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Monday, March 30, 2020

Oh, for Potatoes of Urubamba

The joy of exploring local markets.

Written by Anirban Mahapatra | Updated: September 8, 2019 9:11:59 am
To Market: A Saturday market in Namche Bazar, Nepal.

Frequenting local markets has been one of the joys of my life. When I think of Istanbul, I think of stacks of colourful 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 Dussehri mangoes from a vendor’s heap.

My fascination with markets goes back to my childhood in Midnapur, 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-round, but there are 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 is a cross between a chikoo and a sweet potato. Variability in crops is not only pleasing to the palate, but 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 there, 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 pakodas in India — remind me of the commonalities 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, it buzzes with activity. An open-air market in rural Bengal, a haat has remained unchanged for centuries in many ways. 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.

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

Thousands of kilometres away, with over a dozen indigenous communities and as many languages, the state of Oaxaca is the most diverse in predominantly Spanish-speaking Mexico. 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 recognisable elements like squash flowers and tortillas, grilled chapatis cooked on Mexican tawas called comals. And just as at the Enayetpur haat, Santhal 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 quickly that it helps to know a few words of the local language. At a market in Mexico, I eyed a calavera, a painted decorative ceramic skull, which symbolises 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 PM Narendra Modi’s land.
At another shop in the same market, I spotted the same item. “Cuál es el precio?” I asked in my beginner’s Spanish. The shopkeeper responded. It was significantly cheaper.


Anirban Mahapatra trained as a scientist, but now splits his time between a desk job and travel

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