We’ve been meaning to go to a farmers’ market nearby for a while. It runs on Saturday mornings, and, even with the best of intentions, we would remember it only in the middle of the week. Then, during the pandemic lockdowns, various farmers’ cooperatives came online. This is the ultimate in convenience. You look through their list of currently available produce and order what you want. Fresh produce from farms gets delivered at your doorstep. We’ve been very happy with that, but still, it is not the same as browsing through a market. Last Saturday The Famiy announced at breakfast that she was planning to go. I decided to pick up a coffee and a couple of bottles of wine before joining her.
Winter is a good time for fruits. Strawberries are in season, as are figs and grapes. Also, pomegranate, oranges, apples. Not the most exciting of fruits, but a good selection. The Family was caught at this section. I took a photo (amazing how racist that AI in my camera is; it can enhance the colour of produce automatically, but refuses to work on non-white human skin tones) and walked on to the veggies. Staples largely, but nice and fresh. I remembered a lesson from chef Zacharias: engage all your senses. I bit into a bean and got a jolt of flavour. Further on there was a stall of cheeses. Straightforward cooking cheeses, but well made. I could age them myself. We’ll try to make this a part of our routine.
Has Şirince village been changed by tourism? There is no doubt that it has. The village contains only about 700 people, and at least that many tourists probably come by every day. The restaurants and cafes that we saw would not have been there without the tourist trade. Most definitely the charming market that straddles the square next to the mosque is solely for tourists. However, it is charming, and many of the things we saw seemed local; we never saw them elsewhere.
Ceramics are everywhere in Turkey. We’d seen wonderful ceramics in Cappadocia, but the things we saw here were quite different. In a little shop in the market a man sat over baskets of colourful fruits. They were brightly painted ceramics (see the close up in the featured photo). I saw a little group of Russian women utterly charmed by them. They chose a few and moved on while I stayed behind to take these photos.
We kept seeing this painted blue ware in many shops. From my experience this was peculiar to Şirince. The blue and white ceramic with flowers hand painted over it was not something I saw elsewhere. The Family was quite taken by them and thought long and hard about how to carry it. Eventually she satisfied herself with taking photos. That did not turn out so well for the shopkeeper, I thought. He continued to have a smile on his face though.
A nearby shop had lovely tiles. I’m not expert enough to figure out how local these are. We saw cheerful tiles in use through the village, but were these designs local? Could we have found them elsewhere? I didn’t really keep track. I think of flower patterns in these colours as Iznik tiles. Perhaps that’s too generic, and the patterns change in detail from place to place. But with the kind of mobility and fluidity of style that governs today’s market, I would think that successful patterns would be copies quickly.
I passed this Aladdin’s cave full of ceramics and moved on. The Family was braver. She walked in. I had a long time to examine the rest of the very charming market before she emerged. I couldn’t complain. I’d done the same at the shops which sold fruit wines. There is a lot of variety, and you can spend a while in tasting.
One of the first things I noticed while waiting for The Family was this man with his cats. Before visiting Turkey I had the impression that an enormous population of cats was special to Istanbul. Not so. Cats are everywhere in Turkey. I saw them in the ruins of Ephesus, in the Seljuk mosque in Selçuk, in the streets of Kusadasi, and, of course, here. Most Turks seem to be cat persons.
The market was not very large, but it seemed to have a disproportionately large number of restaurants and cafes. There must be times when when several tourist buses arrive together and the square is very crowded. This was not one of those times. I found the cafes very charming, and examined each of them. We would have coffee at one of them later, and I had to make sure that we chose one which we found to be the most gemütlich.
In most parts of Turkey an absolutely essential ingredient in a cheerful and friendly cafe is that there should be a crowd of old men sitting deep in conversation or playing a game, usually with çay. This village was not like that. Several cafes had no locals, and the one we eventually chose had only two, but without çay. The lack of a drink was probably due to it being the second day of Ramazan, but the lack of people meant that most of these cafes were meant only for tourists. Presumably the locals gathered in a completely different place.
I walked down to the end of the market, past the last shop selling wine, past the last cafe, past even the shop with olive oil. At the end of this path was another square. This is where the local buses, dolmuş, arrive to leave and take on passengers. It should be possible to come here by dolmuş from Selçuk. I’d heard that Şirince has the best peaches in the locality. I realized that the market did not have fresh fruits. I would have to look elsewhere for the peaches, olives, and figs that the village is known for.
