Chennai market: New sights and distinctive smells

Indian produce market brings new sights and distinctive smells

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Indian produce market brings new sights and distinctive smells

By Tad Thompson, Journalist,

Plantain leaf vendors were so far from my experience that it wasn’t until the wedding event the following morning that a key activity at the produce market was put into context.

I was in Chennai, India, for my son, Reece’s May 21-22 wedding to a remarkable young woman, Dr. Rajee Kanagavel. Long before my trip, Rajee asked what I’d most like to see in Chennai. Without hesitation, I responded that wholesale produce markets are always wonderful windows into cities and cultures. Rajee’s dad, Kanagavel Natarajan, who is in India’s sugar business, graciously offered to take me to the Anna Fruit Market on May 20.

Crowded and noisy Chennai is home to almost nine million people on the southeast coast of the subcontinent. Rajee’s 13-year-old niece Aarthi Natarajan, who lives in St. Louis, escorted her grandfather and me as a translator. Tamil is the language of this region. While the first English colonial fort was built in Chennai in 1639, centuries of English domination left a scarce few speaking English.

Of the many produce markets I’ve visited, Anna was most like Central de Abasto in Mexico City. While it wasn’t as sprawling, Anna’s structure involved concrete floors, walls, and a high concrete ceiling. Dimly lit halls, in the true spirit of food markets, tended to be organized by product categories. Dogs, clearly lacking pedigrees, freely roam the facility and its city.

There is a separate fish market, which produces quite an odor in south India’s climate.

I was aware of Mexicans wrapping tamales and other dishes with banana leaves, but at Anna, there were a half-dozen companies specializing in plantain leaves. 

It’s always oppressively hot and humid – incredibly steamy! – in Chennai. The concrete provides some cool comfort and that is where many on the market choose to be seated. Everyone is sweaty. Cleanliness is an impossibility, and receives no apparent regard in the market. 

So, in Anna Fruit Market’s plantain leaf row, men – and one woman – mechanically worked to trim the ends of plantain leaves, producing two equal sections about 18 inches long. Kanagavel explained to me that these were used as placemats for meals. But still, it was astonishing the next morning at the wedding breakfast. A plantain leaf placemat fronted each chair along neatly pressed white tablecloths.

My background of food safety concerns, combined with an awareness to avoid consuming any local water, plus the eyewitness knowledge of the leaves’ cutting process raised my eyebrows. Other wedding guests sprinkled some of their bottled water to splash the leaves, rub the water around and then slide remaining drops to the floor. As guests were seated, servers carried small pails containing various curry-heavy foods and a round scoop. Each serving was unceremoniously plopped onto the leaf. Etiquette calls for eating each of six or seven different servings with the fingers. No napkins are available, unless requested, but sinks and towels are available outside the dining room when the meal is finished. (I swam a bit upstream and used the wonderful oven-fresh naan as a scoop for my delicious samples.)

Also in Chennai market

Communication was limited so my market tour the fell short of a scientific study.

But there were countless items for sale – commonly from wicker baskets. Old fashioned scales are commonly applied. Sweet corn was present, as was another American staple, tomatoes. The dealer showing an attractive pyramid-shaped display of perfect red round tomatoes buys from a large commercial Indian producer. There was an unrefrigerated but otherwise modern overwrapped mushroom tray, under the “British Mushroom” brand, packed in Chennai. 

One man presented a graceful display of big round leaves. Apparently, they’re applied toward intestinal problems.

The market’s women are dressed in colorful wraps of dignity. One of these ladies offered long beans, which at three feet, are suitably named. Another brilliant woman sold cauliflower from her concrete seat. 

My son’s new father-in-law purchased baby bananas, which were used to hold incense sticks in the next day’s Hindu wedding ceremony. 

The market star

If every produce market has a lead firm, here it is G.M. Raju. Raju appeared to be the only produce dealer with a produce cooler, which is needed cold to protect its investment in imported fruit. The owner is the son of the founder, who spoke English. He will be importing grapes from California later this summer and he also imports Australian grapes toward the fall. Cold containers are discharged in Chennai’s large seaport. 

Among Raju’s offerings this spring were Royal Gala apples packed in traditional 18-kilo boxes, produced in Poland, and packed by VMG Grupa SP, in Warsaw, Poland. Gencer brand apples from Turkey, as well as PickMee-brand New Zealand apples, were also in Raju’s cooler. Also notable was “VKOILL” dragon fruit from Vietnam.

Outside the market

Waste in the uncooled facility is clearly outrageously high. The dealers’ waste disposal system is simple. Spoils from the day are pushed to the parking lot, where India’s sacred cows are welcome to graze. The final digestion process hangs as a repulsive scent surrounding the produce facility. The sight is not good either.

Also in the parking lot is the stand of a fresh jackfruit vendor. His well-used knife saves consumers a great deal of work, by slicing the giant fruit for popsicle-sized pieces, sans the stick. Pressing hard against my best judgment, I accepted a gracious free sample, which was quite sweet and very tasty.

Otherwise, caution prevailed and I arrived home in good health. 

Along the way I gained new friends and, most importantly, a magnificent daughter-in-law. The couple is moving to Cairo, Egypt. Rajee has taken a new Mideast management job there with the United Nations. My son Reece Thompson is fluent in Mandarin and works remotely for a Chinese software company.

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