Where does the food come from?: An Exploration of Mumbai’s Markets

Hello everyone! I am finally back home after three weeks of traveling and while I intended to post this entry upon leaving Mumbai, I found myself in France shortly after, and let’s just say I got busy with some other stuff. Anyways I still have one last bit to share about my Indian voyage before I tell you more about that France part. First of all, I must say that even though my stay in Mumbai was short, it was amazing all the way through. I noshed upon so much good food there, and I really had the full Mumbai experience. I ate right alongside the railway tracks in a little stall, I saw a crazy religious procession on the street, and I even braved Mumbai’s notorious trains during the rush-hour. One of my favorite experiences, was visiting the city’s markets. Like anywhere else in the world, the people of India crave the freshest produce on their dinner table, and in city like Mumbai with 15 million plus people, you best believe that freshest of produce is going to come spilling in. Such was the case at the bhaji wali ki galli, which practically means vegetable lane in Hindi. Back alleys like these are quite common in Mumbai, and they are filled with vendors selling their locally grown, and very much in-season produce. Open in the evenings, these markets are commonly located near train stations as they cater to people coming home from work. Indeed the vegetable market we visited was near the Grant Road Railway Station in southern Mumbai.

I just love the feel of open air markets. I have been to many in Europe, but there is just something magical about walking through the lanes in India and hearing the sounds of the hawkers chanting cleverly crafted rhymes to advertise their produce. Furthermore, the visual cornucopia of fruit and vegetables is baffling. You have mountains of mangos, mounds of presoaked pulses, piles of string beans, and stacks of fresh water chestnuts. The colors are so all so vibrant,and being in the tropics, this is only enhanced by the large number of exotic goodies. There are gigantic jackfruits sliced open to reveal their sweet-smelling interior and purple jambuls, which look a lot like cherries, but have a taste that I only describe as a pure sensory attack on the mouth. Shopping here was beautiful, and it made me jealous that people here get to enjoy such fresh produce everyday. While the US certainly is the land of plenty, shopping in a grocery store can be depressing at times when all the produce just appears dull and tastes sub-standard.

As Mumbai is located on the coast, seafood is widely available and forms an integral part of the city’s cuisine. At the Manish market, located near the larger and more well-known Crawford Market, fresh fish comes in every morning and is quickly sold to customers and clients from all parts of the country. Consisting of two floors, the top floor is packed and noisy, filled with the sounds of fishermen delivering orders to each other. Harried workers scuttle around carrying enormous plastic crates upon their heads, and large stryofoam boxes are filled with gigantic specimens of fish. As this was the wholesale floor, the sale of these fish was not open to the general public, and we only seemed to be getting dirty looks from the fishermen because we were simply in their way. The bottom floor is where the public is allowed to shop. Unfortunately, the fish here is a lot smaller and not as exciting because the best fish is back upstairs and its has already been purchased by restaurants and hotels all over the state. However, this did not mean we got trash though. We managed to snag some blue crabs, prawns, and a local meaty fish known as surmai. When we returned home, my grandmother cooked all of these fishes into a glorious seafood feast.

I will not deny that they fish in this market was undoubtedly some of the freshest that I have seen. The eyes were crystal clear and the bodies were covered with just the right amount of sliminess. It was a wonderful experience to be able to be up close and personal with the products I was about to eat, a practice all food lovers should engage in. Yet this time, I felt that perhaps I had gotten too close to the product. Even though the Manish Market is an emporium for fish shopping, it isn’t exactly the most nostril-friendly place in the world. In the US, we too get fresh fish but it is set upon ice, which eliminates the smell and makes the entire product look more appealing. On the other hand, the fish in India is hauled straight out of the sea and left to sit on the slippery floor in the hot, steamy, and unventilated space of the market. What results is an assault on the nostrils. The fish begin to release to their aromas and you get that unwanted fishy smell multiplied by one thousand. Then you have the filthiness of the building. Manish Market looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in years! The floors are covered in fish slime and puddles of fish water, and I thought it was horrible enough having to walked on those beer-soaked floors of frat parties back in college! Fishermen run around carrying leaky baskets of fish and I’m sure that fishy water dripped on me several times that morning. At the back of the building, a massive pile of fish heads and shrimp shells sit, readily devoured by flies and stray dogs. I came back home smelling like a zoo and while the masala in the seafood feast that night were lovely, the nauseating smell of the market kept coming back to haunt me, and I had to leave the dinner table early, sampling only little bites of everything.

Even though the Manish Market was one of the smelliest places of my life, I am thrilled that I got the opportunity to discover the forums where the people of Mumbai buy their groceries. I’m not quite sure if I will visit an Indian fish market again, but I will definitely be a regular at the many produce markets that are a pure feast on the eyes.

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