Wet Market Shopping Guide [25 Tips for Filipinos and Foreigners]

Wet Market Shopping Guide [Tips for Filipinos and Foreigners]

I remember — it was fifteen years ago when I first experienced going to a public market as early as four or five in the morning.

It was Marikina Public Market, one of the biggest and best public markets in the Philippines as really well-maintained by the city government. It’s just a two-jeepney ride away (with a stopover at McDonald’s Marcos Highway) from our residence in Cainta, Rizal.

As I shared before, I used to live with my aunt and uncle during my college days, and since my aunt was running a small food business then, I became an instant ‘palengkero’ slash cook, when Ate Merly couldn’t make it, slash server slash dishwasher slash karaoke operator, and slash cashier.

I was a total ‘probinsyano’ dude who had zero idea how to navigate the city, and during my first months as a ‘trainee,’ I was usually accompanied by another helper, Kuya Freddie, or my aunt herself in going to the public market and buying the supplies. I was a fast learner that shortly, it became my specialized task.

Being a silent listener and observer, I easily learned the ways and techniques. I even developed a body clock that I would never miss waking up at four or five for the daily wet market shopping routine.

Even until now that I am already living my life independently, with my younger sister in the extra apartment room, I manage the household supplies and the kitchen and just — do the wet market shopping on weekends.

I dunno, but I just find it quite fulfilling. Particularly during holidays, I can do it all by myself visiting Cainta Public Market, and everybody just trusts me on this.

So, I’m sharing here a complete wet market shopping guide that I think will surely benefit you whether you are a fellow Filipino who hasn’t ever been to a wet market or a foreigner who just wants to explore the before-sunrise side of the city life in the Philippines.

What are wet markets? Wet markets, according to the National Geographic website, can be described in terms of ‘liquid’ in these places — live fish splashing in water tubs, melting ice that keeps meat cold, and the blood and innards of slaughtered (livestock and poultry) animals — and the perishable goods (thus wet) instead of dry and durable goods.

Wet markets are an everyday destination for ordinary people in Southeast Asia and can even be compared to European farmers’ markets.

Wet Market Shopping Guide [Tips for Filipinos and Foreigners]In the Philippines, there are many public markets generally called ‘palengke,’ ‘merkado,’ or ‘pamilihan’ which also come in different formats such as the city public markets, municipal public markets, or even the temporary makeshift markets, usually within neighborhoods or villages, known as ‘talipapa.’

These public markets normally have two big sections — the dry goods section which offers common grocery items, household tools and supplies, and even ready-to-wear (RTW) clothes; and the wet market itself for fresh and cheaper produce, meat, seafood, and other perishable goods.

Most Filipinos rely on these public and wet markets for their daily and weekly supplies of almost everything for consumptions.

In turn, these provide livelihood to many market vendors and distributors, agricultural producers, small-scale farmers, and even street hawkers.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of wet market shopping? If you have been shopping at the nearby supermarket or grocery, you might want to try going to the wet markets as you may enjoy these advantages:

  • You can find a variety of fresh and nutritious food at the wet markets, from meat to seafood to fruits and vegetables.
  • You can make even more purchases at affordable prices and save on your budget.
  • You may enjoy the quick and personalized services of the wet market vendors, from making recommendations to cutting meat based on your planned dishes.
  • You may directly compare same goods based on their quality and prices, and you’ve got lots and lots of options.
  • You may develop a special ‘suki’ bond with your favorite vendor through short but friendly conversations.

On the other hand, shopping at wet markets also comes with disadvantages, or better be prepared with these:

  • You may not endure seeing some unsanitary and unhygienic conditions and practices at the wet markets. You may not want touching those slimy fish and bloody meat while in a super crowded area.
  • You may not know if all goods sold there really pass the food safety standards (although I’m pretty sure out meat inspectors do their jobs at the city and municipal public markets).
  • You may be an animal lover, and you may not want seeing meat covered in blood, animal parts chopped in front of you, or fish deprived of water.
  • You may not have the time to visit the wet markets during their peak hours, i.e., as early as four or five in the morning.
  • You may just prefer to pay with your credit cards and enjoy rewards — something you can’t do at the wet markets.

25 Quick Tips for Shopping at Philippine Wet Markets

To guide you through your wet market shopping in the Philippines, here are 16 quick tips:

[1] Gear up for your wet market trip as early as four in the morning. Supermarkets usually open at seven in the morning and close as late as ten at night, but big public markets get swarmed by local shoppers as early as four in the morning. It’s when the real action happens.

