Supermarket shopping is somewhat sterile and aseptic when compared to how people in other parts of the world shop. We are used to our clean and brightly lit stores with their tiled floors, and aisles and aisles of packaged goods. Neat and organized, and most food out of the way of hands and noses. Only on the perimeter can you find fresh fish and produce, but even the meat is prepackaged and sealed in plastic, and most bakery items are factory made and displayed in clamshells or plastic bags. Items are bar coded and prices are set.
In a search for authenticity, freshness, local produce and a more direct connection to our food, farmer's markets have taken off in the past twenty or so years in this country, but many of them have an air of exclusivity and are expensive. Not so in other parts of the world.
Markets, either open air or in permanent indoor halls, are the way the rest of the world shops. In European markets we admire abundant displays of cheeses, produce piled high in attractive pyramid shapes or displayed in baskets, meats and charcuterie spreads, just caught fish and shellfish glistening with freshness on crushed ice, locally baked breads and pastries, but also clothing, cleaning products, flowers, and food stalls for a coffee or snack while you shop. The French touch and smell their produce to make sure it meets their standard of ripeness and aroma. The fruit merchant will ask you when you want to eat your melon and select it based on its level of ripeness. When you buy fish you look at its eyes and gills to ascertain freshness, and to make sure it doesn't smell, well fishy. Cheese too needs to be bought for when you want to eat it. Too hard it will need to sit for a few days, too soft it is past its prime. Do you want to eat it today, tomorrow, or the day after? The cheesemonger will help you select your cheese accordingly. The butcher may ask how you plan to prepare your chosen cut and perhaps offer a recipe.
The colorful markets of Africa, Asia or South America, are even more exotic to us. The souks in North Africa are organized by type for better comparison. In the slipper souk you find stall after stall of nothing but slippers, while the spice souk has stand after stand of spices heaped into neat cones on flat wicker trays, and the date souk specializes in the myriad types of dates of which Morocco has over one hundred. Here, the vendor may give you a date or a few nuts to taste to persuade you that his are the best, here you need to bargain because it's part of the game and prices are not set. You can buy everything in these markets, including live fish and live poultry, clothes, dishes, spices, or household items. In more rural areas the wares are spread out on cloths or tarps on the ground, as we have seen in India. The smells by the fish or cheese stands may be pungent, the colors of spices piled high on trays are vibrant, the sights and sounds of live poultry kept in large wicker baskets in a Chinese market are noisy.
We lose aliveness, authenticity, rawness, real connection to our food, as well as the beauty of these enticing displays that make us want to taste and buy all of these wonderful foods, when we remain in our gentrified bubble. It's good to get out every once in a while to see other realities. Here an earlier related post on the need to get out.