Saturday, August 14, 2010

chabra jumla visit


The "chabra" is a universe of its own, a principal institution of Kuwaiti culinary development since 1976. Located in Shuwaikh industrial area, off the charcoal roundabout, this campus of fresh fruit and vegetable vendors supplies Kuwait with a great variety of local and imported materials.

My aim with this post is to start a monthly visit to the chabra in order to assess seasonality as well as interesting products and trends in the market.

My trip to Shuwaikh started at about 10:00 am and took me to a surprisingly active scene, for a Ramadan weekend morning. Once we found our way around, we came upon the "jumla," or bulk, section. It is connected to the indoor market, right after it on your right, after you come in from the main entrance. It is a world of fairly similar vendors selling fairly similar products. Quite similar to the way shops usually are in specialized shopping centres, they seem to be owned by a key vendors who simply have a plethora of small vendor shops, related to the modules established by the authorities that built the building at its establishment. Out of the similarity, however, you will find that one vendor cares more about his products and you buy from his because his product simply looks better. It's important to take a look around first then choose; eventually, you will train yourself into knowing which product to buy upon first glance. Apparently, the best time to go to the chabra is at 5 or 6 in the morning so that you can catch the latest deliveries from the chilled trucks. Especially in the heat of the summer and its natural ventilation into this chabra space, freshness of the products must always be considered. Professional vendors recommend that all ripened fruit and vegetables should be stored and handled at 4 degrees C until a maximum of two hours before final cooking or eating. Quite honestly, I would not recommend that you buy the eggs that are displayed on the periphery of the jumla section, facing the street, as they are directly exposed to and heated by the intense sunshine. I would hardly assume that these eggs are safe to eat.

One of the first things we noticed was the monopolization of garlic by chinese products. Not only are they dry, but they are also a lot more costly than before. Vendors had heaps of boxes of these sub-standard products. This is worrisome as we have to wonder where all the other choices went. I am afraid that this reduction in quality will become the standard.

Summer fruits were everywhere, mostly from Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. I remember in previous years how we used to get really nice fruit from Iran, including forms of melons that I'd never seen before, to which I still have fond memories. In the picture above, notice the prickly pears, the grapes and the figs. I purchased some of the prickly pears and the figs and I was quite impressed by their quality. However, I have to note that in most of the vendors' displays, much of the fruit was not properly ripened and required further storage until the right time. I assume this is a standard in the "jumla" trade. I will have to investigate the other market, where products are available at much higher per-unit costs, intended for individuals.

These Saudi lemons impressed me because they were rough, unpolished and contained various sizes. To me, this looks like a genuine effort of a natural farm. I appreciate the natural finish of agricultural products - they have let nature take its course and have not tried to industrialize the agricultural process by means of chemicals, waxes and forced growth periods. These sun-flushed lemons will work well, I hope. I was inspired to conduct two tests in the near future on lemons. I hope to collect a sample of at least three or four popular lemons in Kuwait while making lemon sorbet and lemon curd. I will also preserve the lemons, a process that takes 2-3 weeks, which I will document and submit to you upon completion.

As an homage to my previous post, I thought this wall of onions very interesting and combines my two main fields of interest: food and the physical environment.

By the time I came back to the herbs area, most of the vendors had gone to pray and so we decided to curtail our visit and return to investigate them in the future.

The economy of buying bulk vegetables showed its worth as we were leaving. 30 KD worth of vegetables could barely be squeezed into the boot of the car. We thanked the man who rolled around around our purchases as we perused the available products. I subsequently decided to visit a food outlet that contrasts completely with my chabra experience. I spent 37 KD on items that I could carry in one hand, although in 4 paper bags. I asked myself if it was worth it. For the most part, yes. While some vital items can easily be purchased at the chabra, others cannot. I have to indulge myself every once in a while by getting some of my favourite cheeses, breads, condiments and meats. Life is about balance, isn't it?

I must say that I was inspired by my chabra visit. I found some items that will be the subject of discussion and study in the coming month. I will have an updated chabra post this month that will cover the fresh greens - perhaps I will make a nice marag shabzy soon - and a search for better garlic. Although I was surpised and impressed by the chioce of three apparent types of potato, I was expecting more out of my critical discovery of the place.

A typical government-built building from the 70's, I quite like that the design of the shed, which is the literal translation of "chabra," relies on natural lighting and ventilation - the structural beams become light diffusers, bringing a harmonic and socially relevant demarcation of the public space.

Who monitors the products and who demands their quality? Why do I have distinct memories of much better fruit and vegetables in the past? I would like for a group of people to be interesting in raising standards in Kuwait. This really applies to all aspects of civic life in Kuwait, from our streets, the programmatic functioning of space to the food we eat on our tables. I feel as though if we continue to eat chinese garlic and humdrum tomatoes, we will be losing out on the potential of food in the regional market. Also, do we have any kind of independent markets of local farms, like a farmers' market of Kuwait? I am not aware of this, and I was hoping that I would make interesting discoveries at the chabra. But I was slightly disappointed.

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