If you arrive past six or seven, you may not be able to make the best deals, the freshest produce, or the best cuts of meat. Although there will still be enough supplies for you to choose from, they may just be the leftovers of those picky shoppers.

[2] Prepare a list of what to buy. Yes, it’s just the same as when you shop at the grocery. You still need a list of items to buy prior to your trip. It will prevent you from going back and again to the same section at the public market, especially if there is already a big crowd.

Start by listing the ‘big items,’ together with their quantities and estimated costs, for example, 3 kilos of pork liempo for PHP750. Cluster them as well based on the wet market sections.

You might want the small ingredients down the list as you may just buy them at the neighborhood store once forgotten.

Although you have your list, your shopping should be flexible enough as you may find better deals for alternative dishes.

Wet Market Shopping Guide [Tips for Filipinos and Foreigners][3] Bring enough cash. You should have withdrawn cash from the ATM the night before. Wet market vendors accept cash payments only, and ATMs may be a long walk away from the public market itself.

With PHP3,000 for example, you can make a good budget already for meat and vegetable dishes stretched up to one week if there are just two to three small mouths to be fed. It’s a frugal hack to buy more in-season and cheaper vegetables and so less meat.

[4] Keep some coins and small bills in your purse. You may need these for your jeepney and tricycle fares. You don’t want the driver to get pissed off by you paying PHP500 or PHP1000 paper bill. As the common PUV slogan goes, ‘Barya lang po sa umaga’ (Pay only small bills or coins in the morning).

Equally, you may need those coins and smaller bills as you pay some vendors for your other small purchases on the side, e.g., some cooking ingredients, a tub of dessert, etc. You may not have the patience to wait for them looking around for your change.

[5] Bring your own sturdy shopping bags or baskets. Regular market goers call it ‘bayong.’ It is an impressively durable and spacious course sack or bag made from woven buri or pandan leaves. If you don’t have one, then big grocery ecobags will just do.

The thing is, you buy different items from different vendors, and they will just pack them in double-layered regular plastic bags, unless you buy in bulks in one stall that they may provide you with a better bag.

Without a bayong or a big shopping bag, you will carry multiple plastic-packed items with your bare hands. And that may be a really hard thing if you still have a long walk.

[6] If you arrive early, grab a bowl of ‘goto’ for a quick breakfast. You may have taken a cup of coffee already before leaving home, but it’s even better that you fill your stomach with ‘goto’ or ‘lugaw’ (rice porridge) that may just cost you as cheap as PHP20.

Food stalls that offer quick breakfast choices are usually inside the wet market itself. Remember that your shopping trip may also take an hour or two, and you don’t want to hear your stomach rumbling at the middle of it.

[7] Wear comfortable clothes and just blend in with the crowd. Don’t ever wear white clothes, white shoes, and heels. Wet markets are just wet, muddy, and filthy. You will always find live fish splashing water all over the floor and ice melting and even adding to the slush on the floor.

Water, meat blood, fish scales, and chicken guts are just part of the common scenes, and people just join the crowd and bump each other. You don’t want you white shirt getting stained or your heels broken.

[8] Walk the market with a route in mind. Others start their shopping from the dry goods or the vegetables section. They say they do it for a spoil-free route — less and nonperishable goods first.

There’s no problem with that, but if you’re shopping alone, you may want to start with the big items on your list — the meat and seafood. As these are the main ingredients, the rest in the recipes may simply follow as adjusted or possibly changed.

After all, meat cuts fresh from the slaughterhouse are normally just hung and displayed around until noon that they’re refrigerated after. So, there’s no big difference.

You might want to consider this suggestion (as this works just fine for me):

  • You start with the meat — pork, beef, and chicken. Then proceed to the seafood section.
  • Your next stop is the vegetables and common ingredients section. As much as possible buy all of them at the same stall.
  • Leave the meat and vegetable bags at the stall, hence the next tip, and make another round for other purchases such as fruits and coconut milk.
  • You might want to drop by the dry goods section as well.

Wet Market Shopping Guide [Tips for Filipinos and Foreigners][9] Look around for stalls where you may leave your shopping bags for a while. It’s tiring and impractical walking around the wet market with heavy shopping bags when you can leave them to where you have a bulk purchase.

