4 Food Markets Around the World: Ordinary to Locals, Extraordinary to Me

Whenever I visit a new town, I’m not only on a mission to discover the sweet scene, but also to spend time at a local market.  It’s a perfect introduction to the culinary landscape, and always so interesting to observe the exchanges between proud vendors and their loyal customers, and most of all, see what people eat there !  What seems completely normal and mundane in one country (like the Swiss’ multicolored hard-boiled eggs) can be exotic and exciting – or just weird – to another.

Right now at the markets in Zürich, bright red strawberries and stalks of rhubarb are in the spotlight, but fat, white asparagus are taking up a lot of prime real estate too. While the latter has become common for me, living here in the German part of Switzerland and making regular visits to Zürich’s Bürkliplatz and Oerlikon markets, white asparagus were once strange and unfamiliar.  For me, asparagus were green, showing again that one person’s apple is another person’s rambutan.

Markets around the WorldMarkets around the WorldMarkets around the WorldMarkets around the World

(Above, clockwise from top left: markets in San Ignacio, Belize; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Antananarivo, Madagascar; Mérida, Mexico)

And so, it got me thinking about my recent visits to markets around the world, where the most common of products had out-of-towners simply scratching their heads (me included).  Even in Switzerland, I saw my first fresh almonds and mini kiwis (the former in Vevey – my favorite market in Switzerland); and at Berlin’s Winterfeldtmarkt, I raised a quizzical eyebrow at a linseed oil press.

Below is a quick trip to four markets in four countries, where “ordinary” to the locals includes bacalhau, salmon soup, live chickens and popcorn – not so ordinary to many visitors.  Grab your passport and your market caddy… and away we go !


It was all about fruit, especially the famous plátanos de Canarias (bananas), at the markets on both La Palma and La Gomera, the two Canary Islands I visited this past winter.  Mangos, oranges and papayas were plentiful, as well as beetroot and malanga from nearby islands, Tenerife and El Hierro, respectively.  Canarians filled their baskets with avocados and carambola (starfuit) at the indoor Mercado Municipal in San Sebastián De La Gomera, below, and ordered tall glasses of fresh sugar cane juice to drink on the spot.  There were fruits of all colors and shapes that when cracked open, revealed entirely different colors and seeds than were expected.  Most of all, huge sacks of potatoes were destined to become the island’s ubiquitous papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes) that are boiled in extremely salty water and eaten with red or green mojo sauce.

Market in San Sebastian on La Gomera, Canary Islands, SpainMarket in San Sebastian on La Gomera, Canary Islands, SpainMarket in San Sebastian on La Gomera, Canary Islands, SpainMarket in San Sebastian on La Gomera, Canary Islands, SpainMarket in San Sebastian on La Gomera, Canary Islands, SpainMarket in San Sebastian on La Gomera, Canary Islands, Spain

I had less time in Helsinki, Finland, there for a friend’s wedding; yet I still managed to visit Kauppatori, the seaside open-air market, several times a day.  I was most fascinated by bright red poulukkaa (lingonberries), cousin to the cranberry, that showed up around town in jams, cordials and sauces for both meat dishes and desserts.  In addition to stands of vibrant wild berries, reindeer paraphernalia and juniper wood handicrafts, the market was dominated by fish stands, selling salmon soup, salmon cooked plancha style, salmon cakes (my lunch by the water, below center) and several varieties of herring.  Sitting at picnic tables with paper baskets of fried vendace was popular with the locals, who were popping these whole little whitefish like chips.  Boats were docked, serving as market stands themselves, with potatoes, herne (pea pods) and yet even more fish.

Market in Helsinki, FinlandMarket in Helsinki, FinlandMarket in Helsinki, FinlandMarket in Helsinki, FinlandMarket in Helsinki, FinlandMarket in Helsinki, Finland

Fish was popular and important at the markets throughout Portugal too.  And by that, I can only mean one thing: bacalhau, the iconic dried and salted cod. Piles and piles of these large, thin slabs of fish (coming from Norway) are cut, packed and sent home with the locals to be soaked in water and cooked using one of the country’s over 1,000 recipes for cod.  Bacalhau in one hand,… a live chicken held by its feet in the other.  There were perhaps even more stands with live animals than produce at the market at Campo da República in Barcelos, in the far northwest corner of Portugal.  Even after experiencing this at the markets in Morocco and Madagascar, I have a feeling it will always remain exotic to me.  Barcelos is actually the birthplace of the country’s symbol, the cockerel (rooster) and is well worth a visit if only for the massive Thursday morning market (even if you’d rather buy your poultry as a small plastic souvenir).

