A visit to a live fish market in China should be placed above a Great Wall trip, seeing Xi'an's Terracotta Warriors and getting wankered in a 24-hour karaoke room in terms of "must-dos" for non-vegetarian visitors to the country.
Found in many coastal Chinese cities, they are teeming, dripping, and often huge, characterised by choruses of doomed fish flapping, multi-coloured lobsters being tossed from barrel to barrel, and turtles clawing at investigating hands.
Shanghai's Tongchuan Road market, found in the north of the city near the Zhenru metro stop and open 24-hours a day, is a classic example. Aquatic offerings from around the world arrive there every day, and a slew of seafood restaurants have duly popped up next to the main strip, where customers can bring in their wriggling bags and get them cooked up to their tastes. Without eating, say, live drunken shrimp (a delicious Chinese specialty that packs a literal kick), it doesn't get fresher than this.
For the average punter it's hard to know what to look for when choosing a crab, squid, grouper or what some locals call elephant ivory clam (pictured above, known internationally as geoducks), though. I enlisted the help of head chef Chen Lu at the nearby Huang Yue Xuan restaurant—the highest-ranked seafood joint in the area on influential customer reviews website Dianping. He agreed to take me around the market, help me buy a haul and cook it up, hopefully demonstrating how to sort the perfect Chinese fish market meal on a budget.
I'm a big lobster fan, and Chen explained that their quality throughout the market was pretty steady species-for-species—it was more about which type you chose. This multi-coloured beast was from Australia, but I was quoted 800 Yuan (£80 or $130) for one. It was probably a "foreigner price", but still, I wasn't about to spend an amount of money that could get me a tailor-made suit in a different Shanghai market on one crustacean.
These enjoyably phallic geoducks, hauled from US waters, intrigued me too. But priced at 200 Yuan, (£20 or $33) per half kilo, I had to pass on both eating and posing with one for a juvenile Facebook profile picture.
Soon Chen's eyes harpooned towards these red eels. They were from the east Atlantic Ocean, and the chef explained that they were a rarity at the market—he saw them perhaps once a month. We bought two for a highly reasonable 34 Yuan (£3.40 or $5.70).
Heading further down Tongchuan Road, I couldn't help but notice that not all the critters on the strip were still breathing.
Chen took us to meet this gent, who didn't raise the strip's reputation for hygiene much by offering us fags while he fished a green crab out of a container and sold it to us for 75 Yuan (£7.50 or $12.50).
"You need to weigh crabs and compare them," said Chen. "The heavier they are for their size the better—it means they have more meat inside. Crabs of the same size can have very different weights. In some seasons crabs can be lean and thin, but now, in summer, they have more meat."
I've sampled Chinese softshell turtle and was adamant we'd pick up one today. This guy sold us one for 45 Yuan (£4.50 or $7.50). It is thought that around 200 million of these alarmingly cute turtles are eaten in China each year, with many of them farmed in Jiangsu province. "Wild ones are about ten times more expensive but are much tastier," Chen said.
Heading back to Chen's restaurant, I couldn't resist an impulse buy of two east China sea urchins for just 25 Yuan (£2.50 or $4.20) each. A popular item in the market, they are often eaten raw.
It was time for Chen to do his magic. Which began by him getting his staff to hack up the crab with a horror film-sized cleave. We started to get the whole shebang cooked up.
The snails, needing minimal preparation, came out first. "They already have a very strong taste as they're from deep sea," said Chen. "Normally, the deeper the sea level a creature is from, the tastier it is. I don't want any sauce covering the original flavour."
Chen wouldn't reveal the ingredients in the sauce he served the red eel with, but the subtle, soy-based concoction was secondary to the basic flavour of the meat. Mildly salty and succulent, it's easy to see why the chef got so excited about spotting them.
Chen amped up the sauce stakes for the crab with a super-spicy serving alongside peppers, celery, onions and garlic. "This one is not so expensive, but you can get king crabs in the market sometimes," he said. "They're usually a couple of thousand Yuan each and you need to book one first with a vendor."
As was the case for the red eel, the turtle was served with minimal accompanying flavouring to let the original taste shine. Steamed and presented in a mild soup, the taste fell somewhere between pork and seafood and was a tender treat.
The urchin wasn't a dessert, but it sure as heck looked like a crème brûlée to me, so I ate it last. Chen steamed it, the soft urchin innards mixed with an egg-based gloop that gave it a yoghurty texture and an oddly unique taste as the fresh seafood-y hit of the animal melded with the dairy.
The meal was a fantastic experience, and one that's easily replicated—many chefs in the area will happily join you around the market if they're not busy (try weekday lunchtimes). My Tongchuan Road adventure concluded with the final scoop of urchin and egg. All that was left to do was work out how I was going to waddle my seafood-bloated body back down the road to the metro station and work out I was going to be able to afford one of those lobsters and a king crab next time round.