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The Great Indian Curry Crisis–Onion Drama Unfolds

Onion rings – accompaniment to kebabs and curries Onion rings – accompaniment to kebabs and curries

Crisis and drama grips the Indian vegetable market as the price of onions keeps moving northward.  Due to a sharp decrease in supply from last fall, prices have shot through the ceiling reaching astronomical levels ($2 per kg.). A perplexed nation woke up to a staggering 70 to 80 % hike in onion prices. “It has become as costly as gas and is slowly becoming unaffordable,” complains a local resident. There is huge panic in the air and teary eyed Indians are stocking up in fear of further price hikes and an uncertain supply of this pungent bulb. The formidable thought of a meal without the staple ingredient – onion, is daunting India. As the onion drama unfolds, there are huge protests in the streets, threatening the future of the current government.

By Paromita Hui

Crisis and drama grips the Indian vegetable market as the price of onions keeps moving northward.  Due to a sharp decrease in supply from last fall, prices have shot through the ceiling reaching astronomical levels ($2 per kg.). A perplexed nation woke up to a staggering 70 to 80 % hike in onion prices. “It has become as costly as gas and is slowly becoming unaffordable,” complains a local resident. There is huge panic in the air and teary eyed Indians are stocking up in fear of further price hikes and an uncertain supply of this pungent bulb. The formidable thought of a meal without the staple ingredient – onion, is daunting India. As the onion drama unfolds, there are huge protests in the streets, threatening the future of the current government.

It is indeed difficult to believe that onions can cause such a furor. So much uproar merely for this humble bulb called ‘Onion’? ”I am sure nobody is going to die without onions,” claims a stock broker from London. Most people across the world fail to comprehend the Indian sentiments associated with this inextricable part of India’s culinary heritage.

So what makes onion so indispensable? Well, Indians just simply love onions. This ubiquitous ingredient which no Indian kitchen can do without is consumed in myriad forms – as puree in Indian curries, deep fried as pakodas or fritters or rings, raw as salad. Onion, along with ginger and garlic, is a part of the trio which forms the pungent base of most Indian curries.  It gives a crunch to both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes and enhances the tangy flavor of curries. Onion gets the tag of being the most egalitarian of all vegetables; forming an integral part of the Indian diet for rich as well as poor.

This onion shortage started around December last year and still continues to haunt Indians. Unseasonal rains across the country propagated a particular variant of fungus which ruined the onion bulbs at the time of harvest. Delayed monsoon and heavy rainfall in November has badly damaged 80% of the onion crop.  This changing rainfall pattern and shifting climate is an indicator of a bigger issue looming our eco system and is part of a climatic change that is sweeping the globe. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has already predicted that we might start experiencing this type of climatic shifts and extreme weather conditions more frequently. The impact of these changing environmental conditions will be quite intense, resulting in turbulent food prices.

Is shifting climate the sole culprit for the exorbitant price rise or are there other hidden factors contributing to this? The contemplations and the blame game continue.  A fretting Indian government is working hard to contain the prices and bring down the food price inflation which has touched record levels.  Local media is also talking about cartels formed among vegetable traders who are artificially augmenting the shortage and inflating the prices to unrealistic levels. As inflation levels surge up, they have wider ramifications impacting the Indian stock market and undermining the Indian economic growth story. The government has banned exports, cut down import duties on vegetables and is busy exploring measures to bring down prices.

As the curry crisis continues, the repercussions are felt far and wide. Restaurateurs are not spared either, as surging prices of one of their key ingredients are eating into their profit margins. They are looking for suitable replacements. Many chefs are switching to pumpkin, a humble vegetable which has remained immune from the food inflation and are contemplating using pumpkin puree in place of onion puree in curries. It is observed that many Indian restaurants are also cutting down on onion pickles and raw onion salads which came as accompaniments with kebabs and curries. A distinguished chef reacting to a similar situation in Britain a few years ago  has advised,  “There's no perfect substitute - shallots are the nearest to being adequate, followed by spring onions - which are a good stand-by (and sometimes an improvement) where raw onions are needed. Leeks will do, but they have a pronounced and distinctive flavor of their own.” "You can use leeks in salad as an alternative, but if you need onions to brown - as in a curry - then they would not be of any use,” advises another chef from an upscale Bombay restaurant.

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Indians cope with the onion crisis
Last modified on Wednesday, 03 October 2012 16:11

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