What’s not to like about bazaars in a new town? Walking around a marketplace warms the cockles of my consumerist heart like nothing else does. The sight of people hurrying into a bakery for jam buns, or window shopping for sweaters on a cold day, browsing books in a bookstore, or hurrying past a KFC without a second look, all that is designed to make you want a bit of that.
I can’t even pass by a vegetable vendor without stopping to prod the tomatoes, gawk at the yams, marvel at the radish or the number of strange greens on display. When The Family says we need to take some back with us, I don’t ask “Why?” I just calculate the number of kilos we might have available if we take all our warm clothes in our cabin baggage. I’ve developed this curiosity about tubers and leaves which are grown in different parts of the country and are not to be found in supermarkets.
I stop and take photos at sweet shops, even though I no longer taste all the kinds of sweets that I don’t recognize (I’m not my pre-pandemic self). In Darjeeling the sweet shops are Bengali. And fish? 2000 m above sea level, far from streams, the only fresh fish would be flying fish. But then right next to the railway station there’s a line of kiosks selling fish. Maybe it is iced and sent by train.
The zero waste store looked interesting. There were many kinds of envelopes, boxes, and bags made from recycled pulps and fibres. If only plastics and composites were as easy to recycle. As we found a stretch of downhill walk, we saw two people carrying large sheets of plywood on their backs. The sheets were anchored to their heads. I thought of the cervical problems that this could give rise to. Why don’t people use carts?
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.
When we left the palace complex of Bhuj, it was definitely time for all reasonable people to sit down to lunch. Our mid-morning breakfast of the local street food had left us too full to think of such mundane things. We walked into the bazaar and old town which inevitably accretes around a palace. A regular grid of narrow streets greeted us. Was this a couple of centuries old, or the result of the reconstruction after the 2001 earthquake? Some of the standing structures looked like they were built earlier than the 21st century. So perhaps the grid of streets is older. That would be in line with the relatively progressive ideas of the old Raos of Bhuj.
We walked along until, as is normal with us, we hit the food market. The municipal market was in an early-20th century style, and seemed remarkably free of earthquake damage. Perhaps it has been repaired. The peaked corrugated metal roof certainly seemed renewed. We’d arrived too late to see the market in full swing, but there were still a few vendors at the stalls. The variety of fresh produce on display was a little surprising at first. This could be a market anywhere in India. I suppose cold chains have revolutionized the transport of farm produce in my lifetime. The only sign of old Kutch was the heap of red chilis laid out by one of the vendors.
The mid-day heat was intense. We were genuinely at the edge of a desert. I was glad to see a tea stall outside the market building as soon as we stepped out. It had a fan, and the man running the place invited us to sit under it. But there was a breeze and shade outside too. We preferred to sit out and watch the street going about its daily life. The hot, milky and sweet tea eventually arrived. It’s strange how refreshing that can be on a day like that.
On our drive back to Mumbai we stopped at the little town of Ghoti to buy vegetables. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai come from Nashik district, where the town lies. Ghoti is one of those places which has grown too large to be called a village, but has still not realized that it should really have a municipal corporation. The Indian bureaucracy has a name for such places, it is called a census town. We had expected the market place to be crowded. It wasn’t. Nashik district was pretty badly hit by the coronavirus, and people have learnt to stay at home and avoid crowds. Those who have the money to buy their groceries in bulk do it, and visit the market infrequently.
The market straggled along the main road to the highway, but there was a clear center. That was where the fresh vegetables were to be seen. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai comes from Nashik district. This was obvious from the freshness of the things on display. A variety of chili, many kinds of beans, huge bundles of greens and gourds, all at a price about a fourth of what you would be charged in Mumbai. The periphery of the market had grains and kitchen utensils (different vendors for metal and plastic!).
Less than a fourth of the people I could see were using masks, and many of them were not using it properly. Masking has become so common in cities that it is a little disconcerting to pass through small towns and see that masks are not yet in regular use. I suppose communication needs to improve. I don’t watch TV very often, and seldom in Marathi, so I don’t know whether it is just the frequency of messaging should be addressed, or something different needs to be done. Masks are such a simple and effective preventive that I really do think the message should be spread even better.
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 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.
I blogged about village markets of Assam some days back. I knew that The Family was also taking photographs, but I didn’t suspect that the photos would be so totally different. Here is a gallery of things that she noticed.
The piles of vegetables are things both of us saw. But she also noticed mosquito nets, bottles of honey, cane baskets, brooms. I did not look closely at people setting up their stalls, nor at tea gardens. She was not paying attention to cattle markets, or fish. Is this a gender difference?
When you walk down Barcelona’s La Rambla, you feel that it could not have changed much through its history. Your feeling may be correct. As far back as 1217 CE, there was apparently a pig market near a gate which stood where Miro’s mosaic can be seen at Pla de l’Os. This was then part of a larger market, which now seems to have taken over the whole of La Rambla. But if you want to see a real food market, you have to duck into the Boqueria market, whose entrance is on this road. Among the things we didn’t know about it was that you can find Catalonia’s oldest nougat here. The sample we had did not taste 242 years old!
The meat stalls stand at the entrance to the market. The variety of hams hanging there left me stunned. Most of the sales people seemed too busy to have a chat about the differences between the meats, even if we had a shared language. The pig market was moved here in 1840 after a convent was removed. As you can see in the photo above, the current structure is very modern, but atop it stands a high structure of iron struts which is clearly older. At the edge of the photo you can see the even older stone pillars, which mark out a covered gallery running around the market. This older structure houses lots of restaurants and tapas bars.
