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.

To market, to market! Jiggety jig!

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.

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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.

Remembering village markets

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?

The Boqueria market

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 Boqueria market

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.

Vegetables at the Boqueria market

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.

Relaxing at the Boqueria market

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 little Roman market

Market at Piazza Alessandria viewed from Via AlessandriaA 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.The market at Piazza Alessandria viewed from Via Ancona 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.

Fruits in the market at Piazza Alessandria

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.

Dolkhamb market

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.

Market square in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra

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.Woman selling farm produce from a truck in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra 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.

Market and Field in Munnar

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”

Vegetables heaped up in the market in 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.

Cashew apples and apricotsThe 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.

Beet root and something elseThe 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,Dried ish in the market in Munnar 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,Heps of fruits in the market in Munnar 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.