Some people like to visit museums when they travel – what we love most is to visit markets. Nothing compares to the unmediated experience of living culture that a market offers: it’s total sensory immersion. We consider ourselves to be pretty adventurous, but must admit that touring the markets on our recent trip to Southeast Asia felt at times like an extreme sport. You expect the overwhelming beauty of exotic fruits and flowers, and the thrill of un-tasted spice. You don’t expect how the heat and humidity magnify the ferment of centuries in your nostrils. Or the stupefying scope of things consumed as food.
We were lucky to happen upon a local merchant in Yogyakarta named Wandi, who elected himself guide and toured us through the market with fierce pride, insisting we smell and taste everything. ‘Not food,’ he said many times. ‘Medicine.’ And then because his English was limited, he would act out the symptoms of some disease, or the effect of the medicine in question. ‘Batman’ was one such medicine. He picked up a tiny dehydrated bat, and made squeaky sounds with his trachea. Bats are medicine for asthma, it seems. He had charades like this for almost anything we saw and pointed to.
Our favourite discovery was salak. We first saw salak in a bowl on a desk in one of our hotel rooms, and thought it was a decorative sculpture. Salak, or snake fruit, is the fruit of an Indonesian palm. It’s about the size and shape of a large fig, with a scaly brown ’snake’ skin, which peels off to reveal what looks like three cloves of garlic.
The taste and texture of salak depends on its variety – the kind we fell in love with is grown in Malang, in the East of Java. It has a strong pineapple flavour, the texture of lychee or rambutan, and just a hint of the funky aroma for which jackfruit and durian are so infamous. (You can be fined in Singapore for travelling with durian in a taxi.) Malang is also famous for its apples, which to our North American palates seemed incredibly sour.
Malang has a large bird market, where you can buy birds of several dozen kinds, including crows, owls, and black chickens. There are also monkeys, rabbits, iguanas, and trays upon trays of bird feed: crickets and maggots by the pound.
In Bali, we visited the Jimbaran fish market on the island’s southwest coast, where every morning sea gypsies unload thousands of pounds of fresh fish caught in the Indian Ocean.
Farther north, in Ubud, is a central market around which the city radiates like the petals of a flower. There are flowers everywhere in Ubud – the morning air is heavy with the fragrance of frangipani, red hibiscus rudely point their stamens at you, and by noon someone will have put a flower in your hair. You literally walk on a carpet of flowers, as the sidewalks are littered with offerings – miniature arrangements of flowers, fruit, rice, incense, candy, cigarettes – whatever the deities (and demons) are in the mood for.
Of course we bought spices – several pounds of local pepper, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and a fascinating rhizome called kencur, which is also known as white turmeric. It tastes somewhat like a mixture of ginger and horseradish. And the Indonesian cardamom is very different from the green type we normally find – its husk is white, and its seeds more pungent and mentholated, like eucalyptus.
At least twice during our market visits we said to each other – it’s too much. Too much olfactory information, too many human and animal bodies, too much incongruity between the delicious and the disgusting. But it was also at these moments when we said – take a picture. This is why we came. To be surrounded by the raw flavours of life, and taste them as fully as we can.