Big name supermarkets continue to pop up across Kunming, but traditional produce markets remain special places of daily pilgrimage for many locals. On any given morning, if you are up early enough in the city center, the throngs of elderly people boarding buses often have a common destination — Zhuanxin Wet Market (篆新农贸市场).
The place maintains a reputation as not only the largest but also the best destination for buying fresh meat, produce and nearly any other regional edible in the Spring City. For years, it also has a few secrets up its sleeves we knew absolutely nothing about.
Built 20 years ago, the market has become a Kunming institution. Everyday items like onions, bell and spicy peppers, ginger, coriander and garlic are of course available in enormous quantities. But what sets Zhuanxin apart is its profusion of other, shall we say, rarer or surprising choices.
Need an obscure variety of mushroom or beef ground in the meat-to-fat proportion of your choosing? Go to Zhuanxin. Are you looking for live eels or silkworm larvae to complete your dinner menu? Go to Zhuanxin.
There are vendors specializing only in lamb, while others nearby sell nothing but deer. If you have a preference for Xuanwei ham, or for its bitter rival, ham from Dali prefecture's Nuodeng, a visit to Zhuanxin will set you straight.
One of the place's most fragrant stalls — which is saying quite a bit — is run by a family who grinds and roasts sesame seeds, churning out dark and earthily fresh Tahini by the jarful.
While exploring the maze of interconnected lanes and warehouse-sized rooms making up the market, snacks become an indispensable part of the Zhuanxin experience. Rice noodles are of course something of an obsession in Kunming, and stands selling all manner of varieties abound.
Douhua mixian (豆花米线) — rice noodles served with un-aged tofu with plenty of spice — is one of the most popular dishes to be had at the market. So too is wandoufen mixian (豌豆粉米线). This variation of rice noodles, or at least the Chenggong version, is smothered in a thick, gloopy gravy made from dried ground peas. Served cold, it can be doctored to your liking with an array of spicy condiments.
Over the years, modernity has crept in amongst all the tradition, sold side-by-side with so many of Yunnan cuisine's most fundamental — and decidedly landlocked — ingredients. Today, raw, sushi-grade salmon is available, and payments are increasingly made using cell phone apps instead of cash.
A recent upgrade to the market, made in May 2018, includes a second-floor area designated only for mushrooms. Where once sat mahjong tables and even a stage with daily performances of Yunnan-style opera, fungus now reigns supreme.
Summertime in Kunming, and across Yunnan, presents shoppers with a bewildering assemblage of mushroom options. At least 1,000 edible varieties grow in the province's forests and meadows. It seems only fitting that a special place should be reserved for them at Zhuanxin. Coming soon, according to market managers, will be another dedicated section, this one built specifically for seafood stalls.
But let's get back to those opera performances. For years, elderly Spring City residents with a passion for Dian Opera (滇剧) gathered in a secluded third-story room above the Zhuanxin Market. There, they performed acts in full costume and make-up, following traditions dating back nearly two centuries.
The absence of something as quirky as Qing dynasty era opera shows inside a modern-day produce market does feel like the loss of something profoundly Kunming. But fear not.
The mahjong tables and operatic scenes have been removed, as the market continues to expand. Luckily, the troupe of avid performers — known locally as the Flower Lantern Group — continue to put on shows just 300 meters to the north of the canal-side entrance to Zhuanxin.
Their new home is the Spring City Primary School (春城小学), located at the corner of Daguan Lu (大观路) and Xichang Lu (西昌路). Performances are held nearly every day at 2pm. So make sure to explore Kunming's biggest, best and most diverse market. Go for the groceries and snacks, then run over and catch the opera.
The Zhuanxin Wet Market is open every day of the week from 6am until midnight. Its official address is 268 Xinwen Lu (新闻路268号), which is serviced by bus numbers 64, 97, 124, 143, 156 and 160. Many people also enter from the Daguan Lu (大观路) gate. For that, catch buses 7, 8, 22,52, 90, 121, 148 and 183. Happy shopping and people watching.
Opera image: AFP / Johannes Eisele
All other images: Patrick Scally