’kin is part of the description.
            “In our language, it’s either a melon or a pun’kin or a squash,” Kuoa explained. “The name of the melon is based on its taste.”
            As in bitter melon.
            This market is a slice of old-country life. There’s 40 vendors on a quarter-acre of asphalt, so expect to get squeezed walking between the pop up tents. And prices aren’t always on signs.
            This market has been around for 22 years, but it doesn’t really have a name. The cops who block 5th Street into a safe pedestrian area call it the Sunday Open-Air Market. Technically, it’s not a market. The county health department has it down as a Mobile Food Facility. Category A. It got regulated in 2005, after an off-duty health inspector happened to drive by and see it.
            And don’t confuse it with the certified farmers markets program. Certified markets have the rule that vendors may sell only what they grow. At 5th and Broadway, vendors can sell what they grow on a local farm or in their backyard, and can resell produce bought elsewhere, which explains … the pineapples.
            Steve Sheen is the market manager. He collects the weekly vendor fees that pay the rent and the overtime cop. He’s standing off to the side, taking in the show.
            “I see a lot of people come here, and it’s just like a reunion,” Sheen says. “They’re standing out there and talk. And the wife will go shop. And the man just, they talk. It’s so fun.”
            Sheen is attracted by the fragrance of a bundle of Thai basil.
            “What does that remind you? Pho (fuh) !!! Beef noodle.”
            He’s referring to the Vietnamese beef-noodle soup, a mainstay of the country’s cuisine. A big bowl always comes to the table with a side dish piled with peppery Thai basil and many of the other leaves and herbs essential to Asian cooking.
            Also essential? Tofu.
            I spy some teenagers behind a tofu booth, and I believe they’ll be able to have a conversation in the dialect of American youth. One’s wearing a Cal sweatshirt. To break the language barrier, I note that today’s tip is to look for teenagers working the booth for their parents.
            One of the tofu girls is Lin Trin. “We’re Chinese, it’s just our names are Vietnamese which is really confusing.” They’re selling the soybean in every conceivable form except hamburger filler. “All different kinds. We have the soy milk, soy jello, the fried tofu, compressed fresh tofu, and then we have just the regular fresh tofu.”
            Wait a minute. Did she say JELLO? It jiggles in a clear tub, like yogurt, and it comes with a little cup holding what looks like dipping sauce, but I’m wrong. I’m told it’s a syrup that’s poured into the soy jello to be eaten it like a dessert.
            If you go to this market, expect the food to be fresh and the prices cut-throat. But don’t expect organic. If you don’t need a live chicken, you can sleep in. The market’s open til noon.