I couldn’t think of leaving Shillong without looking in at the Laitumkhrah market. So, on the day we were to drive to Sohra I dashed into the municipal market after breakfast. It was early yet, and the market was not yet buzzing. I could have spent a good hour there chatting with the shopkeepers about the produce, but the Clan was getting ready to leave, and I did not want to hold them up. So I sped through the place with my phone in hand and a smile on my face.
There were no exotic vegetables; almost everything that I saw here was what I would see in Mumbai, but infinitely more fresh. I think the morning’s supply had arrived and had been stacked up for display. The lady selling tea outside the market was doing good business; I saw several of the people in various stalls had glasses of chai in their hands. It was cold, and the steaming chai was very tempting. The fish stalls had some action; people were already here buying fish. I didn’t see the dried fish that you find in Bengal and parts of the north-east. One stall was open for meat, and it seemed to have finished most of its stock. When I walked out of the market I missed a wonderful shot: meat was piled into a navy blue hatchback. The contrast of the red meat and the shiny blue of the car was fabulous. But just as I raised my phone for a shot, the owner closed the door. This was probably a restaurant getting its supply of meat for the day.
I’d managed to take a photographic inventory of the vegetables on display. Banana flowers, spring onions, an interesting flat bean, large chilis which are perfect for stuffing and grilling, karela, lots of leaves and roots. Everything looked much fresher than the freshest produce we see in Mumbai. If The Family had come with me she would have been heartbroken at the thought of not being able to take some of this back with us. Outside the market were fruit stalls. Again there were no unexpected fruits. I eyed the oranges, but we were going to Sohra. “Carrying oranges to Sohra” is the Meghalaya equivalent of the English saying “carrying coal to Newcastle.”
There were two shops outside that caught my eye: Hollywood Tailors was a little more apt than Volga Mistan Bhandar. This political balancing act from the last century ignores the fact that Russia probably never saw the sweets that you can get in Shillong.
The last shop in the market was a Kong’s shop: a local restaurant. It was already open for the morning’s tea. Whenever I see these places I feel like going in and sitting down for a meal. I’ve had wonderful jadoh (a Khasi speciality, ja=rice and doh=meat) whenever I’ve had a lunch at a place like this. But it was too soon after breakfast, and time to say goodbye to Shillong.
One of the differences between India and China that hits you after a few days is the lack of dessert with meals. The Chinese like to order fresh fruit with lunch or dinner. I’d noticed this first when a colleague took me to a restaurant famous for Peking duck, and ordered fruits with the duck. Nibbles of fresh fruit actually enhanced the enjoyment of the fatty meat of the duck. Perhaps because of this, Chinese meals do not usually come with a dessert.
The first time I walked down Di Shi Fu road in Guangzhou, I saw this long queue outside the building which holds Guangzhou restaurant. I looked more closely at the counter to see what was being served. It looked appetizing, and I’m always tempted to stand in long queues outside food stalls, because the queues would not form if the food was not special. But I’d just come out of the restaurant, and while my spirit was willing, my stomach vetoed the idea. There was so much food to explore in Guangzhou that I never came back to this place, unfortunately.
Sour plum soup counters seemed to be everywhere across China. I liked the fact that the people at these two neighbouring stalls were spending their slack hour chatting with each other. I took several photos because I liked the effect of the steam and the light, but the pair never noticed me. Now, looking at the series of photos, I realize that the main story was not the light, but the two people here.
One place I kept going back to on this road was the little cafe off to a side called Waterworks (although the Chinese character only says water). It is typical of the new China; a few people have dedicated their time to making good coffee and they are working really hard at it. I was happy to help out their business, and I succeeded in my small way, mainly because their hours were quite long.
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.
Across the world there’s always food on the beach. Ice cream is a standard, and Dhanushkodi was no exception. No stalls or trucks, though. Ice cream was served out of the back of a three wheeler along this beach. I liked the attention to fashion that this ice cream man showed. The haircut is copied from Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian cricket team, and so is the body language. He’d just shown the kid his place for asking for a flavour he did not have. He wasn’t put off at not having made a sale. But then Kohli is not very put off by not winning a match.
What The Family and I couldn’t have enough of was the other staple on this beach: slices of cucumber, pineapple and watermelon, with a dash of powdered red chili sprinkled over them. The beach was lined with women selling these long slices in paper cups. The cucumber and melon was grown on the island, we were told, but the pineapple comes from inland. On a hot day on the beach, the juicy fruits with their jolt of sugar and chili were addictive.
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.