For the traveler, markets afford one of the few windows on real life open to strangers.
Mimi Sheraton, Food Markets of the World
What can the taste of a place tell us? For me, markets are the key to unlocking the door. I feel at home in that arena, confident. I can begin to look around and respond to a new place, no matter how far from the familiar. I have an opportunity to explore a region’s culture; learn about its history, religions, geography and commerce. If I know how to look, all this is there in the local markets.
Shopping in Chicago, where I live, is pretty deadly in the winter. There are a few bright exceptions like Fresh Farms, one on Devon and one on Touhy. The Greek owners of both stores cater to a variety of customers. In addition to the Greeks, South East Asians, South Indians, Poles, Russians, and Eastern European Jews all shop there. The people watching and the diversity of products are both really great. I especially like the weekends when you see women in their forties, mothers themselves, taking their own mothers shopping. Strike up a conversation. You can pick up a lot of tips about what to buy and how to use it.
Super H, the market out in Niles is also recommended. They’ve got an excellent fish counter because they know their Asian customers will know the difference. It has the added advantage of being next to the big spa chain, King Spa, for men and women, open 24 hours with a great Korean snack bar inside. That’s about it where I live. In the winter, I spend as much time as possible traveling and wherever I am, I spend much of that time in the local markets.
Here are a few pictures from places with vibrant market cultures. Our neighbor, Bob Slivon, took the spectacular pictures of market life in Guatemala. Mexico City’s La Merced is also featured. It’s the main artery for provisioning eight and a half million residents in the nation’s capital. My husband and I make a pilgrimage every time we are there. The other pictures are from our trip to Vietnam, Thailand and Burma in December and January, 2012 and 2013.
In all these countries, more than food is sold in the markets. Expect to see clothes, underwear, medicines and out- of- date prescription drugs, cures, potions and spells, makeup and creams, hardware supplies, tools, live animals, stuffed animals and toys, newspapers, magazines, DVDs; all for sale. TVs are often rigged up in the stalls to alleviate sellers’ boredom during the very long hours the market is open. The sound competes with blaring music from radios and microphones, not to mention the noise from all the talking and shouting, selling and bargaining. It’s interesting to try and check out the roles the woman play and the men play; look for who controls the money.
And then there’s the food! First there are all the ingredients, then the snack stalls and little restaurants feeding laborers and shoppers alike. Markets are at once serious business and the center of social life.
If only I could transport you. At least take a few minutes away from the cold and the flat grey and look at a little winter life in the markets in Guatemala, Mexico, and South East Asia. Even better, go see for yourself!