Distance from the nearest supermarket is probably pretty high on the priority list for a Briton on a house-hunt. For most of us living in the west, it’s hard to imagine routines that don’t involve supermarkets. Yet there are parts of the world where this method of food retail is still thought of as an emerging sector of the economy; supermarkets are still new, treated with suspicion and haven’t quite become the default way to shop. Take India, for instance, where according to a report published in the Economist in 2014 only 2% of the population shops at supermarkets.
So what happens when mum (and it is almost always mum) wants to cook a meal for the family? Well, she heads down to the ‘subzimandi’ or produce market, always to a specific ‘subziwala’, usually a vendor she has spent years building a love-hate relationship with. He sits on the sidewalk, sometimes elevated on a wooden plank in the middle of carefully stacked piles of fruit and vegetables – towers of tomatoes, bunches of spinach and baskets full of red onions. Seeing her, he briefly stops yelling sales pitches or puts down his cup of tea to have a chat. After an initial exchange of pleasantries, he offers advice on what’s fresh and seasonal and what’s being sold at a good rate on that day. Rates fluctuate on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, depending on the weather, the going rates at the market and the subziwala’s mood. She goes on to inspect what he has on offer, checking tomatoes for firmness and giving the odd papaya a sniff to check if it’s ripe. She selects each individual vegetable that makes it to the bowl, watches him suspiciously while he weighs the vegetables on a scale.
Then begin the usually lengthy negotiations – she’s convinced he is out to cheat her, while he’s adamant he’s offered her the best rate possible. After demanding he throw a few curry leaves and chillies in for free, which he reluctantly does, she hands him the cash, grumbling under her breath about having paid more than she should have. She threatens to take her business elsewhere as she storms off. She’ll be back in a day or two. They both know it.
No matter where in India you live, there’s probably a subzimandi a few hundred metres away from home. Depending on the region, the variety of vegetables on sale and the language of the negotiations change. The plot of the purchase remains the same, as do the theatrics involved – both in the way the vegetables are displayed and the relationships so carefully built between customer and vendor. In the absence of packaging that contains promotional material like the vegetable’s geographic origins, nutritional value and recipe recommendations, the vendor must rely on his verbal sales pitch, relationship management skills and the aesthetic presentation of his produce. “Nothing beats the personal touch, service and customer awareness of the subziwala. They still retail a range of local produce that supermarkets don’t, and carry with them culinary wisdom which encourages us to eat locally and seasonally like we should,” says Mumbai-based food consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal.
In the past decade or so, however, the sort of produce consumed has been influenced by India’s exposure to global food habits. Vegetables like red peppers, broccoli, asparagus or pak choi, considered quite ordinary in the west but not a part of the traditional Indian food culture, can now be found at subzimandis. When they were first introduced, you could tell these vegetables were ‘exotic’ because they’d be wrapped in plastic and have stickers on them, marking them as superior to the ordinary unlabelled produce. The plastic casing, Styrofoam boxes, labels and stickers – so mundane in the west – become a metaphorical barrier in the Indian context. Shubash Shinde, who sells vegetables at Mumbai’s Mahim market says that sales actually go down if he displays packaged vegetables. “Vegetables in packaging are thought of as special and for occasions, not daily consumption. So sometimes, even if the broccoli comes to me in plastic, I remove it and stack it in piles. People are more likely to buy it if they think of it as ordinary,” he says. There’s still the perception in India that packaging implies that a vegetable is imported or western, and hence more expensive.
Another reason why packaging simply doesn’t work in the Indian context is because customers are used to being able to control the portion sizes they buy. In the absence of portioned bags of veg, shoppers can select exactly the amount that they think will be consumed. Shinde says the only vegetables he portions are mushrooms and green leafy veg like spinach which are likely to break or wilt with too much handling.
But packaging, it can be argued, isn’t just about aesthetics or portioning. Sans plastic wrapping, refrigeration or protection from the sun, vegetables perish quickly. Which means a vendor like Shinde would incur quite a big loss from any wastage. He avoids this with a dynamic approach to stock keeping. New produce is always introduced in small quantities, which allows him to assess demand. Plus his relationship with consumers means he gets a chance to ask them what they want and bring more of it the following day. Or he can push vegetables he has more of, even dynamically changing his rates to make sure his cart is empty before he shuts up shop.
For the western consumer who is used to predictable prices, an expiry date and nutritional information being on packaging, this system may seem chaotic with too much trust placed in the vendor. But as far as wastage is concerned, the system seems to work; perhaps one of the reasons why South Asia wastes significantly less food then other parts of the world.
The subzimandi is not completely insulated from western notions of aesthetic perfection, however. Ghildiyal says imported produce does threaten the status quo. “Perfect looking fruit is a problem. Branded Washington apples for example, look better than the less perfect Himalayan ones. Indigenous produce gets sidelined. Yellow sweet corn which looks brighter in displays has taken over indigenous white corn, which is now hardly seen in markets.”
Below: A video, made by a concerned consumer, that show the wax coating on apples
This pursuit for perfection has manifested in a recent controversy around the practice of waxing apples. Apples are covered in a glossy wax coating to help them weather a long journey, to increase their shelf-life and enhance their colour. Videos of people scraping or melting wax off the surface of apples surfaced on YouTube, raising concerns about the health implications. The government has reacted not by restricting the practice entirely but by limiting the kinds of wax allowed on apples.
It seems like it will be a while before supermarkets become the default way to shop in India. But the supermarketisation of aesthetic preferences is a very real threat to local food habits all over the world. Even Shinde, with his hand-pushed cart in a suburb of Mumbai, knows his customers can’t resist the charms of a shiny red apple.