We have blogged about open air markets in multiple countries and have commented on how valuable a window into the local culture, open markets typically are.
Unlike tourists destinations, be they cultural destinations that are packaged/curated to appeal to travelers and tourists, markets are always the real thing!
Most capital cities have large markets, but in the West, they have tended to disappear – a good example of that is the large fruit and vegetable meat market in Paris, Les Halles, which a couple of decades back was deemed “unsanitary” because of the rodents it inevitably attracted in the center of Paris.
For people who love open air real markets like ourselves, it is a treat to go to such a huge expansive market and spend a few hours discovering the variety of plentiful produce and watch the vendors and buyers interacting. Colombo’s large and historic Pettah market is open every single day and has been in operation going back as far as anyone can remember…
The main reason we are here today is to buy raw cashew and almond nuts in bulk. It is nice to have a particular goal, but as well we find all sorts of seasonal fruits and unusual local greens and vegetables.
When Colombo became the capital during British rule after 1815, Colombo Port became the main hub for trade in the Indian ocean. Traders from both East and West called on the port and the Pettah market became a convenient trading place for all the goods that transited through Sri Lanka. The Moors were avid traders and to this day, the Pettah neighborhood is primarily Muslim. The “Red Mosque”, officially named Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is a central building in the neighborhood, nearby the fruit market and is one of the oldest Mosques in all of Sri Lanka. The call to prayer resonates 5 times a day as one goes about the Pettah food market.
It’s MANGOSTEEN season in Sri Lanka! One of our favorite tropical fruits, which we first tried in Viet Nam. The sweet white fleshy segments are covered by a hard aubergine colored skin.
Piles of mangosteen everywhere!
The predominantly Muslim Pettah neighborhood is reflected in the typical long white dress worn by Muslim men.
Rambutan fruit is another favorite of ours, also currently in season, and luckily the season seems to be a fairly long one. One can buy the rambutan by the kilo, but it is priced per unit at 10 rupees, which is 7 cents a fruit. The woman in her wine colored sari, is trying out the vendor’s rambutan, you can see the fruit tucked into her cheedk!
Dragon fruit is the fruit from the cactus tree, indigenous to the Americas but the climate in South Asia has proven fertile for its growth. The outside of this fruit is a bright fuschia pink and in some varieties the interior is the same color yet even brighter. However, so far the only ones we have seen in Sri Lanka have a white interior. They are rich in vitamin C, full of antioxidants and are good for decreasing bad cholesterol levels. And they are sweet and delicious too.
A heap of orange pineapples literally spilling out onto the street.
At certain points of the market, the contrast between the gothic architecture and the street level stalls is eye catching.
One section of the market is covered and here a Tamil woman is carefully getting the vendor to choose the best carrots for her.
Peta in Pettah market… in her element. Fresh ginger and jalapeno peppers feature predominantly in many raw vegan dishes, providing the heat to the dish.
The market is a kaleidoscope of colors. Saris contrast against bright chili peppers and other vegetables.
Pastel colored sarong against orange bags of rice and bright blue containers.
Graphic art is everywhere….. Jalapeno installation.
Many young Sri Lankan men prefer modern clothing especially those that live in the big cities, over the classic sarong. “We are the people our parents warned us about”… funny. In front, you can see purple banana flower pods for sale, second from the left, and used in curries.
A vendor, very proud of his homegrown herbs and greens. Many of these leaves are used to flavor curries.
The “gotukola” at the top (pennywort) has many medicinal properties and as well makes a delicious dark green hot soup, which tastes similar to a French watercress soup (says Ben).
We have some gottukola growing at our house but still in small quantities. It is a great green to use in juices or green smoothies.
Coconuts are omnipresent in Sri Lanka. There are a few varieties and they are used extensively in the local cuisine. These “hairy” coconuts not only provide delicious thick white “meat” but the husks are broken down to make the strongest of ropes.
One of the things that always fascinate us the world over about markets, are how the vegetables are presented, piled up, displayed, featured…..
Shades of purples and greens… A type of green beans, beetroot, bitter melon, aubergine and okra.
We go through SO many limes and/or lemons… We start our day with a glass of lemon water, as this provides a natural flush for the digestive system and rehydrate the body after hours of sleep. Having a does of vitamin C first thing in the morning, also gives the body an immune boost. So we always buy fresh lemons. in abundance. We have two small lemon trees but nowhere near fruit bearing yet.
Crates of dried fish of every variety from sardines, to anchovies to squid. These are used to flavor soups, stews and curries. Being an island surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has a remarkable fish industry but fish deteriorate fast so people use different methods to preserve fresh fish. Sun drying salted fish is one of the common methods used in Sri Lanka.
Dried fish are a lovely addition to Sri Lankan food. They are heavily salted, originally conceived out of necessity due to the lack of refrigeration. When deep fried they become crunchy. They can be served with rice.
Ben is puzzled by a new vegetable we have not seen before. Some type of gourd.
The bottle Gourd – one of these elusive veggies that we see, but have not cooked with yet..
SO, for a little inspiration, we look for the most authentic chefs – a village grandma shows how the bottle gourd is done! This video is well worth watching! At the end, you will see the unusual kind of plate that the food is served on.
“Murunga”, also known as drumstick and two types of bitter gourds, all used in making Sri Lankan curries.
Potatoes, garlic and onions. It’s all about the curries.
This vendor has had a good day at the market!
Sri Lanka boasts 29 varieties of banana, with different sizes, shapes, colors and textures. Sri Lanka’s relationship with bananas dates back as early as 340 A.D. when King Buddhadasa known as a good physician, recorded the medicinal value of the various parts of the banana tree. Factually bananas are berries ~ botanists define berries as simple fruits stemming from one flower, with one ovary.
The side streets of the vast Pettah market are full of trucks delivering goods.
In the backstreets of the market, the symphony of colors from the fruits and vegetables and saris, is replaced by the brightly painted trucks.
Big trucks, small trucks, man pulled wagons, everything goes… the to and fro of the delivery men is a constant.
Boxes are loaded up and one has to be careful to stay out of the way of fast moving heavy objects.
Of course at the market one can also buy clothes, toys, watches, electronics etc. Here we stop to buy a few dish clothes from this friendly Muslim man who points the way to the Red Mosque.
This red and white candy striped mosque is an anchor in this Pettah neighborhood market and has been for over a hundred years. (My very first date with Ben, included a mosque visit in Washington D.C.) Since then, we have visited mosques in many different countries… (France, Malaysia, Israel, Turkey, Morocco, India….)
A moment of rest in the interior of the mosque where time stands still and prayer dictates time.