Market in Barcelos, PortugalMarket in Barcelos, PortugalMarket in Barcelos, PortugalMarket in Barcelos, PortugalMarket in Barcelos, PortugalMarket in Barcelos, Portugal

Last but not least, a market closer to my roots, where you’ll find an extraordinary variety of tomatoes, apples, maple products and flowers depending on the season, as well as ice cream, cookies and popcorn.  It’s none other than the Greenmarket at New York City’s Union Square.  This is the market where I first discovered ramps, pumpkin whoopie pies and an absolute painter’s palette of radishes, including my favorite, watermelon radishes.  But I have to say, no visit of mine to this market would be complete without a stop at a certain stand, that is luckily in season all year round… handmade Martin’s pretzels !  Salty, flavorful and as crunchy as they come.  The best part may be all the broken pieces in the bag that make for a superb topping for ice cream.  Only, this is definitely not library food.  You’ll get many a stare and a very loud “shhhh” as you chomp away… Perhaps a sign of a really good hard pretzel.

Greenmarket, New York CityGreenmarket, New York CityGreenmarket, New York CityGreenmarket, New York CityGreenmarket, New York CityGreenmarket, New York City

What is your favorite market ?  And/or the most exotic item you saw at a market ?

33 Responses to “4 Food Markets Around the World: Ordinary to Locals, Extraordinary to Me”

  1. Victoria (District Chocoholic) says:

    This is such a cool way to check out a new city/culture – and fresh cane sugar juice sounds absolutely delicious.

    I used to live near a wonderful market in the DC area, where I could get handmade ricotta delicious enough to eat straight.

  2. nancyo says:

    Thanks for the market tour(s)! Fascinating to see and read about all of the different foods and cultures. We have a vibrant market in the Atlanta area: called “Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market” and it has food both regional and exotic.

  3. Julia @ Mélanger says:

    Kerrin, you know how much I L-O-V-E your market posts. So big YAYS for you!

    Markets really are really a great way to capture the essence of a place, aren’t they? And from your descriptions here, I feel like I know a little more about each place that you have shared.

    And these would all be markets that locals would visit daily, no? Don’t you wish you could package some of this food up and bring home with you? Well, maybe except for the live animals!!

  4. Yeye says:

    What a wonderful and original way to travel around the world! You show splendidly what culinary travel is all about and I really hope you win the Saveur award.
    Food markets … I have not done so many original markets around the world as you have (unfortunately 🙁 ), but just crossing French local food markets, from region to region, I know that there are already major differences within the same country. Thanks again Kerrin. What a beautiful way to start the week!

  5. Kerrin says:

    Victoria, I bet that market near DC was great ! As for sugar cane juice, I first discovered that off the side of the road in Brazil, really cool to watch them put the huge stalks into a press, that squeezes out a greenish colored juice. Sweet for sure, but also a unique consistency, as I recall…

    nancyo, so glad you enjoyed the market tour here ! I’d love to hear more about your market in Atlanta – what is the most typical regional product, would you say ? Thanks for sharing !

    Julia, you bet I do ! And you said it best, markets absolutely capture the essence of a place. The ones I mentioned here aren’t open everyday (except Helsinki), but once or a few times a week, and locals always know the very best day to go. You bet I’d like to grab a few things above – minus those live animals, of course ! =)

    Yeye, thank you so much ! You are so right, it’s not only fascinating to see the differences from country to country, but even region to region. Glad your week is getting off to a great start !

  6. Caity says:

    All of the food is so bright and exotic! I would love to visit these markets.
    Do you know what the the small yellow and black disks in the picture above are called?

  7. Emma says:

    OOoooofffff! Markets! X 4!!!

    I am thrilled. Thrilled by the cute ducklings, by the massive roots on that spring garlic, and by the oddness of the Finnish language.

    I haven’t met my favorite market yet, but I bet we’ll cross paths someday. I would say that the most exotic item I’ve seen at a market was the Michael Jackson impersonator who was moonwalking his way across the cobblestones near a market in Barcelona. What a dude!

