Marketplace in Mandalay

Fruits in a market in MandalayI love walking through markets when I’m in a different country. It gives you a good feel for what you might get to eat. Our exposure to Myanmar is so small, that I was happy when we got some time to walk through a market in Mandalay. I would find out what the Burmese grow and eat. There were fruit shops at the mouth of the market. Almost all the fruits were exactly what you might see in India. No surprises there except for a pile of dragon fruit. Clearly we had not travelled far enough to the east to begin seeing the really exotic.

Bananas in a market in MandalayOne of the things that I learnt on a recent visit to Chennai is that fruits and bananas are different things. So I was not surprised to see a banana stall near the stall of fruits. The variety was amazing: Myanmar has quite as many kinds of bananas as one could expect in southern India. We got to eat some of these varieties later on. There was a sweet and buttery tasting variety with mottled yellow skin which was nice and quite different from anything I’d eaten before. I guess we can find some of these varieties in north-eastern India if one looks hard.

White fungus being sold in a market in MandalayThe next few shops sold vegetables. I recognized most of them, although I would think of some as mildly exotic. There was eggplant of a slightly different shape than I’ve seen in Mumbai. The chinese cabbage looked large and crisp. Lotus stem and beans of various kinds, were placed next to the usual staples of potatoes and onions. The only exotica was this white fungus. I recognized it as the main component of a tasty salad I’d had the previous night. I wonder whether it is farmed or collected.

Paan leaves in a market in MandalayThe impression that the food was not very different continued when I passed a stall full of fish. The featured photo shows some of the fish, but really showcases the plates which they are put on. I’ve never seen such beautiful plates for fish in any Indian market. Nearby was this man sorting through a stack of paan. Nothing exotic here for us except for the longyi which the man is seen in. I’m not a fan of paan, but strangely even The Family skipped it. We’ll have to go back to find whether there is a large difference in flavour between the Indian and Burmese variety.


If you think that placing this photo so prominently in the blog is exoticising Myanmar, then you are right. You would also do it if you walked through a market where almost everything was boringly normal, and then suddenly chance on a vendor selling insects. In a thought-provoking article in Science the agricultural scientist M. Premalatha and her colleagues write "The supreme irony is that all over the world monies worth billions of rupees are spent every year to save crops by killing a food source [insects] that may contain up to 75% of high quality animal protein." I find that I can eat and enjoy almost everything that other humans can eat. I did not share a language with the vendor so I could not ask how to prepare these animals for the table. Nor could I figure out what they are called. So, as a tourist without access to a kitchen, I lost this opportunity to taste something really different. Another time.

Meats being sold at a market in MandalayThis lady was very amused by me stopping to take a photo of everything I saw. She was selling meat, and called me to take a photo. Her style of dress was different from that of the others, and she had a short head covering. From this I guessed that she could be Muslim. If so then could it be that Muslims specialize in butchering and selling meat in Myanmar just as they do in India? In India this started and is perpetuated by a remnant reluctance among Hindus to kill land animals. There could not have been such a taboo in Myanmar. Perhaps this is an inconsequential coincidence, and perhaps she is not Muslim after all.Sausages in Mandalay's market Preserved meat also plays a significant role in Burma’s food, if the market is anything to go by. There were several different kinds of sausages and dried fish. I later tasted dried fish in congee one morning at breakfast, but I never got to taste the local sausages. The list of reasons to go back to Myanmar is quite large, as you can see.

Sweets and pickles in the market in MandalayThe last shops I came across before leaving the market had sweets and pickles. The sweets in the front are mostly candied fruits and vegetables, similar to some traditional sweets in eastern India. The pickles were quite different. We got to taste some pickled tea at this shop. Later I searched for and found pickled tea in salads a couple of times for lunch. Unfortunately one could only get the tea in little plastic bags which didn’t seem very leak proof, otherwise it would have been nice to bring some back to add variety to our daily salad.

As always, I’m left with a nice warm and fuzzy feeling after a walk through a market, even if I do not buy any food. We went out and had Burmese style tea with large amounts of condensed milk, and sweets called monbao.

Market and Field in Munnar

In the middle of the crowded bazaar area of Munnar we saw a long blank wall, plastered and painted the mellow cream of a Vermeer. The wall was simultaneously forbidding and attractive. Forbidding because it was high, completely featureless, and had no decorations on it at all. Attractive because the colour of the plaster glowed invitingly in the sun. Above a narrow door in the wall was a signboard that said “Vegetable Market, Munnar”

Vegetables heaped up in the market in Munnar

The Family and I can never resist a food market. Without a second thought we walked in through the door. It was late in the morning; the crowds of daily shoppers had left. The ranks of stalls in the municipal market were full of vendors waiting for small buyers. The aisles were clean, unlike many markets just past the rush hour.

Cashew apples and apricotsThe stalls in front were full of vegetables: beans, bitter gourd, pumpkin, yam, cucumber, banana flower, snake gourd, and more. After tasting the food in the region, we were expecting this variety in the market. Still, there were things which surprised us. We are used to eating unripe banana as a vegetable, cooked into a curry, and to green mango cooked in various ways. But here we saw a heap of unripe apricots. Are they cooked? Next to it was a pile of cashew apples (see the photo above). The fruit of the cashew is astringent, and not widely eaten. Are cashew and apricot cooked in this part of Kerala? We didn’t know, and did not receive a clear reply.

