Last weekend, we drove to Hypercity in Malad. Hypercity is set up like an American grocery store, with fresh produce, grains, lentils, and packaged goods all under one roof, along with an electronics area, a book store, and a kitchen store. This is a novel concept in India.
I buy vegetables from the bhaji-wallas, who set up shop on the sidewalks. I know that the bhaji-walla near WIA club, carries “exotic” vegetables like broccoli, basil, cherry tomatoes and rocket lettuce, and that his corn is sweet. Once in a rare while, the bhaji-walla near Chandralok has excellent good avocados, but he’s also sold me awful ones before, so now I make him cut them right there, on the sidewalk, to show me that they really are a creamy green inside. Beets, tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggs- these are readily available at most corners in my area. But we have discovered that the “village eggs” (as opposed to the city eggs?) sold a bit far from us, have yolks the color of the setting sun. On Grant Road, vendors set up Bhaji Gully every day (except Sunday) – a large outdoor produce market- much like a farmers market in America.
We get grains, nuts, oils, imported goods like soy sauce or rice vinegar, and snacks, each from different stores. If I had no ingredients at home and wanted to make spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, I’d have to visit three places. Or Crawford Market, which is a collection of wholesale stalls carrying both imported goods and local produce under one roof.
Or, if I lived close to Malad, perhaps I’d go to Hypercity. Produce, cheeses, imported and Indian cereals, wine, beer, liquor, dals, aachars, every variety of rice imaginable, Indian and imported spices, eggs, food coloring, Pepperidge Farm cookies and Britannia cumin crackers, meat, sauces, frozen dinners, packaged dinners- it’s all there. We pushed our shopping cart through wide, well-lit aisles and picked up a pumpkin, Maraschino liquor, and a sweet-lime pickle. There’s also a section devoted to Waitrose products. Imported pastas, bread flour, tapenades, coffees, cookies, biscuits, canned beans, canned fish, sun-dried tomato spreads, and fancy olive oils and balsamic vinegars are what I remember seeing.
On the ground floor, they also sell pans and kitchen utensils; upstairs, though we didn’t visit, is a Crossword bookstore and electronics department. Oh, on the ground floor there’s even a counter selling diamond jewelry.
It was amazing to see this kind of grocery store in India, but also disorienting, because the system here is so different. On one hand, how convenient, especially for people who work long hours and might not have help at home (like much of America).
Yet, I realize I’ve gotten used to the fact that there are specific stores, or sidewalk stalls, where I’ll find my goods. I like knowing who’s selling the best corn and cherry tomatoes. At Hypercity we bought a bagful of tomatoes because we had planned to make a sauce later, and since it was a Sunday, bhaji-wallas weren’t working. Picking through the glossy pyramid, we noticed many yellow tomatoes, and bruised tomatoes, and it was with difficulty that we filled our bag with unblemished produce. That’s not a problem I have at a vegetable stall, where the produce is generally fresh. Later, we found that the beets and pumpkin we bought at Hypercity had no flavor, at all.
(I just spoke to BombayFoodie, who said that Hypercity’s produce is of much lower quality than what one can find elsewhere but they have priced out all the street side vendors in her area. In her area, there’s no other option of a place to buy vegetables, so now she makes a special trip to a market further away to get her produce.)
This sounds like the beginnings of the convenience versus quality problem- what organizations and people in America are trying to reverse by encouraging people to eat locally, shop at farmers markets, etc. instead of at chain grocery stores. America also has to contend with industrialized farms and genetically modified produce. In India, the logistics between farmers and consumers is a larger problem- Hrishikesh said that at a logistics seminar he attended some time ago, he learned that half of what is produced by farmers in India spoils before it reaches a consumer. Perhaps larger grocery stores (like Hypercity, Reliance Fresh and Nature’s Basket) are attempting to streamline the process and cut down on the middle men and also on wastage, but that doesn’t explain the poor quality of produce.
In a sense, Bombay already has a “farmers market” system- comprised of the vendors on the sidewalks, Crawford Market, and Bhaji Gully. These might not be as welcoming and easy to navigate as the Union Square Greenmarket, and they are not organized in the American sense- there are no pretty labels identifying the farms from which produce comes. But, these vendors are a system that has been working well.
Hypercity is not the only grocery store in Bombay; Reliance Fresh and Godrej Nature’s Basket are also there, but on a much, much smaller scale. I think Reliance Fresh is pretty awful but Nature’s Basket, although the regular produce doesn’t look that fresh, often has a good selection of packaged Trikaya Agriculture produce- like Brussels sprouts, pea shoots and thyme.
People here are starting to become aware of eating locally and sustainably. The Mumbai Organic Farmers and Consumers Association has started a plan called Hari Bhari Tokri, that seems to be following the model of a C.S.A., pairing consumers with farmers to cut out middlemen, encourage consumers to eat locally, and encourage farmers to grow what consumers will buy. Hrishikesh and I signed up for the winter season, which begins in early November. I think it will be interesting to cook seasonally with mostly Indian vegetables, like snake gourd (padval), and flat beans (papdi).