It’s common at the public markets to make ‘paiwan muna’ (leave behind for a while) while making additional rounds. Don’t you worry because these market vendors are trustworthy and all observing. It’s also good to choose a stall somewhere near the tricycle station.

[10] Be nice but not too nice, and have ‘suki’ (favorite) vendors. Talk to the vendors politely and ask questions as necessary. They want to develop long lasting relationships with their customers as well. You may be their suki buyer, and they may be your suki vendors.

Being a suki buyer comes with perks. You may ask for discounts, make reservations for best meat cuts, trust the vendors with the chopping for your dish plans, and even just leave them some of your shopping bags.

[11] Touch and feel the items on display, but be careful enough. You can make ‘pisil-pisil’ with the meat, fish, fruits, and almost everything, and judge the freshness and quality by your sense of touch. But don’t overdo it especially if you’re not decided to buy them.

At the same time, it’s you selecting the items for weighing. It’s like a self-service buffet. You may meticulously pick the shrimps yourself based on your ideal sizes or the pork liempo strips for your grilling plans. You may also just pick some pieces of onions and garlic based on your need.

[12] Don’t hesitate to ask the vendors what can be recommended. If you’re not familiar with the meat cuts or the vegetable ingredients for your planned dishes, that’s not a problem. These vendors know the best cuts and ingredients for all common and traditional Filipino recipes. You just need to tell them.

Say, you’re planning to cook menudo, the meat vendor may suggest you kasim (pork shoulder), pigue (ham or leg cut), and some liver. The vegetable vendor, on the other hand, may tell you one by one what you need, but you’re still the one to decide for the quantities.

[13] Get them diced, chopped, or sliced. Normally, you just tell them the recipe, and they know already what chopping to do about it. You may just tell them ‘pang-adobo,’ ‘pang-beef with ampalaya,’ or ‘pang-ihaw.’ The same goes with fish, especially the big ones that they will even ask you how many slices to make.

If you’re running a food business though that the number of slices, for example, for ‘paksiw na bangus,’ is critical, you’ve really got to be specific about it. You don’t want the fish slices to be smaller or bigger than the usual servings that cost the same to your customers.

Wet Market Shopping Guide [Tips for Filipinos and Foreigners][14] Ask for some cooking tips. These wet market vendors are not just good at selling and chopping, but they’re also excellent cooks. You may have just changed your plan upon buying crabs as you see them fresh and

alive, but you only know cooking them in butter. As you asked, the vendor may even suggest you recipes you haven’t tried before, for example, cooking them in coconut milk with taro leaves or adding some mushrooms.

You may also ask about how to make the meat tender without using a pressure cooker or how much time you really need in marinating the meat.

[15] Just find the best deals. It must be a big public market with nearly a hundred of meat, seafood, vegetables, and fruit vendors. They may be selling the same goods but not at the same freshness levels and prices.

You just need to check on them first and make quick comparisons. If you don’t have any suki yet, just walk between the aisles and ask for the prices until you find what suits your needs, preferences, and even your budget.

[16] Do some freshness check. If you have been going to the wet markets for quite a long time already, then you may have developed your own standards for various produce, and you can easily determine which ones are fresh and which ones are not.

If not, and this is just your first time, here are some general tips:

  • Meat. You can tell if the meat is fresh by its color, texture, and smell. Fresh pork, for example, should be in pinkish-red color, with fresh blood, while its fat should be white and no dark spots. Beef should still be in bright cherry or red color. Chicken meat should look reddish purple and not gray. In general, fresh meat does not come with any strange smell. Also, it should bounce back if touched; otherwise, it has aged and lost its elasticity.
  • Fish. You can tell if the fish is fresh by examining its skin color, the gills, and the eyes. Fresh fish has a metallic shine. Eyes should be clear and still slightly bulging. Scales should be intact and should not slide off when touched. Gills should be bright red and still moist, not brown and faded. Lastly, fresh fish smells like the sea or briny water, and not foul.
  • Mussels. Fresh mussels can be identified by their smell. They should smell like the ocean or sea, and nothing more. The shells should be closed tightly or close once touched, an indication that they are still alive.
  • Shrimp. You can easily tell if shrimps are still fresh by considering the appearance. Shells should be hard and thick, and the heads should be firmly attached. Lastly, they should not be slimy, mushy, or smelly.
  • Vegetables. To tell if vegetables are still fresh, you may consider their firmness and color. Regardless of what vegetable is tested, it should not be mushy or slimy. You should also check for molds, holes, and bruises that may cause them to easily rot.
  • Fruits. Almost the same as with vegetables, you can tell that they are fresh based on their color, firmness, and fragrance. Softness does not always tell that they’re getting ripe, as it may just be caused by bruises and beaten-up portions. Avoid deformed and rough-skinned fruits as well, except if they should really be that way.

