The freshest of food

A wonderful thing about eating in Kenya was the freshness of the ingredients. Two decades ago a person I used to meet often on wildlife trips in India was involved in setting up cold chains across the country. He was starry-eyed about the potential to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the city. Now, when I see tasteless one-year-old tomatoes on sale in a supermarket in Mumbai, his words sound to me like the shattered dreams of internet pioneers. Kenya is not linked together by cold chains. The food is brought into markets as quickly as possible by those who grow them. The outcome is fresh and flavourful.

Neighbourhoods vendors in Nairobi have fresh produce, and even out on highways you pass long lines of green grocers. The one you see in the photo above is a typical shop. We bought a bag of oranges, like those you see hanging from the roof, and they turned out to be immensely juicy, sweet, but with the tartness of a citrus. We were looking for something to eat on the move, so we weren’t interested in the potatoes and onions , although they looked pretty good. I eyed the tomatoes longingly, I knew how good they were here, but the rest of the party was not interested.

The watermelon is great is Kenya, and it is possible to buy just a slice. Anthony had one while we dithered. The pumpkin caught my eye. I hadn’t tasted the pumpkin in Kenya yet. MONT made some at home later, and they were as nice as I could imagine they would be. I didn’t see pumpkin flowers on sale; that’s a great delicacy, but one that seems to be unknown here.

It was curious that there were no interesting new things to discover. Potatoes, onions, and tomatoes exhausted the list of vegetables on display. I’d expected to find lots of leafy vegetables: amaranth (lidodo in Swahili), cow pea (likhubi), even jute and pumpkin leaves, but they weren’t visible. Maybe there is some degree of specialization, and we needed to look for a different shop for those. But that was for another time. Now we’d found enough fruits for the journey.

Sohra market

If there’s one thing you will see in a market in the northeast, it is chilis. Not the variety that can be safely grilled and eaten, but the things that look like a parrot’s beak: red and dangerously sharp. The main market of Sohra lived up to expectation. Walking between the cramped aisles I came to a stall which held an enormous heap of chilis and nothing else. Another time The Family would have picked up a good quantity to take home, but she gave it a pass.

This time around we didn’t have time to go back to the market, so I dug up some of the photos I have from our visit five years ago. I didn’t know it then, but Sohra is famous for its oranges. A large square-footage of the market was given over to them. The oranges are flavourful. The women selling them were in tribal-style dress, the shawl tied across the body so that it can be used as a back pack, as well as raised into a hood to cover the head.

Being able to cover the head at short notice is clearly important in one of the rainiest parts of the world. Outside the market a young boy sat guard next to his family’s shopping bags and umbrella. He couldn’t make up his mind whether I was trying something funny. The center of Sohra was not full of tourists then.

Oranges, chilis, and pink boots

The Rath of the Clan refused to budge from the parking place that it had found at the restaurant where we had lunch. So we decided to spend the last bit of the daylight hour walking around Shillong’s Police Bazaar. This crowded market was full of people and turned out to be quite a cheerful place. My attention was, as always, drawn to the fresh produce rather than the cheap factory made clothes heaped on the stalls of the bazaar.

There are very few of the picturesque old buildings left here, in the prime commercial location in Shillong. Among the many unlovely concrete piles I found one of the last remnants of the old style buildings that a long-time Shillong resident told me is called “Assam style”. Niece Mbili is studying to be an architect, and I stood with her, lost in admiration for this once-beautiful structure made in wood and corrugated metal sheets. Wood is not sustainable building material any longer, but this looked like it would be a wonderful place if only someone took care of it.

I loved the tangle of wires overhead so much that I climbed above them to take a photo from above. You can see the haphazard concrete buildings which have replaced the Assam-style houses that must have once lined these roads. Photos from the 1940s, 50s and 60s show these low houses and very few people, at least to our modern eyes. Today the narrow roads are filled with fashionably dressed urban young, tribal and non-tribal, looking to pick up something inexpensive. From this vantage I spotted the Gupta Restaurant where I had a nice pre-dinner snack.

But back to oranges. I’d missed this wonderful corner with the winter’s oranges and kiwi, so this photo comes from The Family’s camera (this post has a mixture of photos from the two of us). A couple of years ago, I saw kiwi orchards in nearby Arunachal Pradesh, and thought that the fruit had been imported recently. But now that I know that the Kiwi originates in China, I guess it must have come to this part of the country fairly long ago. Everything on display in these stalls is local: kiwis, bananas and oranges, certainly, but also the beautiful cane baskets. The Family thought it was good I hadn’t noticed them, because I might have tried to bring some of them back with me as cabin baggage. Maybe. Maybe packed with oranges!

This lady did exactly that: packed one of those woven conical baskets with oranges. The large oranges in the basket were very sweet, but the smaller ones (slightly more green) had a better flavour. I didn’t try the apples. Don’t miss that heap of pink boots in the background. I’ve never seen so many pink boots together before. This must be special to Shillong.

You can tell The Family’s photos in this post by her concentration on the person rather than the produce. I’d passed the stall with the chilis but not paid much attention to the lady selling them. In retrospect, maybe I should have paid more attention to the people. Meghalaya has a mixture of ethnicities, and I could have learnt more about the state by looking and talking. At the very least I would have seen these pink jackets which go with those pink boots. Maybe I would have also taken a closer look at the loofahs behind her.

It was less than a week after the winter solstice, and the days were short. The light faded very quickly in Shillong at this time. The bazaar took on a very festive look with the fairy lights complementing lit up signboards. Our Rath driver (should he be called a charioteer?) had phoned in his decision to move, and we had to leave just when the evening’s crowds began to pour in.

Chinese fruit

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We discovered a little known aspect of chinese food: the fruits are wonderful. Our lunch on the flight in to Shanghai contained a slice of really flavourful and sweet orange. Every day after that we brought some fruits. The bananas are not very special, but the oranges, apples and nectarines are superb. So are the cherries and the many different kinds of berries. We really love the mulberries (shahtoot in Hindi, see the photo above): they are so sweet in this season. We still haven’t the delicious mangosteen or the dragon fruit, which look spectacular, but which taste a little insipid.

It is hard to find many desserts in restaurants, but there is always a plate of fruits. You can also buy cut fruits in plastic cups on the roadside, and in supermarkets.