20.01.2009 -17 °C
I think two of the easiest and best ways to know a place quickly are to take a quick walk in the local market and taste the street food from the street ( not from the upmarket restaurants claiming to provide authentic local cuisines). The vibrancy and the energy in a market have often helped me to understand the psyche of the people. On a more serious note it also helps to show the economic position of the area and financial capability vis-à-vis the buying power of the inhabitants of that particular place.
Nothing satisfies me more than taking a lonely walk down the roads of a busy market place. I have been to city markets with neatly packed and canned foods, I have been to small village markets with farmers selling the vegetables they themselves grow in their fields and I have also seen tribal markets trading on barter system selling cattle and bows and arrows. In a way it can be a shortest way to know a place and its people. Of course I have looked out of place and a misfit but once I can ignore all those looks and frowns, I can have things pretty much my way.
From ancient times a market had been a place where people meet and discuss. It was and still is an epicenter of exchanges – economic, social, political and of course cultural ideas. The veracity of the exchanges and the establishment of the facts however can be doubtful but then again on a larger frame that’s what becomes the true representation of a particular place. I remember sipping (excessively sweet) tea in a tea shop in a small village in Bihar and hearing a group of local people discussing about Calcutta. Those were the days when Calcutta was getting its Metro train. One of those men declared that it’s highly impossible for a train to run underneath the ground because not only people will die due to lack of air but also God can never tolerate that. Earth is to be used as a land to cultivate and not to invade. To me at that point of time that very man became the sole icon of people far away from the realities. Instead of silently laughing at him, I felt ashamed of myself. At that moment I realized the difference between haves and have-nots. I learnt my lesson outside my textbooks in a small village market in Bihar.
I am a sucker for street food. In Calcutta there is an area called Office Para, It literally means the Office Area. It stems from the fact that this area has the highest concentration of offices. To me the USP of the area is the numerous small food-stalls selling food catering to every palate and taste. So don’t be surprised when you find things ranging from Tibetan steamed momos to Chinese noodles to Bengali meals of rice and fish to mutton stew to South Indian dosas. Sounds yummmm… Isnt it ? Trust me. It is. The area offers not only a feast to fill your stomach but it’s a visual treat as well.
The area is so much representative of the diversity of the overall populace and its resilient tastes and preferences of food. Things are quite charming outside the city as well. I have thoroughly enjoyed the fried prawns in a small coastal town – fresh from the catch and fried with spices. Simple, without much décor or garnishing but straight from the heart and gift from Mother Nature.
I am sure an entire genre of historiography can be written from the street food culture and types of food preferred by people of a particular place.
So banana chips fried in coconut oil from Kerela can be quite a delicacy for Malayalis but it can earn you an enemy if you give that to a Bengali. May be someday with my bulging waistline (blame it on street food) I would love to write down all my experiences based on this yummy aspect of life. That is food will be my food for thought to write.
Till then I will continue taking my learning walks in the markets and tasting street food to observe people and to feel a place within my skin.