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Peter Greenberg’s Favorite Markets

This is a guest post from Peter Greenberg. He is running a photo contest through March 29, and the theme from the past week was markets. Synchronicity! The “Markets” theme in our Catch contest starts today, and Peter agreed to write about a few of his favorites. Where are your favorite markets? Enter the Catch contest for a chance to win—this is the final week!

Whenever and wherever I travel, I try to make dedicated visits to some very special markets around the world. Places like Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, Thailand; Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin; Tsukiji Central Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan; Khalili Bazaar in Cairo, Egypt; La Boqueria in Barcelona, Spain; Temple Street Night Market in Hong Kong. 

Those are just a few of the markets I’ve visited in the last six months. People are always asking me how to get the local experience, and I always tell them—at least for starters—to go straight to the local markets. Why? The market is local food, local goods, and locals all in one place. It’s where you go to learn the secrets that no guidebook could ever provide. And you get a great meal at the same time.

Here are three market highlights from my upcoming book, The Best Places for Everything and my travels, plus my tips for navigating these markets and some of my favorite market images from the recent PeterGreenberg.com photo contest.

La Boqueria in Barcelona, Spain. La Boqueria is not exactly off the beaten path, but inside the market is one particular must-see. Think of the market as a cross between a farmers’ market and a supermarket. With as many as 300 vendors, you’ll find a variety of fresh and dried produce, cured meats, cheeses, Spanish olives, and other specialty items. Inside La Boqueria you’ll find a little place called Bar Central. It’s just one counter and about eight bar stools. Opposite the counter is a stack of all kinds of freshly caught fish. When you arrive, the stools will likely all be occupied. Be patient. (You may have to wait for about 20 minutes, but it will be well worth it.) Once you sit down, point to the fish you want, and they cook it right in front of you. Just delicious. www.boqueria.info

Khalili Bazaar in Cairo, Egypt. Every time I go to Cairo I make a beeline for the bazaar. Yes, you can always go there for one of the thousands of inlaid wooden boxes, but I go there for two things. I go for kanafeh—an amazing dessert made of shredded dough and crushed nuts with powdered sugar and cinnamon or sweetened cream cheese. It’s not always easy to find, but most storekeepers can point you in the right direction. One tip: It’s already sweet enough. Don’t let them add extra honey.

The other thing I go to the bazaar for is pocket watches. It’s not just old watches from Switzerland. There are antique pocket watches made by Swiss companies that were once based in Cairo in the 1900s. Why were Swiss companies there? They were making the watches for the people who worked on the railways. But what you’ll find is that pocket watches all have unbelievably interesting etchings of the railroad cars on their backs. And, incredibly, they still work.

The Temple Street Night Market in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, a lot of the guidebooks will tell you to go to Stanley market. Not me. I’ll tell you to go to the Temple Street Night Market. And how did I find out about it? From Pan Am flight crews that had layovers there. And why did they pick Temple Street? Because it was less touristy, they had better bargains and better street entertainment. As expected you’ll see lots of bargains and knock offs, but in Temple Street you also get entertained by really colorful (and bad) fortune tellers, or incredibly bad family Chinese opera troupes. To say it’s surreal is an understatement. The other reason I go is the bastardization of the English language. I now have a placard in my office at CBS News that says, “no one angry boss” and a magnet on the dashboard of my car that says in both English and Chinese “no fart in car.”

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You’ve heard the old cliché, about the bull in the china shop. PeterGreenberg.com reader Michelle Lipp did one better and sent in a photo of a bull in a sari shop in Varanasi, India (above). Here’s the thing, finding a bull in the shop is the least of your worries when it comes to market vendors in countries like China and India. Priority number one: you need to understand how to haggle. The vendors do increase their prices expecting to be bargained down. So to haggle effectively, you need to make sure you understand some of the local language and currency basics. Be ready to pay cash for an item and don’t assume they take American dollars. To get the ball rolling, offer a price much lower than you expect to get, then bargain up. If the price won’t come down enough, try to have another item thrown in for free. Next, clearly state the amount that you will not go over. If the merchant won’t come down to your maximum, don’t hesitate to walk away. Chances are, if you’re anywhere in the ballpark of what the vendor wants for the item, the vendor won’t let you—or your money—go too far.

Karen Irwin sent in some stunning photos of the produce at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle (shown at top). It’s not just Seattle, where you can head to the market to sample the regional food. In the U.S., if you’re into finding fresh and local produce, cheese and other artisan goods, check out FarmersMarket.com, which lists markets by city and state with details on the time and season that they’re open so you can plan your trip accordingly.

If you find the market experience overwhelming, get your feet wet with a market tour, where a local can take you to the best stands, explain the history of the market, and score free samples along the way. In the Napa Valley, chef Julie Logue-Riordan (www.cookingwithjulie.com) will take you to the Napa Farmers Market on Tuesdays or the St. Helena Farmer’s Market on Fridays to meet the purveyors and sample everything from locally grown olives to a diverse array of cheeses. In Colle di Val d’Elsa in Italy, American expatriate Judy Witts Francini (www.divinacucina.com) leads Friday market tours followed by a cooking class using those ingredients.

I love all the U.S. farmer’s markets, but if you ask me the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin is the best. For starters it’s the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the United States. There’s a “no resale” rule, so the person behind the table is the same person who grew or made the product. And you can’t leave without trying one thing: cheese curds. They’re made from solidified soured milk produced during the cheese-making process. They’re usually served within hours of production, if you hear that “squeak” between your teeth you know you have the good stuff. www.dcfm.org

For more travel news, travel photos and travel contests visit PeterGreenberg.com.