Window shopping

Years ago, when I first came to China, I walked into a bakery expecting to be totally surprised, but was terribly disappointed. There were only competently made variations of what you would find in a bakery across the world. I couldn’t believe it; so much of Chinese food is surprising and wonderful, why couldn’t bakeries deliver the same level of surprise? I still can’t believe it. After a decade I still can’t pass a bakery or a sweet shop without looking in to see whether there is a surprise waiting. Some of the stuff one sees now is a visual surprise, like the baked cats in the featured photo.

But many bakeries remain completely predictable, like the one you see in this photo. The Family and I were happy to sit down in this bakery in Haizhu district for a coffee and a cake (more of a late afternoon tea, actually), but there was no surprise other than the wonderful competence of the master baker. I’m beginning to get used to the idea that there are people in China who dedicate years of their life to perfecting a technique, whether it is baking or calligraphy. This kind of obsessive attention to detail was something I’d come to expect in Japan long back; now I’m seeing a blooming of the same excellence in China. It is a pleasure to bite into a slice of chocolate cake and forget for a moment that you are not in Vienna. Predictable, yes, but in a good way.

There are other places, now less fashionable, where I can still expect to be surprised. Walking about in Liwan district, I ducked into a crowded shop to look at the display of moon cakes. I call them moon cakes, but they aren’t really; it’s just that I don’t know the correct name for these traditional pastries. The fillings can be surprising. The Family and I could not agree on which one to try, so we packed two of each. It wasn’t a bad idea. We got to eat them all through the next day. Window shopping at bakeries is dangerous, you could gain weight.

Friendly food stalls

Walking about Madurai, I found that people notice you with a camera. Although Madurai is a big draw for tourists, most people are not as blase about tourists as people from south Mumbai. I spotted this trio chatting as they manned a fruit stall and thought I would take a photo quietly. Not possible. They turned their attention to me. It makes for a nice photo, but I can’t decide whether the other photo would have been better.

Nearby was this bakery. I caught this man unawares, but now I’m not sure that this has come out well. I’m a little puzzled by the establishments called bakeries in Tamil Nadu. They are shops which do not seem to be attached to a place where someone bakes. About half the stock is usually unbranded material that a bakery would produce, but the other half is packed biscuits and cakes.

Earlier in the day I’d come across this friendly coffee shop, where several people turned to smile at my camera. I had to be friendly back, so I bought a cup of coffee. It was good.

Market Day on the road: Jorhat to Dibrugarh

I walked into a little market in Jorhat, one of Assam’s small towns. It was clean and full of fresh produce. It wasn’t crowded. The Family had decided that she was not up to walking through markets where she did not want to buy anything. I took a look at the friendly face at the fish stall and took the featured photo. I moved on to the next stall of fish. This was slightly further back, and he hadn’t had as good a start as his competitor.

He looked busy behind his aluminum topped table. I like the way the fish vendors had nailed sheets of the metal on top of a sturdy wooden table to make a surface which is easy to work on, and to clean. This man was ready to point out the fish and talk about its origins.

I always like the small fish (the photo on the left), usually because they are local and their flavours change from place to place. This was no exception. When I asked, my friendly fisher-guide told me that this was right from the Brahmaputra, a little upstream. The big fish (on the right) was not local. It is produced in Andhra Pradesh, and transported across the country. How contradictory. With the amount of fish we now eat, growing fish is important, because we might otherwise remove all the fish from seas and rivers to feed ourselves. But is it worth the carbon cost of moving fish about 2500 kilometers in deeply refrigerated trucks?

The vegetables were another matter altogether. By the variety of aubergines which you can see in the photo on the left above, it is clear that the produce is local. I’d never seen the small, long, light purple variety before. At times like this you feel the lack of a kitchen. The cabbage was crisp and fresh, and so were the spinach and the red saag, The cooking bananas looked like a local variety too. Right next to this was a more mixed basket. Three kinds of beans! Fresh karela, slices of sweet pumpkin, beetroot and a really tasty variety of carrots, and a variety of tiny potatoes which I’d eaten for the first time earlier that day. There was a vegetable that was new to me: the pale green cucumberish thing piled at the top edge of the photo. I was told that it is called iskos, and can be cooked like a gourd, after removing the skin.

The people with the vegetables were very amused by my interest. Although I didn’t buy anything, they were happy with my photos, and spent a lot of time showing me what they had. The vegetables are grown nearby; the banks of the Brahmaputra are fertile lands. But this farming is at the expense of rain-forests, and the rapid decline of the very animals that was the main reason for our trip. There is never an easy resolution to any of our deeply felt problems.

I loved these potatoes, and can’t resist giving them star billing in a photo of their own. They range in size from that of a fat cherry to a small cherry pit. I ate them cooked two ways: once in a saag of pumpkin leaves with garlic, and the second time in a semi-dry curry by itself. They are incredibly tasty.

In the meanwhile The Family had found a wonderful bakery. I can’t say whether this is the best, or whether there is such a tradition of local baking that there are more such shops in town. The biscuits that she found here were absolutely delightful. Two were recommended to us by the quiet gentleman whom you can see behind the counter in the photo above: one was a coconutty thing, the other was full of peanuts. We decided that we could go back to Jorhat for them. We also got some cake for the drive to Dibrugarh, and that too turned out to be a good decision.

This is not the best time for fruits. Mango and jackfruit are still ripening on the tree, and the rest of the seasonal fruits are still just flowers. The only local fruit we saw was the bananas which you can see hanging in the shop in the photo above. They look green and totally unripe, but have a good flavour. The rest of the fruits are shipped from across the country, and sometimes forced by WTO rules, and are what I think of as high-carbon-cost fruits.

Our driver was keen to start off as soon as possible. “It is Sunday, and a market day,” he said. “The roads will be jammed”. As we drove along, we found farmers with their produce sitting all along the highway between Jorhat and Dibrugarh. As you can see from the photo, each stall has less variety than a vendor in the town. That’s probably because each farmer has only a few things ready for the market each week; it is the market as a whole which has variety. The Family was sitting next to Rishi the driver, and soon got his biodata. Rishi was clearly a Sikh, but his mother is Assamese. He speaks Punjabi and Assamese at home, and Hindi and English with his clients.

The Family and Rishi chatted like old friends, and he paused to let us have a look at the large cattle market which had developed on the side of the road. It’s been a long time since I have walked in a local cattle market. This one was not very large, but bustled a bit, and I regretted not being able to get off to walk into the mela. Rishi explained in his round-about way, “There are these 10-wheeler trucks which now drive along these roads, and spoil the surface completely. The government will build a good 4-lane highway, but until that is done, traffic is very slow.”

His anxiety got us into Dibrugarh two hours before we needed to. The market had spilled into the town. As Rishi honked his way through the crowd, I got off a nice few shots of the city’s people at the market. Assam is highly diverse ethnically, and in a large industrial town like Dibrugarh this variety is enhanced even more. On a busy market day like this a good fraction of the population must have been out buying the ingredients for their Sunday lunch. Somewhere on the way The Family had induced Rishi to stop for a bit, so we had our fresh vegetables from the banks of the Brahmaputra in our hand baggage when we arrived in Mumbai.