Shopping at the local markets in Kerala depends on what you are looking for. In a typical bustling market area, the commercial shops are situated close to each other and among the chain of merchants and retailers you would find tiny bakeries, shops selling spices and condiments, cloth and textile merchants, shops selling stainless steel utensils and kitchen implements, plastics, toys etc. If you are looking for fresh fruits and vegetables, they occupy a different section of the market place.
Kerala is popular for growing varieties of bananas that are common display in markets. A single banana is a filling healthy snack for travelers. Photo from Flickr
The fish and meat market would also be close by where you would see an array of fresh fish and seafood provided you don’t visit during the breeding season when there is a ban on fishing.
Fresh produce of fruits and vegetables are laid on large blue plastic sheets and a weighing scale occupies the centre of the display. BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) is the usual policy but if you don’t have one, they would pull out a plastic bag from somewhere or the other. All sorts of vegetables are displayed for the customers including the ones that are normally used in the local cuisine. They are unloaded from trucks that bring them in early in the morning and if you visit around 8.30-9.00 am, you would get the best of the stock. Blushing pink onions, shallots (locally called ‘cheriya ulli’ meaning small onions), bright red tomatoes (takalli), potatoes (urulakazhanga), string beans, French beans, coconuts, yam, coconuts, curry leaves (which is an essential in most local dishes), coriander leaves, fresh spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, tapioca, snake gourds, etc are the most commonly bought and used in Kerala homes.
Fresh fruits are available including bananas of 4 different varieties. Banana or plantain as they are referred to is used widely in cooking as well as to eat by itself. The famous banana chips of Kerala are what friends and relatives are always asked to buy when they visit Kerala. Florists sell fresh flowers and garlands for those who are on their way to the local temples or shrines. The string of jasmine flowers is widely seen clipped on to the long, well-oiled tresses of the malayali ladies who are seen around the market place.
Among all these shops and buyers and sellers carrying forward the economies of scale, there is bound to be the omnipresent tea stall locally called the ‘chayakkada’ offering local snacks and a Malayali’s essential refreshing drink- ‘chaya’ or tea. The chayakkada could be a located within a proper shop in a building or may be a tiny cart with wheels. That doesn’t take away anything from the taste of the tea. Within the shops, you would find the locals sitting and having long discussions on politics or social issues or reading the day’s newspaper since Kerala is the most literate state in the country (literacy in the local language, Malayalam). The popular ‘yard/metre tea’ is usually served which is nothing but the brew being mixed with milk and sugar in two containers and while doing so, the tea maker displays his flair and skill in pouring the tea from approximately a yard’s distance into the container held below. He dexterously continues doing this until he feels the ingredients are blended well and serves it in a small glass with the froth collected on the surface. Not a drop falls out. The taste of the tea is nothing that connoisseurs are used to but the local blend of tea leaves and milk are refreshing all the same. Malayalis have their tea with or without milk, and sometimes with spices like ginger and cardamom.
The fish market at one of the places I visited amused me and I simply couldn’t stop smiling. It was a simple partnership where one guy would be in charge of marketing and the other would be in charge of the sales. Well, essentially that’s what it boiled down to, but the manner in which it was executed is what amused me. The marketing man standing in a white mundu and shirt (local attire) would loudly announce his catch of the day with the price and at the end of his well rehearsed lines he would make a weird but shrill whirring sound with his tongue. I suppose that was to attract customers but all I could do was smile every time he produced it. At one point he caught my eye and smiled back as he could see the amusement on the face of this onlooker! Now while he made his own shrill calls, his competitor next door had his own rehearsed line with another strange sound. The blend of these two along with the calls of other fish mongers produced a cacophony in the market but where else would you hear it but here! Fresh fish and seafood included tuna which is the most commonly used fish, along with eels, sardines and mackerels. Other fish are more expensive but fresh whenever they are available. Seafood consists of shrimps, king prawns and squids. Occasionally crabs can also be seen. Meats like beef, chicken and mutton are also avaialble but pork is not sold in most of these open market places because of a heavy population of Muslims in Kerala.
Just before the onset of the famous harvest festival of Onam, one can also see shops in the market set up with various cutting and chopping implements. The experience of visiting the local markets in various places gives you a feel and flavor of the locals and their enterprising skills. In Kerala, the experience was just as different and much more charged.