The joy of exploring local markets

(This appeared today in The Indian Express).

Frequenting local markets has been one of the joys of my life. When I think of Istanbul, I think of stacks of colorful lokum coated with powdered sugar in the Grand Bazaar. Paris in spring conjures rain-drenched strawberries bursting with flavour in the 12th Arrondissement. Beijing is a hutong market with customers lining up for grilled snakes-on-a-stick. Lucknow will always be the fragrance of ripe dasheri mangoes from a vendor’s heap.

My fascination with markets goes back to my childhood in Medinipur, a small town in West Bengal. Every day, rain or shine, my father would go to the local market with synthetic striped bazaar bags in hand. He would return with the day’s bounty– more fresh vegetables and fish than we could possibly eat ourselves.

In the United States, where I have lived for nearly two decades, supermarkets are ubiquitous. I appreciate their convenience. I have also grown wary of them. Globalisation has led to greater availability of products, but, paradoxically, to fewer variations. Mangoes from Ecuador are available in the off-season, but they are of one type. Tomatoes selected for long shelf-life and visual appeal taste insipid. Salmon farmed in Chile is available year-around, but there are genuine concerns they are competing for resources and depleting other fish stocks.

And so, local markets are important, not just as centres of commerce, but also because they counterbalance the homogeneity created through the scale of operations of giant corporations. Supermarkets from Shanghai to Seattle stock the ubiquitous Cavendish banana, but look deeper in local markets in south India, and you will still find a dozen or more other varieties of bananas. The potato was first cultivated in the Andean highlands of Peru, from where it spread globally. Centuries later, in a market in Urubamba, you will see dozens of varieties grown and sold by indigenous farmers. In a market in Mexico close to where the chili pepper originated, your nostrils will tingle from the aroma of bushels of hundreds of different kinds of dried peppers. In Bogotá and Lima, you may see over a dozen fruits you have never seen or eaten before, including one called lúcuma, whose flavour can be described as a cross between a chikoo and a sweet potato. Variability in crops is not only pleasing to the palate, but it is a bulwark against global diseases that might wipe out an entire variant.

In my travels, I have found greater enjoyment in seeing what is on offer in markets and interacting with people in them, than I have in visiting famous monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or Hagia Sophia. Families enjoying food from stalls at markets – whether it is charcuterie in France or tacos in Mexico or fried pakoras in India- remind me of the commonalties among different people.

The haat in Enayetpur, a small village in West Bengal, and the markets in Oaxaca, Mexico are continents apart, but serve as important meeting points for indigenous communities. You could take vendors of knock-off brands of clothing, pirated movie-DVDs, mounds of spices, wooden rolling pins, and cloth bags from one to the other, and at first glance, no one would know the difference.

Apart from the occasional standoff between wild elephants and villagers, Enayetpur is never in the news. No tourists ever come here. Every Friday (haat-day) though, this villages buzzes with activity. A haat is an open-air market in rural Bengal, which in many ways has remained unchanged for centuries. My father grew up in a village at a time when there was neither electricity, nor running water, but every week, there was a haat. These markets have been surprisingly impervious to the winds of time.

At the haat, there are vendors selling items such as bulk spices, clothes, knives, plastic toys, mobile-phone covers, vegetables, fish, meat, sweets, and fried comestibles. There are also items uncommon in genteel Bengali markets, such as fresh-water mussels and snails, which serve as cheap sources of protein for villagers. Every week there are also rooster-fights. These jousts are illegal, but no one here seems particularly bothered. Money changes hands openly. After fights, triumphant roosters go home, and the losers end up as meals.

Thousands of kilometers away, with over a dozen indigenous communities and as many languages, the state of Oaxaca is the most diverse in predominantly Spanish-speaking Mexico. Landscapes in parts of the state resemble those in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which are also populated by many indigenous communities.

The oldest continuously run market in North America is in Tlacolula, a village just outside the city of Oaxaca. In its markets, one can encounter exciting new food like edible grasshoppers. But I also found recognizable elements like squash flowers and tortillas, grilled chapatis cooked on Mexican tawas called comals. And just as at the Enayetpur haat, Santal women sell hanriya, an illicit, fermented-rice hooch from kerosene jerrycans, at the markets of Oaxaca, you will find Zapotec women pouring bowls of tejate, a drink made from maize flour and cacao. 

I learned very quickly that it helps to know a few words of the local language while shopping in such marts. At a shop in a market in Mexico, I eyed a calavera, a painted decorative ceramic skull, which symbolizes the Day of The Dead, one of Mexico’s signature holidays.

“What’s the price?” I asked, pointing to the skull. The shopkeeper, who knew English, responded, “Modi price, señor. Very cheap.”

I’d been correctly marked as a different kind of brown, from India. I left to do a survey of the market. At another shop, I spotted the same item. “¿Cuál es el precio?” I asked in my beginner’s Spanish. The shopkeeper responded with the price. It was significantly cheaper.