  8. Jack says:

    What a nice way to start the week dreaming of all of these locations 🙂 This is also a very cool idea with nice pictures…It would be nice to see some more pictures of far-away markets others have visited during their travels…

  9. Kerrin says:

    Caity, good question ! Above at the market in Portugal, the black rounds are olives, and the little yellow disks are called tremoço, or lupin beans. They’re salty legume seeds that you see everywhere there, often eaten like nuts with a drink or beer. You just break the skin and pop them into your mouth, quite fun – and addictive.

    Emma, my #1 market fan ! Your MJ impersonator is going to be hard to beat, I have to say. I’ll be heading to Barcelona this summer in fact. I’ll keep an eye out for him – and say hello for you if I see him 😉

    Jack, my market buddy, thanks ! I’m with you, always love seeing photos of other markets around the world. The American magazine Saveur did a special Market issue last year, you should definitely check it out, all the features and recipes are online: http://www.saveur.com/in_this_issue.jsp?issueId=201005

  10. Lora says:

    Great roundup! I love the Viktualienmarkt in Munich however, I have seen a lot of crazy things for sale in my travels including a cobras in jars in Egypt and water buffalo at the Bac Ha market in Vietnam. Oh and there was that “natural viagra” for sale at the spice market in Istanbul 🙂

  11. mayssam says:

    That’s what I do when I travel too!! And I live 2 blocks from the Jean-Talon market here in Montreal, the “largest open air market in North America”, it’s my corner store and I love it! I will write a post about it when it’s in full swing this summer! 🙂

  12. Sarah says:

    Wonderful, thanks for the virtual tour of the worlds outdoor markets (better known as souks around here)

  13. Kerrin says:

    Lora, thanks ! Oooh, I so loved the Viktualienmarkt in Munich too. Such a great market ! I can only begin to imagine those in Egypt and Vietnam as you mentioned — certainly nothing ordinary about those for us ! 😉 What an experience that must have been. I do however recall the “natural viagra” in Istanbul,… those long chains of nuts dipped in honey ! Thanks for sharing.

    mayssam, mais oui, I totally went to the Jean-Talon market when we were in Montreal too, years ago. Too bad I was there before meeting you ! And can’t believe it is your corner store… pas mal ! 😉 I remember stellar breads and the most amazing ice cream…

    Sarah, thanks ! And you’re very welcome. Hope to get lost in the souks in your part of town one day…

  14. Valentina says:

    Oh this is lovely. Markets are fascinanting things. One I love very much is the one at ver o peso in Belém, north Brazil. I’ll have to send you a separate email about it. Boats come in every morning with goods from all over the ‘ribeirinho’ areas and the it greens, fish, fruit. It’s also famous for it’s stalls with ‘ magic’ miracle herbs.. I found myself there a few years ago on holiday with a british friend. All os a sudden the sudden accent I grew up with came up and some people even thought I was a loca. The whole maket triggered all the emotional memories of my childhood..it was a very complete experience: sensorial, emotional…

  15. Jamie says:

    LOVE this post! As you know, JP and I are market fiends and spend most of any vacation in the local market. Have you been to the one in Budapest? Fabulous! I must show this post to my man and tell him we have these to visit now!

  16. Meister @ The Nervous Cook says:

    Ah, the Union Square Greenmarket — my Saturday morning home away from home. I love that place and the characters that inhabit it (the ostrich guy with his ready treat for my pup; the tall, lanky honey vendor who’s always got a sly joke and a sideways smile ready; the apple merchants who slice off huge hunks for you to try of four or five different varieties…), and it’s my favorite weekly routine to stroll over there before setting home to read the paper and drink a coffee.

    Thanks for this post; it makes me so appreciate having my favorite market so close.

  17. Kerrin says:

    Valentina, wow, I love hearing about your visit to the market in Belém, obrigada. How amazing to have had that experience, truly involving all the senses. One of the first times I went to the market with Olivier here, he said the smells and colors reminded him of Brazil too !

    Jamie, I have never been to Budapest. But am so like you, no matter where we travel – it’s to the market we go ! I bet you have a fabulous market there in Nantes too.

