Living abroad has illustrated vast differences in how one procures or purchases their food. Although U.S. style supermarkets exist outside those borders, there are a world of other options visited on a daily basis elsewhere.
In France for example, one can indeed go to the “Hyper-Marché”, fill up your cart and be on your way. But it is far more interesting to shop at your neighborhood street marché, where depending on where you live you can fill most of your culinary needs. Even a small neighborhood would have a temporary agricultural market at least twice a week, and these would usually include cheese makers, and stalls with olives, cured meats and the like as well. That’s not including the plethora of boulangeries, fromageries, boucheries, pâtisseries….my mouth is watering too much for me to continue!
Costa Rican towns have their weekly Feria de la Agricultura—filled with fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheeses, flowers and baked goods. On the southern tip of Croatia, Dubrovnik had multiple markets, some stationary like the one at the new Gruž Harbor and some “floating” in the squares of the old city.
All forms of Farmer’s Markets can now be found all across the United States, one needn’t travel abroad to find them. But I don’t think any of these compare to the sensory experience of an Indian market.
An Indian “market” can range from a man with a laden push cart plying a neighborhood, a fixed stall at the side of the road, a covered central market area bustling with fish, meat, vegetable, egg, fruit and basket stalls, or even a staked out street corner where a particular lady sells her eggs and cherra.
The Ernakulum Central Market is an example of the third variety. Tented vegetable stalls line the canals, with rows of metal trays prepared with 10 Rupees worth of each particular vegetable for quick transaction. Facing these are store front stalls filled with the numerous types of rice and pulses found in Kerala.
Between these two lies the road. One can’t easily explain what this road is like…filled past capacity with people, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, and auto-rickshaws—the latter two often overflowing with produce. As said vehicle pulls up to the opening of the market building a line of stevedore type men appear with huge metal baskets ready to carry the produce inside to the respective stall. The baskets or bundles are carried on their heads and these men have full “right of way” inside the tight corridors of the market. (A strange concept, indeed, in a country such as India!)
But before even entering the market one is inundated by the smells…the good, the bad and the ugly. Depending on the season or time of day, the water in the canals can be rather, shall we say, pungent. There are the smells of fruit, in various stages of ripeness.. there are the smells of so many, many people and motorized vehicles in a finite space…and there is the strong, heady smell of curry leaves, green and warm and palpable. Some people don’t like this smell. I suppose that would be a problem. I rather like it.
Maze that it is, there are multiple entrances to the market. The one I call the main entrance sports naïvely painted portraits of historical Communist leaders….Stalin, Lenin and the like, high on the wall. The floor is lined with men and women with baskets full of wares.
Playing matador with burly men balancing their burdens, I find my regular vegetable stalls. I try to frequent the ones that speak a little English…and by being consistent I’m less likely to be given “tourist” prices. They’re even starting to remember that I use my own cloth bags.
The egg man takes my order, fills a newspaper cone with dry paddy straw, stacks the eggs inside then carefully closes the paper and ties it up with twine. Next comes the fruit guy, followed by the one that only sells greens: spinach (palek) and both red and green amaranth (cherra). The pineapple man is next to him. Everyone has their set location, which helps me to get my bearings as I work my way through the chaos.
Once a week or so I venture into the large fish section of the market. The glistening fish are piled on ice covered tarps on the floor, as the mongers vie for my attention. There are so many species that I don’t recognize, so I’ve played it safe with snappers and the occasional king fish. I love the way the small dried fish are arranged in concentric circles in the baskets that line the room…actually everything, vegetables, fruits, dried fish is always arranged artfully, and if one wants a particular carrot from the stack it’s like playing a botanical form of Jenga as the vendor looks on warily.
I feel that marketing is meant to serve more than just the purposes of restocking one’s kitchen and fulfilling one’s dietary needs. It is an opening into a culture, and whether it is a window or a doorway is up to the individual. So, I continually proceed to grab my bags and head to the market, by metro, car or ferry, with the goal of entering one step further into an understanding of this experience as I go along.