Monday, August 31, 2009

Local Shopping - Shopping for Locals

We do our food shopping at a combination of locations here in Udonthani. For most of our household needs and "kao falang" (foreign food), we shop at Udonthani's newest supermarket, "Carrefour". Carrefour is a French international superstore. Besides food, Carrefour sells appliances, clothing, household goods, electronics, and many other items. In Udonthani there is also a similar British international supermarket - "Lotus - Tesco" that we occasionally shop at. There is one other similar superstore named "Big C" that we used to shop at while living in Vietnam but we avoid it here.

For fruits, vegetables, and "Kao Lao" (Lao food), Duang goes to a local market to shop. Local markets are located throughout the city. The biggest and best market is located in the neighborhood where her brother lives. At the local markets, just about anything can be purchased - clothing, hardware, prepared foods, flowers, plants, DVDs, CDs, meat, seafood, turtles, eels, snakes, frogs - basically if it is alive or was once alive, it is for sale. Local people and people from outlying villages shop at these local markets.

In all villages there are small, very small, markets where villagers can buy certain necessities such as cooking oil, sauces, soap, shampoo, canned mackerel, soda, beer, whiskey, snack foods and sometimes eggs and a few vegetables. These markets supplement villager's shopping trips to the local markets.

Local markets are located throughout towns and cities in Isaan. In rural areas, there are markets set up alongside the road where people gather to sell and buy. Some of the markets are temporary setups on specified evenings of the week (night markets).

Local markets are a combination of indoor permanent facilities and temporary outside facilities. The indoor facilities are large dark buildings or a series of connected buildings with corrugated sheet metal roofs. Inside there are rows and rows of fixed raised tables where the vendors set out their goods to sell. Outside facilities consist of a low raised wood rough platform typically covered with a plastic tablecloth upon which the merchandise is displayed along with a small spring scale to weigh the goods. A large umbrella protects the goods and vendor from the elements. Sometimes there is a small plastic chair or aluminum lawn chair for the vendor but quite often they sit atop the platform along with the goods. During harvest season, we often see Duang's sister and her husband there selling vegetables from their farm.

Saturday, we went shopping at the markets in Kumphawapi for food to celebrate the visit of one of Duang's friends who was visiting Tahsang Village along with her family. Eleven people had piled into a pickup truck to travel from their village to Tahsang Village. It is a typical sight on the roads of Isaan to see a pickup truck chugging along with 12 or more people representing 3 or 4 generations.
We were shopping at the local markets because the food is cheaper than at the big international stores, and most importantly of all the selection of the types of foods that the Lao Loum people eat is much greater there.

Shopping in the local markets is not just the matter of going in, grabbing what you need, paying for it and getting out. These local markets in Isaan also are centers of gossip and social interaction. People end up meeting their friends and relatives at the market so they stop and talk. The vendors also join in and ask questions about family matters. The simple task of selecting vegetables to buy also requires an involved conversation - to ensure the best quality, best price and most likely most importantly of all be perceived as a "kuhn jai dai" - a good person, someone with a good heart.

Scattered throughout the interior of the indoor portion of the Kumphawapi market there are large charcoal grills where fish and meat are cooked. Large metal ducts take the smoke and fumes up and out through the sheet metal roof. Cooked products are lined along the counter for sale. In other areas people use gas burners to cook sweets. The sweets are typically corn or rice with coconut as well as sugar added. I particularly enjoy the corn kernel- shredded coconut waffles fresh out of the waffle iron.

Inside the market the aisles are very narrow as well as crowded. You need to be careful walking because the concrete floors are not level, have abrupt changes in elevation, and are in various states of disrepair. Lighting levels are low inside the market with illumination provided by a small number of exposed fluorescent tubes and bare light bulbs. Interestingly, many of the bare light bulbs are now the eco-friendly fluorescent type. An occasional cat or street dog will also wander by to further complicate navigating through the market. On this trip, someone had placed newspaper along portions of the aisle to soak up some of the rain that had entered through the roof from an earlier rain shower.

Some of the vendors, typically those who are selling canned goods have updated their booths with small TVs or stereos. This provides some entertainment and distraction for their children or grandchildren who accompany the vendors. Between the sights, sounds, and smells, a stop at the local market is always entertaining as well as interesting.

From the Kumphawapi market we drove to the meat market - not a club or drinking establishment but a place where beef is sold. We had purchased beef there before and have never been disappointed. The freshly butchered meat hangs in the open air from metal hooks. Besides meat, the shop sells various beef products such as stomach, liver, blood, and very small plastic bags of what appears to me to be urine. I discussed this with Duang and it apparently it is urine from inside the cattle. Apparently older people like it but young don't - I guess that qualifies me as still being young.

The meat is definitely fresh - I smelled it as it hung in the open air. One thing about the lack of refrigeration - it may not prevent spoilage but it also can not hide it. If anything is less than fresh, it is obvious.Surprisingly there were hardly any flies hovering around the meat. Today unlike other visits to the meat booth, there were not any "ready reserves" tethered to the sturdy fence along side of the shop. Usually there at least two cattle tied to the fence awaiting their fate. The shop is run by a Muslim family which is fairly rare here in Isaan. There was a sign at the front of the booth written in Arabic which tipped me off that they were Muslim and that their beef was "halal" - good to Muslim standards.

We bought one kilogram of beef for 130 baht ($1.73 lb). We pointed out the portion on the hanging leg that we wanted. The female vendor took her large knife out and carved it off of the hanging chunk of meat. We had selected a more expensive cut of beef so it was 130 baht a kilogram. At the Kumphawapi market, less than a mile away, the same cut of beef is $2.00 a pound. Less expensive cuts from the leg cost 100 baht a kilogram.

Having completed our "local shopping" we completed our trip out to Tahsang Village. Everyone enjoyed the large meal and a good time was had by everyone

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