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HER WORLD

Savoring Foreign Food Markets as Swirling Feasts for the Senses

March 18, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Food writer and restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton travels with a knife and fork so she's never without utensils when she visits food markets abroad. Los Angeles Times food writer Barbara Hansen bought beautiful embroidered dish towels for a handful of rupees at a market in Madras. And Susan Feniger, co-chef (with Mary Sue Milliken) at the Border Grill in Santa Monica and Ciudad in downtown L.A., gets ideas for her menus in Mexican markets from Oaxaca to the Yucatan.

What these women-and, I suspect, many men-have in common, besides an affair of the heart with food, is a love of the noisy, cavernous, colorful markets around the world. For them, visiting food markets is an important part of any itinerary, right up there with museums, palaces and churches.

Market touring, Sheraton said in a recent phone interview, "is one of the few ways a stranger can see real life in action, people in the passion of buying and selling food, the tensions between buyer and seller." To her, it's pure theater, completely unlike the hygienic, prepackaged scene at your local grocery store.

"Food Markets of the World," by Sheraton, with mouthwatering photographs by Nelli Sheffer (Abrams, 1997), notes that much supermarket produce has been genetically engineered to minimize perishability. But in far-flung food markets, underneath canvas awnings, dilapidated domes or the clear blue sky, the squash, string beans, bananas and blood oranges come directly from Mother Earth.

A freshly plucked chicken or a burlap bag of rice may be the last thing you want when you're on the road. But the sights, sounds and smells of local markets provide an entree into foreign cultures, nourishment for the senses and, as Sheraton says in her book, "the golden opportunity to eat."

Times food writer Hansen grazes in markets as far afield as Bangkok, where she recalls watching as a pretty girl prepared a dish of piping hot, utterly authentic Thai noodles. At the covered market in the Mexican city of Veracruz, she routinely breakfasted on tacos with eggs or guacamole.

Sheraton cruises for food in places like Tokyo's wholesale fish market; the Vucciria in Palermo, Sicily; and Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, where she may sample the wares or note exotic items to order in restaurants later.

Feniger loves to sit down in food stalls at Mexican markets, like the one in the Yucatecan town of Valladolid, where she discovered panuchos (tortillas stuffed with black beans, salsa, roasted chicken and pickles), which became a popular offering on the menu at Ciudad.

The pleasure Feniger takes in foreign markets isn't limited to the sense of taste. "The colors in Mexico and India just blew me away-the browns, oranges and terra cottas of the spices," she says. "They were so gorgeous. Suddenly I understood why art and food are related."

Not buying or eating a thing, I wandered through Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, and the market in Oaxaca, and left with all my senses nourished.

Of course, you see lots of things in foreign markets you can hardly stand to look at and would never dream of eating: crates of live dogs and cats in Asia; unidentifiable bulbous root vegetables caked with dirt like the ones I saw in the market on the South Pacific island of Tongatapu; mottled sausage, gnarly fungi and tripe. It's said you are what you eat, which gives a person pause, considering that the Masai of Africa drink cow's blood; the Japanese eat blowfish that would be poisonous if not for careful preparation; and some Italians like deep-fried songbirds, according to "A Natural History of the Senses," by Diane Ackerman (Vintage, 1991).

Markets are as much about people as they are about food. On the Hawaiian island of Kauai, I learned how hungry people are for reasonably priced fresh produce when I went to a farmers' market at the ballpark in the old sugar plantation town of Koloa. It started at noon, but by 11:30, crowds had gathered at the entrance, with fistfuls of plastic bags to hold their treasures. At 11:55, a market official appeared and told us not to push or stampede. Children and the elderly were allowed in first, followed by the rest of the crowd, which, fortunately, was well behaved.

My favorite market is the one in the Trastevere section of Rome, an old working-class neighborhood across the Tiber River from the city center.

Five years ago, I swapped my New York apartment for one on Trastevere's Via Natale del Grande for two weeks (through a home exchange) and got to know the open-air market on the nearby Piazza San Cosimato. Though it lies across the street from a little gem of a 10th century church, the piazza is nothing much to speak of as Roman piazzas go. But in the morning the market transforms the square into a Garden of Eden, where I bought juicy cantaloupes and fresh flowers. The man at the flower stall got to know me and gave me poppies on the day I left so that I'd remember Trastevere.

Novelist D.H. Lawrence summed up the magic in an essay, "Market Day in Oaxaca, 1924." He thought of the market as a place for commingling. People there, he wrote, "have felt life concentrate upon them, they have been jammed between the soft hot bodies of strange men come from afar, they have had the sound of strangers' voices in their ears, they have asked and been answered in unaccustomed ways."

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