Despite having lived in India before, I must admit this is the first time I've really experienced the whole culture buying groceries in the market and cooking food here. Although I've wandered through markets in both northern and southern India, and, with the help of my host mother in Jaipur and our cook in Vikravandi, have tried my hand at a few Indian recipes, never before have I had the full responsibility of purchasing, preparing, and cooking my own meals here in India. Now, as I look back, that sounds quite ridiculous to admit, but I remember having to do quite a bit of convincing to even be allowed into the kitchen to help with meal preparations while I lived as a guest with host families.
Now that I've been living on my own in India for almost a month, I am starting to realize the advantages and disadvantages of my current situation. Since I am not much of a cook, preparing meals here has been both exciting and challenging. It is definitely great to finally feel in control of what I am choosing to eat. It is also a relief to avoid overeating, since true Indian hospitality really comes out at the dinner table, when hosts insist upon having their guest eat until they're stuffed. On the other hand...ah, what to cook all the time?! For the first few weeks I felt paralyzed upon entering the marketplace. With so many unfamiliar ingredients before me, I struggled to visualize how I could create a meal out of these.
Grocery shopping here has also made me realize how dependent I am back home on grocery stores to provide me with creativity in my cooking. I realized that back home, much of my diet consists of Trader Joes staples such as lobster ravioli or veggie burgers (which, by the way, do a pretty good job of disguising your true cooking ability and convincing company you can cook). Here, however, you pretty much have to start at square one with most of the cooking, which I am learning to do. Thankfully, my roommate is quite the chef and is now working on making a cookbook, so I'm sure that will help me prepare a meal without my "Trader Joes training wheels."
Now more about Chembur market, where I do most of my grocery shopping here. Chembur market is located right next to the local railway station, in the heart of Chembur's bustling downtown. The market itself is situated in one of the most unlikely locations- under an oppressive, cement, elevated highway. Crammed into the streets that run parallel to it, even the market fights for space in a city so crowded that the only direction yet to build is up. The market stalls are constructed of bamboo sticks which have been precariously tied together with twine. Light bulbs hang down from the bamboo, illuminating the path for shoppers to conduct their errands into the night. Some stands even have garlands of fresh flowers hanging overhead to differentiate themselves from their neighbors and attract customers.
In my time here, I've gotten pretty good at navigating the market to locate the groceries I need. I've learned to distinguish which vendors quote to me the all too common "foreigner price" and which vendors will give me a fair price. Given the quantity and diversity of the street stalls, it seems as though you can find just about any fruit or vegetable you could want...that is unless you are looking for something in particular, such as salad greens, which I've unfortunately realized are quite rare here. Chembur market is also quickly helping me to become a mango connoisseur. Since I've been in India, I think I've tried at least four or five different types of mangoes. And I know the market has at least five or six more to offer ;)
At first I remember being quite skeptical about buying all of my vegetables in a market situated under an elevated highway in the middle of the town's craziest traffic intersection. Now, having learned to navigate the craziness that constitutes Chembur market (that is given I have enough energy to do so, because it definitely requires quite a lot of patience and determination), I feel I'm beginning to develop a new appreciation for the India's unique market culture.