Everywhere I travel, I like to see the fruit and vegetable markets, the motor spare parts shops, the back streets where printers have their presses and the second-hand clothes and books bazars. For, much more than the manicured centre of town, it is these areas, with their hair let down, that you will get the real feel of the place. Museums are great, gleaming shopping malls provide fun for a certain type of person, but you haven’t travelled into the skin of a city till you go to an area where you’re the only tourist.
Never would I have connected Isfahan, the whimsically beautiful city in Iran, with zeera-dhania, but that is exactly what these spices are! They were being sold in the historic Naqsh-e-Jehan square, the largest in the entire Islamic world. Sun-dried limes that give Persian food its characteristically tangy flavour are in the foreground. On the right are the various dried greens, including fenugreek leaves, that are integral to many meat and vegetable combination home-style dishes. You’d go to a spice shop to buy them.
While I can wander around vegetable and fruit stalls and shops as well as grocery stores – even sanitized supermarkets are grist to my mill – I find the lure of spice shops absolutely impossible to resist. The visual appeal, the aromas, the tantalizing ideas that occur to you can only come from one of these. The towering personality on the left has a very visible shop on the main shopping drag of Madurai. On the right is the most interesting market in the whole of Mumbai: Lalbagh. You can even have your spice blend made for you on the spot and have it roasted and ground to your specifications.
Harvest time is when grain or produce is sold and when farmers have some money in the coffers. That is when marriages are held, when Diwali shopping is done and when utensils are bought. Pipad in Rajasthan is quite well-known for its chillies. So well-known, in fact, that you can scour the little market a week after harvest and not find a single one because they have all been sold. Ladies who lunch is not a phenomenon that is known in rural communities, and ladies who shop can only be seen at festival time. In the bazars of Hyderabad, it is serious utensil buying time around wedding season.
Fish markets are my favourite place on the planet. So far, I have not been to the big daddy of them all: Tsukiji, in Tokyo, but Or Tor Kor in Bangkok, in the main precincts of gigantic Chatuchak, comes close. So, I wasn’t too surprised when I bumped into Chef Gaggan Anand of Asia’s best restaurant, Gaggan, in Bangkok. No. He wasn’t buying ingredients for his restaurant: that is taken care of by a special team. His wife wanted a treat, so he was snapping up prime ingredients to cook up a storm for her. Lucky princess is all I could say! By strange coincidence, I spied another chef in another country: Saulo Bacchilega in Goa, also at a fish market. If anything, the Margao fish market was even more atmospheric than the Bangkok one and this time, Chef Saulo was buying fish for a guest of the Park Hyatt, Goa.
Do you buy just what you need or do you shop with your eyes? And no. I’m not talking of Valentino and Gucci here: this is about everyday purchases, not aspirational buying. Which one would you go for? The stall in a medina on the left is in Meknes, Morrocco and though the spices are piled up in true Morroccan fashion, the trouble the owner has taken to layer spices in two different ways has my vote. The Jordanian spice-seller on the right, from Aqaba on the coast, is happy just emptying out his plastic bags into plastic basins. I know which appeals to me more!
Sometimes, you come across not markets, but just the occasional stall or shop and you just know that your life will be incomplete if you don’t get down from your vehicle to record the moment for posterity. I still rue the fact that I did not bother very much with the lovely Ladakhi ladies who sit on the pavement of the main Fort Road selling the superb Ladakh-grown turnips in the early 1990s when they would wear traditional chubas and stove-pipe hats. Now its just plain old clothes for them, though the turnips are as sweet and sought after as ever. As for the lone fruit shop in the middle of spice country near Thekkady, Kerala, it positively glows with colour. And colours.
And then, of course, there’s the animal called market forces. Some of us are happy to rummage around stalls and shops that are topsy-turvy, hunting out that one ash gourd, that one pineapple that looks perfect to us. And there are others, who, as the chauffeur slows the Audi A8 down, look out of our tinted window, rolled down just enough to be able to beckon the fruit-seller and try and beat him down by a couple of Rupees for exotic fruit that has been chosen, polished and displayed expressly for us and our ilk on the side of the road, so that our Manolo Blahniks won’t actually have to step on terra firma.
Finally, whether you sell whole jamon (ham), or dried fish, it helps if you are in a covered market. On the left is Valencia’s historic Mercado Central, with sections for everything from spirits and red chillies (yes!) to seafood under a heavy wrought iron canopy that is about a century old. The shop-owners all have a gruff camaderie between them, rather like colleagues in an office, which, in a sense, is what they are. The lady with dried fish is from Poorna Market, Vishakapatnam sits in the corner for dried seafood. It is next to the vegetables and far off from the spice section. Though the two markets, on two different continents, have not much in common – not age, not appearance nor similar ratings on the style quotient, what endures is the identical camaderie between the stall-holders.