    Meister, I love hearing your reactions to the New York places I mention. (Oh, have you seen my favorite spot in NYC for chocolate ?! http://mykugelhopf.ch/2008/10/surprising-nyc-destination-for-chocolate/) Meanwhile, what a fabulous routine you have at the Greenmarket. It’s all about the people there, and the exchanges with them that make our market visits all the more enriching (and delicious). Thanks again for sharing !

  18. Marlen says:

    Kerrin, I’m right there with you; always check out the local markets when travelling. The Central Market Hall in Budapest was quite interesting, and of course London’s Borough Market. The next one on the agenda is San Francisco.
    And my most favorite of all: the weekly visit of “my” farmers’ market in Oerlikon 🙂 The amazing variety and quality of fruit, veggies, flowers, cheese, baked goods and more makes me feel so lucky and grateful.

  19. Sam Sidney says:

    Great post! The pictures are amazing… such bright colors! All the produce looks delicious. I really think those salmon cakes in Finland look delicious, even at 7:30 a.m. I would love at bite right now! And please tell me those little ducklings in Portugal are for pets…. And last but not least, our beloved Union Square market! I was there last weekend, it was great!

    Keep ’em coming! xo

  20. Karen from Globetrotter Diaries says:

    I’ve been to the Merida markets– I love that city! All the amazing seafood and produce… Anywhere I travel, a must stop is always the markets. Just came across your blog and love it 🙂

  21. bloomie says:

    Borough Market in London is my absolute favorite food market in the whole wide world.

    Turkey has exceptional food markets and when you’re in the less touristy cities/areas they are magical. I recently went to the Portland Farmer’s Market for the first time this fall and it was wonderful.

  22. Kerrin says:

    Marlen, Budapest’s market is now on my list, as Jamie above mentioned it too. And yes, London’s Borough Market is fantastic, so much there. Now you are off to California… You’ll have to check out the Ferry Building in SF of course ! And perhaps we’ll run into each other one day in Oerlikon too… I do love that market !

    Sam, no worries about being tempted by the Finnish salmon cakes at 7:30am, I had them for breakfast too ! 🙂 Only, I’m afraid to say… um… those animals in Portugal… not quite an open-air pet store. Sorry ! 🙁

    Karen, thanks so much, to a fellow market lover !

    bloomie, I may be returning to London later this year, and definitely hope to get back to the Borough Market – with lots of time to just roam around. I love it too ! And I can only imagine the markets throughout Turkey. I have only ever been to Istanbul, and it was already quite an experience ! Thanks for sharing.

  23. Sonny Le says:

    Dear Kerrin,

    Wow! Amazing photo collage. A sensory overload. Learned about mykugelhopf from Bridget Davis’s Twitter feed. I since have resent it around to friends on Twitter & Facebook as well. Great Web site, yours, of course. Thank you.

    Sonny Le
    Oakland, CA

  24. Anne says:

    Oh Kerrin, I love markets too and I especially miss the one in my hometwown, Robert @lamiacucina worte about: http://lamiacucina.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/d-79539-lorrach-markt/
    While I love strolling sthrough the big and famous ones in like Porto (http://xaxor.com/index.php/other/12801-Mercado-do-Bolhao,-Porto,-Portugal.html) I also enjoy the tiny markets in little villages with only a few stands.

  25. Lani says:

    Thank you so much for making a rainy day here in NY sunny! The markets are so colorful and look so delicious. I would love to experience some of the more exotic ones but I did love Zurich’s markets and of course, my favorite is Union Square. When I wander around there it is like being in the country! Your photography makes the fruits, veggies and pulse of the market pop out….thanks again for the sunshine.

  26. Maria says:

    Such a fascinating post and those photos from Finland really made me home-sick! My favourite markets must be in Japan – Nishiki market in Kyoto and of course Tsukiji in Tokyo. Having said that the local markets here in Sydney are always good too!

  27. Kerrin says:

    Sonny, so glad Bridget led you to MyKugelhopf ! Thanks very much for the comment and for sharing my link with others, really appreciate it ! And imagine *being* at these markets – that’s where the real sensory overload is ! 🙂

    Anne, I’m with you – I love all markets, whether big or small, city or countryside, you name it. Local and colorful and always exciting. Thanks so much for sharing those links here – what incredible photos and so many exotic products. Danke !

