INA market is one of those ramshackle little markets filled with stalls that sell everything from saris to “Saudi Arabia uniforms,” sparkly headbands to spices, as well as live chickens and fish of questionable freshness. Basically if you can make it in India or if you can possibly import it into India-legally or illegally–you can find it at INA. I’ve purchased everything from local toilet cleaner to plug adaptors to Korean kochi jiang, to our favorite brand of french jam from tiny shops along INA’s damp, winding alleyways.
It’s a bit tricky sometimes navigating the tight spaces between shops with I have Will in his Ergo and my bags laden down with, among other things, a 2 week supply of jam, but I love visiting to this market nonetheless. I can’t decide what’s more alluring: the atmosphere or the fact that I can usually find every single thing on my shopping list in one place. For those of you living overseas and used to visiting 5 different stores to pick up 15 things, you can see the appeal can’t you?
I went for a quick trip a couple of days ago to pick up some spices for our housekeeper. Across from my preferred nuts & spices dealer, there is a sweets counter. The line is always long and there are always people walking away with bowls of this or bags of that. I circled the market three times before the line was short enough for me to get up to the counter before Will got restless. I was curious. When it comes to interesting-looking sweets, apparently I can’t help myself. (Baumkuchen? Green Tea Sponge Cake? Glutinous Rice Balls anyone?
I ordered a few pieces of pistachio and coconut flavored milk fudge, otherwise known in Hindi as “barfi” (an unfortunately un-English friendly name for a food if there ever was one) and one piece of day-glow orange jalebi–a circle of deep-fried flour dipped in sugar syrup.
Indian sweets are a bit of an acquired taste. Unless you are buying incredibly high-quality sweets–and even then–many of them combine milk, creme and sugar together in quantities that make Americans’ teeth ache and their bellies churn from all of the milk fat.
I enjoy a good fresh batch of gulab jamun–fried milk ball soaked in a rose water sugar syrup–and I like coconut kulfi. The bright orange jalebi, on the other hand, are difficult for me to get behind.
I took a curiosity-sating few bites out of the sweets and put the untouched ones back in the box to give to our housekeeper, K.
The next day I showed the box to K. all prepared to offer them to her and her family as a “Happy Friday!” surprise when I noticed her nose wrinkling up into a face of alarm. (side note: no one India does a convincing poker face–at least not compared to in China).
“You bought these at INA?” she asked.
Yes, I told her. I told her about the long line and the high turnover, but all the while her face just looked a little bit more horrified.
“These aren’t very good, are they?” I asked, feeling a little put out.
She laughed. No, she said, they are not very good at all. “You shouldn’t buy those,” she said and then told me a few stores that would be better.
Which is why there is still a box of sweets on our counter. Apparently to be eaten by nobody. Leave it to me to pick the best-looking worst store in the market.
That’s India for me though. Just when I think I’m getting my bearings, I realize again how truly clueless I am.