[17] Don’t buy frozen. Frozen meat, for example, is safe, but you are at the public market because in the first place, you want something really fresh. Skip frozen meat then.

Although they are much cheaper, they do not offer the same taste anymore especially if your planning to make soups or stews. Better go to the grocery if you’ll just buy frozen meat.

[18] Avoid buying off-season fruits and vegetables. Anything off-season is just expensive. Consuming produce grown off-season and picked under-ripe may not really provide nutritional benefits as expected.

If you’re planning a dish, and you just need them, you might want to consider some alternatives that are in-season or readily available at even lower costs.

Wet Market Shopping Guide [Tips for Filipinos and Foreigners][19] Try the peeled, sliced, and ready-to-cook veggies. If you’re planning to cook chop suey, you might want to consider buying those bundles of ready-to-cook vegetable ingredients. You don’t have to buy them individually anymore. If you see them less in carrots, then just add extras.

Not only that it can save you time thinking about all the ingredients and buying them individually that may cost you even more, they are also ready to wash and cook so less tasks on peeling and slicing them.

[20] Try haggling over the price or making some ‘tawad.’ Wet market vendors may offer you discounts, for example, a price cut of PHP10 per kilo, especially if you buy in big quantities or in bulks. With fruits, for instance, you may have an additional one or two pieces for free, if you buy many.

All you have to do is try to haggle as there is nothing bad about it. Many people just do the same thing. But if the vendor refuses to give you a discount, it may be because it’s already at its lowest possible price that giving you one will mean selling it at a loss, and you just have to respect that.

[21] Ask if you can pay for the round-off amount, or you can be spared some coins. Sometimes, you just don’t have the smaller bills or coins to cover the excess to the big amounts that you need to pay, and that for convenience, the vendor just demands a round off.

Or better yet, you just ask this excess as your discount. Say, instead of paying PHP807, you politely ask if you can pay for just PHP800. In most cases, they do allow, and you just make some savings. Just don’t forget to say ‘Thank you.’

[22] Double-check your list and your last-minute decisions made. Check if you have bought everything, down to the very last item on the list. You might have made some last-minute decisions as well that you need to change some of the ingredients for the dishes. Go re-itemize and buy them all.

You should check as well if you still have enough cash left for the tricycle or jeepney fare, and if ever, for other household needs and supplies that you may buy on the spot. This will then cut your multiple errands.

[23] Reorganize your shopping bags. As soon as you complete your wet market shopping, go back to where you left your shopping bags, and try to reorganize them first before you head home.

Find a place where you can quickly unload the plastic bags of meat, vegetables, and others. Reorganize them the way you want. For example, you put meat bags together or fruits and vegetables together.

Doing this may help you prevent delicate items such as eggs and small bags of coconut milk from being damaged or spilling out while in transit.

[24] Take care of the delicate items. Whether you are driving your own car or taking the tricycle or jeepney, you should be conscious enough about your shopping bags, particularly the ones where the delicate items are.

You better count the number of bags as well as you don’t want leaving any of them behind by accident. This usually happens if there are other people with you during your wet market shopping that you may fail to monitor who’s carrying this or that.

[25] Unload everything, wash, and stock in your fridge and pantry. Wash the meat and seafood under running water, but better use a basin for fruits and vegetables to reuse the water for your plants in the garden.

If you’re planning to just stock those meat and fish in the fridge, better divide them first based on your planned dishes and place them in transparent plastic tubs. With this, you will only take out and defrost what’s needed for each meal in the next days.

Read also:

200+ Random Frugal Life Hacks That May or May Not Work for You. This article lists 200+ tidbits of frugal life hacks that you may anytime adopt depending on your living conditions, spending habits, and savings goals.

16 Best Budgeting Methods You Should Try Yourself. This article provides an in-depth discussion on different budgeting methods from the traditional to reverse budgeting methods to the 50-30-20 Balanced Money method.

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