Beet root and something elseThe vendors were very friendly. They were happy to show us things, but we speak no Malayalam, and they spoke little Hindi or English. So we were left uneducated very often. For example, at the stall where I took the photo alongside, I could not figure out what the green fruits are. The stuff behind it was beet root, and the lady selling them nodded in recognition when we said beet root. But we could not catch what she said for the unknown thing. My best guess from what she said is that these are unripe jackfruit. It turns out to be breadfruit.

One major difference in tastes between The Family and me is our attitude to dried fish. She has no problems walking away from it,Dried ish in the market in Munnar whereas I am snagged. I examine them, imagine them thrown into a curry, or even simply into a pot of boiling rice. I spent a long time here, recognizing a little, and wishing I had a kitchen where I could try out the rest.

Munnar stands a kilometer and a half above sea level, so most of the fish comes from Kochi. Trout has been seeded in some of the dammed lakes here only very recently. So dried fish must be a staple. In most places in India, food made with dried fish is not considered good enough to be served to guests, so they remain unknown to tourists. I asked in our hotel, but got the blank smiles that normally answer such questions.

The Family had drawn ahead of me towards the fruit section of the market. Bananas are special in the south of India,Heps of fruits in the market in Munnar as I’d realized from responses to an older post. I spent some time asking the vendor about the uses of various bananas, and he got me to taste a couple. They were different from each other, and from what I’ve eaten earlier. In this season they yield some space to mango.

You know an Indian by her attitude to mango. There are those who love one variety, and will sneer at others. There are those who love to try out a new variety. But all will eat every mango that comes their way. We went through the selection on offer and took one of each. The local red variety which you see in the photo above is very flavourful.

In trips to the Himalayas we’d learnt of the growing popularity of organic farming in those regions. After we left the market we asked a local farmer about organic farming in this area. He was passionate about preserving the land, and said that he had given up on fertilizers. What about productivity, I asked. He said that a plot of land which might give a kilo of vegetables would give about a hundred and fifty grams with natural compost. He was still okay with it, because people are willing to buy it.

But here is the problem. If the productivity of land were to fall back to one seventh of what it is now, then the amount of food that comes into the market would decrease in proportion. Even if food were distributed equally, one seventh the amount would sustain perhaps a little more than a seventh of today’s population. In actual fact, the consumption of food in India, and the world, is already very inequitable. With lesser amount of food produced, the prices will grow more than proportionately, and the number of people who could afford it would be far less than a seventh of the population. A switch to organic farming by present methods would then lead to tremendous hunger.

The world is complex and overcrowded, and there are no simple solutions.

Fruits and bananas

Carts full of bananas  and other fruit

A few days ago I was one of the naive people who believed that bananas were just another fruit. That was before I went to Mylapore and realized the errors of my ways. There are fruits: grapes, pomegranate and papaya. And there are bananas. The English language has no words for this variety. One can say yellow banana, green banana, fat green banana, red banana, short yellow banana, thin long green banana, and so on. But the variety is really too large for the language to capture. I wonder whether Tamil has the words to capture the variety on display here (as a comment to this post informs me).

Buy local?


One of the central tenets of sustainability is to buy local. This has multiple effects. First, by eliminating the carbon overhead of transporting goods, it directly impacts the long-term health of the global ecology. Second, by buying local varieties of food one ensures that biodiversity in agriculture is maintained, and local varieties of crops do not die out. But more importantly, by giving business to local artisans and farmers, it prevents their migration to ecologically unsustainable megapolis. When the slopes of lower Arunachal Pradesh are full of wild bananas, we thought it would be possible to eat local varieties of bananas. No such luck. The only bananas we could find in the market had been trucked up from the plains. Every fruit vendor had a different explanation of why there were no local bananas on the market. This led us to believe that there is a social dynamics at work. The same dynamics determined that there would be kiwi farms in the hills, and not oranges, musambi or ananas.


On the way up, I’d noticed apples being sold in Nechiphu La. I’d naively assumed that these would be local varieties. Not true. We asked one of the vendors about the provenance of the apples, and she said that they came from Himachal Pradesh. I saw packets of Golden Delicious, and they are bound to come from much further away. Even here our attempt to buy local failed miserably.

The shop which sold the apples also had packets of some dried berries hanging at the back. The Family asked what they were and the shop girl said that they were "junglee" spices. The prejudice against local produce was out in the open. We bought a packet and asked how to use them. The girl became animated and explained what to throw away and what part to use, and how to use it. So it seems that the prejudice against local produce is absorbed from tourists coming to this region and becomes an instinct. A cryptic commerce in locally gathered food continues. I’d seen similar attitudes in the Bhalukpong bazaar on the way up, and thought that it is a pity.

It is a pity not only because the lack of development makes the people of this region feel inferior to richer visitors, but also because visitors miss out on a variety of things which might be interestingly different. I hope that by repeatedly trying to buy local we made some difference to these attitudes.