Meet the Greengrocer

Mr. Imtiaz is our neighbour. He is also our greengrocer. Officially he’s from Pakistan, but in practice he’s from Kashmir, that conflict-torn, push-me-pull-you Shangri-La floating between Pakistan and India (why do some of the ugliest fights in the world rage in some of the most beautiful places?).
Veggiestan is thus his home, in every sense.
As Mr. Imtiaz has been in the UK since the 70s, he is as Westernised as the next greengrocer, although laments the fact that he cannot speak Kashmiri (the language of his shop and his home is Urdu, although he is also admirably fluent in West Indian Pidgin). Whilst it is true that passions still run high in the valleys of Kashmir, as the greengrocer and I chat, I can’t help feeling that we are talking about a land that is already largely lost. Fortunately the cuisine and the culture are well-entrenched in the region: Kashmir has an astonishing number of writers and poets (think bulbuls and fountains and valleys and lost love: “Like walls of white marble/The mountain peaks enclose/A sunny space of emerald green/A garden is our land…” (Mahjoor) I had to keep reminding myself I was writing a recipe book).
Anyway, he has had his shop, Zara’s Tropical Foods, in Peckham for eleven years now; prior to that he ran another fruit and veg shop in Catford. He has raised the business of customer relations to an art form, switching dialects and style of patter without drawing breath, lobbing in a sprig of free this and a bunch of free that to keep us all sweet. A complaint is answered with a smile: at Zara’s the customer is always king. You want a case of white aubergines for tomorrow? No problem. Want to know which the best yam is for baking? Sorted. Which is why his long, narrow shop is always thronging with people. Most importantly as far as the book is concerned, he is an encyclopaedia of weird vegetable knowledge.
The reason we are meeting him is that I am in awe of the nation’s greengrocers. They work jolly hard. Mr. Imtiaz goes to market himself about three times a week (the rest of the week his veg is delivered): usually New Covent Garden because it offers the best variety, but occasionally Spitalfields because it is nicer and cheaper. This involves a lot of determination, a 4 o’clock start, an eye for what’s good, a very thick skin and an even thicker coat. His shop is open from 7am ish til 7pm ish 7 days a week – and although his son helps out, Mr. Imtiaz is never very far away. And that is because if he gets it just a little bit wrong his business would be up the spout in no time. It’s all so very perishable. What do you do with your sub-standard veg? Your two day old tomatoes? Your wilted greens? We import fruit on a relatively limited basis and even that is nail-biting: I do know how heart-breaking it is to have to throw lovingly sourced produce away. You’ve got to be some sort of genius to run a veg shop, I tell you.
So next time you see your greengrocer, give him a high five. Talk to him: even if you don’t want to know his life history, at the very least he will be full of valuable veggie lore and recipes. And more importantly, try to give him more of your business.

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4 Responses to Meet the Greengrocer

  1. Helen says:

    Goodness me I need to a) go and b) add his shop to my Peckham food map. Is it right by the shop? I know you said he’s your neighbour but I just can’t visualise where he is.

  2. Sally says:

    Hey Helen.
    His shop is Zara’s Tropical Foods, and it is just round the corner from Rye Lane. About 50m from our shop.
    He really is very helpful :)

  3. Pingback: Sweet and Sour Baked White Aubergines | Veggiestan

  4. Pingback: Cho Cho: A Guest Vegetable Post from Peckhamistan | Veggiestan

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