We moved into the crowded fresh produce section of the market. Although I saw nothing which I have not seen before, all the produce looked extremely fresh. The chilis that you see in the photo above are wonderful when they are grilled. We had a plateful of that much later in the evening. Some of the fruit stalls have fresh juices available. It was still extremely warm and the fluids looked welcoming. We took our time selecting the juices we wanted to drink. Fresh pressed orange juices were our breakfast staple in Spain, but here there was a large variety: from tropical fruits like guavas to European summer berries.
We moved on, and found the usual selection of cheese. Stopping there would have been sad, not just because I don’t know much about Spanish cheeses, but also because we did not have the leisure to select a few of them to taste over days. I wish we had the time to go back and walk through the market a few more times at leisure, sampling a larger variety of tastes. It would have helped us enjoy what the city calls one of the world’s largest markets if we had access to a kitchen while in Barcelona.
A market inside a nice Art Deco brick building in the Piazza Alessandria in the Nomentano district of Rome was an unexpected find. I’d wanted to write about it from the time I stumbled on it in June, but with one thing or another, never got round to it. The Nomentano district is just outside the touristy centre of the city. As a result you hear only Italian in its cafes and restaurants, and see casually dressed families with children comfortably ambling along the streets next to you, very pointedly ignoring your camera.
Walking through a small road, busy at 10 in the morning on a Saturday, I came across a brick building with iron gates sporting the wolf symbol of the city. I’d not researched this walk at all. But an open gate topped with a frieze of a wolf suckling Romus and Romulus is an invitation to enter. I looked at the building behind it, possibly a renaissance structure, and decided that the invitation in front of me was stronger.
Inside was a busy municipal market. I love markets. Walking through one in Italy is a special treat because the freshness of the produce is a constant reminder of how flavourful the local cuisine is. The Family and I have often joked that we would like to bring back two kilos of tomatoes instead of a bottle of wine from our travels in Italy. I loved the vegetable stalls with their golden pumpkins, the bright leafy greens, cucumbers and carrots (see the featured photo for all of this and more). The sight of Zucchini flowers in a market always remind me of boyhood lunches at my grandmother’s place where an occasional treat was batter-fried pumpkin flowers. This is probably unknown in many parts of India; certainly The Family has never eaten pumpkin flowers, and says she is not brave enough to eat flowers.
Many of the aisles were empty. I did not see any stall selling meats or fishes. Was I too early or too late? I looked longingly at the mushrooms: the yellow trumpets which the French call the Chanterelle stood next to dark brown mushrooms which could have been porcini, and a heap of the common white funghi. Mushrooms and cheese are always special treats for us when we visit Europe because these are two things which India does not have.
The next aisle had a stall which had huge cauliflowers and broccoli. I don’t think I’ve seen broccoli which is so large and bright green. I was tempted to buy some. Unfortunately my time in Italy was almost done, and, as a result, I had plans to eat out with friends on every remaining evening. I could still support farmers by buying fresh fruits. Spring had not yet yielded to summer in this market. I could pick up strawberries and cherries, so I did. The apricots smelt wonderful, so I picked up some. European spring and summer fruits are also special treats for me. Although they are available in India, they play second fiddle to local fruits. As a result, the variety and quality is much superior throughout Europe.
I walked out towards Via Alessandria, where some vendors had set up little kiosks selling clothes and bags. I passed by them and went on to look for some coffee.
We tried to follow a road which petered out after the market square in Dolkhamb. It was flanked by two long structures. One was an office, and the other, which you see in the photo below, was a row of shops. This was one of the larger villages we had passed in the previous twenty kilometres. Off to one side was a little open space where several utility vehicles were parked: they serve as local buses. The market was crowded. We oozed through it to ask for directions. As we talked to the “bus” drivers, more vehicles arrived, bringing people to add to the crowd.
For some time now we have been trying to eat a larger variety of vegetables and greens than what our meals had reduced to. So the sight of a village market brought out the gatherers in us. On a side of the road was a line of people who had set up makeshift stalls. The featured image shows the lady nearest to us. She had four different kinds of vegetables: tomatoes, knobbly green karela (bitter gourd), fresh okra and large green chilis. Not a large variety, but incredibly fresh. The okra was crisp and snapped easily between my fingers. After her a man sat with small heaps of dried fish. There were fruits further on. The Family bought bananas and apples. The apples were small and not very colourful, but when we bit into them they were extremely flavourful.
Once upon a time these were available in all markets in Mumbai. Now WTO rules force us to import apples which are too expensive to be sold anywhere except in big towns and cities. As a result, these profitable markets are almost completely shut to local apples. We love to eat, and we are not politically committed to local produce. We do like the fact that globalization brings us food from far away, but we are also aware of the variety that local produce can bring to our table. We have read enough about the carbon cost of pushing fruits around continents to begin to take the trouble to visit farmer’s markets. It would be a pity if we were forced to make a choice between the planet and the economy without thinking through sustainable middle paths. (I’m afraid that sentence might succeed in offending both sides of a political divide which exists, but need not).
The most exciting discovery was a truck of assorted greens, presided over by a lady in a red sari (photo alongside). People walked up to a boy, probably her son, paid him and asked for the greens they needed. He would shout out the order, and she would throw it out of the truck. We bought a bunch of fresh fenugreek and coriander greens from the duo. This family also pushes vegetables around in a box which burns hydrocarbons. But they travel tens of kilometres, not thousands. With fresh produce in the car and virtuous thoughts in our heads, we ignited the non-renewable fossil fuel in the tank of our car and drove out along the road the local drivers told us to take.