Sakura bloomed this year in Tokyo by the 15th of March, one of the earliest bloomings on record. Around that time Mumbai recorded a temperature of 39 Celsius, the highest ever temperature recorded for that date. The Atlantic had the largest Sargassum bloom recorded, almost 8000 kilometers across at some places. In the US, bird migrations are affected by the weather, with males beginning to move northwards earlier than the females. Here, where I’m spending some time away from home, the weather has been very unsettled. It was much warmer than I’d expected in the previous week, whereas this week has been full of rainstorms roiling the upper atmosphere and bringing that cold air down.
Holi is over, and in a couple of days we will hit the spring equinox. Instead of venturing out for photos celebrating that astronomical event, I thought it better to stay indoors and try my hand at photographing seasonal produce. Still life is not something I’ve seriously tried before.
So here it is, the pumpkins are the last of the season (we ate pumpkin flowers after a long time), and the potatoes have just been harvested. These small bananas, a wonderfully sweet and flavourful local variety called champa, will disappear as the heat builds up. Oranges are winter fruits, and we are clearly getting the last ones. They are still tangy and juicy, thankfully. I have no idea what the season for pomegranate is, but we seem to get them the year round. And the ber! I haven’t eaten such wonderful fruits from Ziziphus mauritiana trees in years. We’re lucky to be here in this season.
We hear the word village and we think of fields and farming. We’re never wrong about this today, although the first villages are found from about 3000 years before agriculture developed. Over millennia, the development of agriculture has completely wiped out the hunter-gatherer economy that birthed villages. Turtuk was surrounded with terraced fields, largely given over to wheat, but with patches full of a variety of vegetables.
Between houses there were numerous apricot and cherry trees. Both of these fruits were different from the variety we’d eaten before. The apricots were small, perhaps 2 or 3 centimeters across, and terribly sweet. The cherries were also tiny, about 5 millimeters across, and tasted tartly sweet. We’d been seeing the dwarf apricots ever since we arrived in Ladakh, but the cherries were new to us. Hunder, the village with our hotel, was at an altitude of 3000 meters. From there we’d driven downstream of Shyok for about three hours, and then climbed about 200 meters to Turtuk. That put us at an altitude which was about the same as Hunder. At these heights perhaps these dwarf varieties of fruits grow best.
The wheat was ripening in the fields. Lower down I’d seen the harvest in progress. But here it looked liked the growing season would last another 10 days or a week. Every isolated small patch of ground was used to grow something: vegetables. This was early enough in the season that I saw many vegetable flowers: potatoes (the featured photo), tomatoes (the Solanum flower in the gallery above), a cucumber with its edible yellow flowers, peas (perhaps, I don’t know its flowers), and others that you don’t see here, like carrots, radish, runners of beans and edible leaves, and the third edible Solanum, namely brinjal. In trips to jungles I equate Solanum with poisonous weeds. Seeing these three varieties of Solanum flowers in tended fields reminded me of the European reluctance to eat tomatoes and potatoes when they were first imported from the Americas. Quite an understandable caution, I thought.
The ethnic Ladakhis seem to follow Buddhism and Islam in about equal numbers. The Buddhist population largely lives in the eastern, higher, parts of Ladakh, and the muslims in the western, lower regions. I’d said earlier that geographically Ladakh is where the roof of the world slopes down to meet central Asia. This is not only a metaphor. Along this slope Buddhism and, later, Islam traveled eastwards, following the silk route. From the higher parts of the village I could spot the small dome of the village mosque, but I didn’t pass it. It seems to stand towards one edge of the village. Religion has its normal place in Ladakh, present in the family, but secondary to work and livelihood in the larger community.
No description of mountain villages can be complete without its beasts of burden. No car or motorcycle can negotiate the lanes of this village. I saw no bicycles either. But I passed a corral which held a donkey munching on its fodder. It raised its head and posed for me, but brayed at me when I walked away. Perhaps it expected me to feed it. I was on my way to a surprisingly good lunch, and didn’t have time to spend on a donkey.
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.
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.