It would be another hour before dawn but the area at the corner of Wanda Road (萬大路) under the Shuiyuan Expressway (水源快速道路) was humming with activity. For many of the people here, this was the busiest part of their day, for business at the Taipei City Wholesale Fish Market (台北市魚類批發市場) was in full swing.
In Taipei, if you’re in the business of making sure you are getting the freshest and biggest range of fish and seafood available, this is the place you come. That was why I stood wrapped up against the cold night air to meet Eiji Nakamura, the head Japanese chef at the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel, who makes the trip to these markets once a week.
For Nakamura, the reason for these excursions is to make sure he can stay ahead of the game, monitoring what is coming onto the market through the seasons, as well as to procure items that are likely to feature as a daily special on the menu of his restaurant, Ibuki. Whatever is coming into season, it is likely to appear at these markets before making its way downstream to the high street stores and local markets.
Entering the cavernous shed with its wet concrete floor, the air acquired an additional chill from the huge baskets of ice lying about on which the fish were stacked. Men and a few women dressed in warm jackets and rubber boots milled around as auctioneers shouted prices in an incomprehensible steam of numbers and catchphrases. As a new lot came up, a crowd would gather around a bidding station. Others, more leisurely, were inspecting the fish on the bidding floor, many with notebooks in hand. Shopping here is a serious business, and those doing the shopping all wore blue baseball caps with a number sewn in red, marking them out as licensed distributors, the only people permitted to bid. According to figures from the Taipei City Market Administration Office (台北市市場處), the market has an average daily turnover of 150 metric tonnes, with the volume rising to 250 metric tonnes during holiday and festival periods.
By the time I met Nakamura at 5:30am, the action at wholesale market was winding down, and the interest had shifted over to a smaller retail market where many restaurant owners could be found looking for their catch of the day.
For Nakamura, the main interest was picking out specialties to supplement the hotel’s main procurement inventory. A stand offering large tiger prawns caught his interest, and after shopping around, he picked up a kilogram. Nakamura was one of the earliest visitors to this part of the market, and many stallholders were still setting up. There was an almost collegial atmosphere as he picked through various offerings, comparing prices, taking notes, checking for freshness.
This atmosphere would vanish later in the morning. When I walked through the markets again at around 8am, the isles were packed with grannies picking up their own daily supplies, and the pace of business was much brisker. Squeezing through the crowd, avoiding the cascades of water flung over worktables to wash away blood and entrails, looking at the faces all intent on their business, it was easy to see why this drab, wet and cold concrete arena of stalls had become such a mecca for food lovers.
The fish market, which covers a 2.2-hectare site, is dwarfed by the neighboring No. 1 Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market (第一果菜批發市場), which sprawls over more than 5 hectares. Here too, retail stalls are mixed in with the wholesalers, and the market flows out into a vibrant morning street market along Fuming Street (富民街).