Normally we buy vegetables in small quantities, and use them up in a day or so. But now, in order to keep control over our exposure to large crowds, shopping is less frequent. Some time back we wanted to guard against COVID-19 by disinfecting all produce. Eating soap is not a great idea, so we were certainly not going to washing food in soap. The Family skimmed her expertise and recalled that bacteria and viruses are killed by a solution of salt in water. So now we dunk all produce for about fifteen minutes in salty water. The water can be reused, and salt does not need to be washed off, so this is also a water conserving way of cleaning produce.
On some days our house is full of vegetables being cleaned and dried, chopped and sorted. Since the salt water bath removes bacteria and viruses, we now find that the veggies stay fresh and usable much longer. Bananas and plantain, tindli and tomatoes, everything stays fresh and colourful for several days. Tindli? Does ivy gourd sound more familiar? I didn’t think so. It is after all a rather local vegetable (featured photo), so best to call it by its local name.
We used to be in a desperate rush to use up mushrooms before they rot. Now mushrooms stay fresh longer too. Perhaps the salt water treatment also kills the fungi which sometimes grow on these mushrooms. I know that some people use baking soda and potassium parmanganate, but that would also require more water for post-treatment washing. We wanted the lowest water-use possible, and I think the salt solution works well for that. The Family consulted her old colleagues about this treatment, and found a good consensus of opinion for it.
There are no desperate attempts to refrigerate fresh produce to keep it from spoiling any longer. Everything can now be kept in trays and bowls in sun and air. Also, now that we can keep the veggies for longer, we can wait for good combinations to develop. For example, plantains are not very common at our neighbourhood vendor’s, but when we get it, we already have the other veggies that we know will go well with it. The result has been an explosion of new recipes at home. Lunch is quite a journey of discovery these days.
As the weekend approaches, my thoughts turn towards food. During this crisis the supply chain seemed to have broken down and reformed in different ways, so we are getting different varieties of vegetables. I keep hoping that green jackfruit and plantain appear one day. These staples of old times have disappeared from our plates. I was surprised to find, a few years back, a lady on a busy street in Chennai selling banana flowers (the red pods in the right hand corner) and stem (the white cylinders sticking out of the blue tray).
After rediscovering this photo, I tried to look up the history of banana cultivation. When we think of bananas, we believe that they are a benign product of nature. Not so. Bananas, like rice, wheat, and maize, are technology so ancient that we have forgotten the thousands of years of work that went into refining their ancient ancestors to the point that we can eat them. Bananas (mainly Musa acuminata) began to be domesticated more than 11,000 years ago. For a long time, it was cultivated and shaped in the islands of Southern Asia and Melanesia. A different species, Musa balbisiana may have been used in north-east India, Burma, and south China. Their mixing can be followed by matching genetics with linguistics. The words for this fruit differ in southern and northern India, indicating cultural exchanges with different parts of south-eastern Asia in prehistoric times. It is hard to imagine the wealth of deep history hidden in widely eaten foods. It is amazing how full of details the world is!
The defining craze of Tamil Nadu is definitely bananas, as I found out when I blogged about bananas in Chennai. A helpful fellow blogger left me with the common names of a few varieties: mala pazham, poovam pazham, rasthali, yelakki,karpooravalli, pachai vaazha pazham, nenthram. Pazham is the Tamil word for fruit.
Walking around Madurai it was not uncommon to see cartloads of bananas being pedaled past you. I managed to catch one of these carts piled high with what I assume would be called pachai vaazha pazham, ie, green fruits. This time I gave in to curiosity and checked up the web site of the National Horticultural Board. Tamil Nadu is reported to grow 11 varieties of bananas, second only to Assam, which grows 13 varieties! Here are the ones grown in Tamil Nadu: Virupakshi, Robusta, red banana, Poovan, Rasthali, Nendran, Monthan, Karpuravalli, Sakkai, Peyan, Matti. Of these Robusta is a common cultivar worldwide. The rest seem to be fairly local. I say fairly, because several of these are grown also in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Kerala.
I see a few names common between the list I got from a reader and the list from the NHB. The small banana which often rounds off a meal is either the Poovan or the Rasthali. Either could be commonly called yelakki. Some of the varieties grown in Tamil Nadu are not eaten uncooked. I wonder which they are.
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.
I 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. Perhaps we had not travelled far enough to the east to begin seeing the really exotic.
One 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 one can find some of these varieties in north-eastern India if one looks hard.
The 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 various beans 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.
The 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.
This 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. 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.
The 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.
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”
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.
The 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.
The 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, 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, 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.
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).
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.