4 Food Markets Around the World: Ordinary to Locals, Extraordinary to Me
Whenever I visit a new town, I’m not only on a mission to discover the sweet scene, but also to spend time at a local market. It’s a perfect introduction to the culinary landscape, and always so interesting to observe the exchanges between proud vendors and their loyal customers, and most of all, see what people eat there ! What seems completely normal and mundane in one country (like the Swiss’ multicolored hard-boiled eggs) can be exotic and exciting – or just weird – to another.
Right now at the markets in Zürich, bright red strawberries and stalks of rhubarb are in the spotlight, but fat, white asparagus are taking up a lot of prime real estate too. While the latter has become common for me, living here in the German part of Switzerland and making regular visits to Zürich’s Bürkliplatz and Oerlikon markets, white asparagus were once strange and unfamiliar. For me, asparagus were green, showing again that one person’s apple is another person’s rambutan.
(Above, clockwise from top left: markets in San Ignacio, Belize; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Antananarivo, Madagascar; Mérida, Mexico)
And so, it got me thinking about my recent visits to markets around the world, where the most common of products had out-of-towners simply scratching their heads (me included). Even in Switzerland, I saw my first fresh almonds and mini kiwis (the former in Vevey – my favorite market in Switzerland); and at Berlin’s Winterfeldtmarkt, I raised a quizzical eyebrow at a linseed oil press.
Below is a quick trip to four markets in four countries, where “ordinary” to the locals includes bacalhau, salmon soup, live chickens and popcorn – not so ordinary to many visitors. Grab your passport and your market caddy… and away we go !
It was all about fruit, especially the famous plátanos de Canarias (bananas), at the markets on both La Palma and La Gomera, the two Canary Islands I visited this past winter. Mangos, oranges and papayas were plentiful, as well as beetroot and malanga from nearby islands, Tenerife and El Hierro, respectively. Canarians filled their baskets with avocados and carambola (starfuit) at the indoor Mercado Municipal in San Sebastián De La Gomera, below, and ordered tall glasses of fresh sugar cane juice to drink on the spot. There were fruits of all colors and shapes that when cracked open, revealed entirely different colors and seeds than were expected. Most of all, huge sacks of potatoes were destined to become the island’s ubiquitous papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes) that are boiled in extremely salty water and eaten with red or green mojo sauce.
I had less time in Helsinki, Finland, there for a friend’s wedding; yet I still managed to visit Kauppatori, the seaside open-air market, several times a day. I was most fascinated by bright red poulukkaa (lingonberries), cousin to the cranberry, that showed up around town in jams, cordials and sauces for both meat dishes and desserts. In addition to stands of vibrant wild berries, reindeer paraphernalia and juniper wood handicrafts, the market was dominated by fish stands, selling salmon soup, salmon cooked plancha style, salmon cakes (my lunch by the water, below center) and several varieties of herring. Sitting at picnic tables with paper baskets of fried vendace was popular with the locals, who were popping these whole little whitefish like chips. Boats were docked, serving as market stands themselves, with potatoes, herne (pea pods) and yet even more fish.
Fish was popular and important at the markets throughout Portugal too. And by that, I can only mean one thing: bacalhau, the iconic dried and salted cod. Piles and piles of these large, thin slabs of fish (coming from Norway) are cut, packed and sent home with the locals to be soaked in water and cooked using one of the country’s over 1,000 recipes for cod. Bacalhau in one hand,… a live chicken held by its feet in the other. There were perhaps even more stands with live animals than produce at the market at Campo da República in Barcelos, in the far northwest corner of Portugal. Even after experiencing this at the markets in Morocco and Madagascar, I have a feeling it will always remain exotic to me. Barcelos is actually the birthplace of the country’s symbol, the cockerel (rooster) and is well worth a visit if only for the massive Thursday morning market (even if you’d rather buy your poultry as a small plastic souvenir).
Last but not least, a market closer to my roots, where you’ll find an extraordinary variety of tomatoes, apples, maple products and flowers depending on the season, as well as ice cream, cookies and popcorn. It’s none other than the Greenmarket at New York City’s Union Square. This is the market where I first discovered ramps, pumpkin whoopie pies and an absolute painter’s palette of radishes, including my favorite, watermelon radishes. But I have to say, no visit of mine to this market would be complete without a stop at a certain stand, that is luckily in season all year round… handmade Martin’s pretzels ! Salty, flavorful and as crunchy as they come. The best part may be all the broken pieces in the bag that make for a superb topping for ice cream. Only, this is definitely not library food. You’ll get many a stare and a very loud “shhhh” as you chomp away… Perhaps a sign of a really good hard pretzel.
What is your favorite market ? And/or the most exotic item you saw at a market ?