    Lani, glad I could dry up a little bit of the New York rain ! And especially happy to hear you enjoyed Zürich’s markets too. I love them, but am perhaps a bit biased. 😉

    Maria, thank you ! Sorry for making you home-sick though ! Oooh you’ve been to the famous fish market in Tokyo – WOW ! I have heard so much about it, must be incredible to go… at like 4am or something. Bet the Sydney market is fabulous too. Thanks for the comment !

  28. Sonny Le says:

    Dear Kerrin,

    It’s wonderful that you are employing the good ol’ high touch in today’s all-high tech world — responding to your readers’ comments & commenting on their responses.

    I grew up in Viet Nam where aside from the organized markets, we had a lot of what we call ch?? chô?m hô?m — which literally means squatting markets because the purveyors had to squat. These are impromptu markets that convene just for the morning & afternoon shopping for lunch & dinner, respectively. Talk about fresh from the farms & rivers!

    It is wonderful, if you like love food & like cooking, when you shop for food this way.

    Outside Asia, my favorites have been the farmers market in Nice, the Mercat de la Boqueria of Barcelona & the one in my neck of the woods, Alemany farmers market in San Francisco.

    Again, thanks/merci/danka/grazie for this wonderful Web site.


    Sonny Le
    Oakland, CA

  29. Anna Mindess says:

    Nice to meet a fellow market-maniac. My favorites are probably any street market in Paris. The Mahaneh Yehuda Market in Jerusalem is amazing, especially the stand called Kingdom of Halvah, with the dozens of flavors of halvah.

    Loved Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. When you go, you must have a sushi breakfast at a tiny cafe nearby. So fresh, it probably still wiggles.

    Just visited the Turkish Market in Berlin and am looking forward to returning to Kauai, Hawaii and the farmer’s market set up in an empty lot on the North shore, near Hanalei.

  30. jen laceda says:

    Hi Kerrin. Oh my gosh, I love markets. I enjoy going to St. Lawrence Market in Toronto (I’m biased, since I live here). I read on a National Geography book that St. Lawrence Market is one of the world’s oldest. Surprise, surprise!

    I found the market in Marrakech quite exotic, though. Seeing sheep’s head and pigeons for sale kinda freaked me out a little, but I guess that’s just ordinary for locals.

    I also love Divisoria market in the Philippines. Live animals for sale, also fresh fish, as well as balut – fermented duck’s egg / embryo.

    Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market is a favourite also. I love that I can eat sushi on the spot, although seeing those scaly or rubbery fish being gutted and cleaned can be a bit overwhelming.

  31. Kerrin says:

    Sonny Le, thank you again for sharing. I *love* having exchanges with my readers – it’s what blogging is all about to me, really. Makes it so much more enriching – and fun – for us both. And it’s fascinating to hear about these markets that are so different than what we are used to… so much yet to explore. I agree, the market in Nice is fantastic and so colorful. I’ll be heading to the one in Barcelona this summer, can’t wait ! And again, you’re very welcome / de rien / bitte / prego !! 🙂

    Anna, ok, looks like you and I have even more in common… market maniacs – and halvah maniacs ! 🙂 Did you say dozens of flavors of halvah, as in, plural dozens ?! Wow, I can not even imagine. I grew up eating halvah, yummm – and I think that stand you mention above is what my dad thinks heaven is. Haha ! Sounds like you have been to some of the best markets around the world. Amazing ! Love hearing about it all, thank you.

    jen, wooh, that is quite a mixed bag of markets and products there… all super exotic to me, that’s for sure. The only one I know of what you mention is Marrakech’s Djemaa el-Fna – and my favorite things there were the fresh squeezed OJ and all those dates and dried fruit – a bit more ordinary to us than the sheep heads and all. 😉

  32. jkiel says:

    The weirdest things I’ve seen in a market were in various Chinese cities… lots of “stuff on sticks”, along with big tubs of blood/gelatinous blood (ew). Also lots of things that I have no idea what they were!
    I also really enjoyed the Venetian market vendors in their boats – the fruits and vegetables weren’t anything out of the ordinary, but I’d never seen a “boat market” in such a lovely place before.
    thanks for the pics!

  33. flowers zurich says:

    Such a great pictures, i love all the mix of vegetables and fruits and really looks good, that´s what i love farmers market.

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