Sun, Dec 26, 2010 - Page 11 News List

Onions, coconuts and the politics of taste

While no one is likely to starve from a shortage of a few key ingredients, politicians guard against people having to pay more to keep their food tasting the same

By Giles Hewitt  /  AFP, NEW DELHI

A shopper selects onions at a vegetable market on Thursday in Siliguri, India. A shortage of onions in India is posing a serious challenge to the government.

PHOTO: AFP

Food and politics have always been closely intertwined in the developing countries of South Asia, but when national taste buds are at stake the relationship can become especially volatile.

A shortage of onions in India, a dearth of coconuts in Sri Lanka and the soaring price of cooking oil in Bangladesh are posing a serious challenge to the governments of all three countries.

The issue is more cultural than nutritional.

Nobody’s going to starve in India because of an onion shortage, but their food is either going to taste different or it’s going to cost them more to keep it tasting the same — and that makes a lot of people unhappy.

INDIA

Onions are considered an indispensable ingredient of most Indian cooking, providing — together with garlic and ginger — the pungent foundation for a thousand different curries and other dishes.

Similarly, the coconut — both its flesh and milk — is what gives Sri Lankan cuisine its unique flavor, tempering spices and enriching sauces.

The current “onion crisis” in India has seen prices triple to nearly 80 rupees (US$1.78) per kilogram, triggering allegations of hoarding, official incompetence and price-ramping by traders.

The humble onion has a surprisingly weighty track record of political influence.

In January 1980, Indira Gandhi exploited rising onion prices to storm back to power, appearing at campaign rallies waving huge strings of them with the message that a government that can’t control onion costs has no right to govern.

And in 1998, a six-fold surge in the cost of onions was held partly responsible for the electoral defeat of the ruling Delhi state government.

Already under pressure over food inflation and wary of historical precedent, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has stepped in forcefully, banning onion exports, scrapping import taxes and even trucking in onions from arch-rival Pakistan.

However, shoppers at a vegetable market in south Delhi, like Avinash Sangar who has been forced to halve his weekly onion purchase, were still furious.

“Of course it makes me angry, but what can I do about it? What can anyone do about it,” Sangar said.

Suman Gupta, a housewife living in an up-market Delhi neighborhood, was also cutting back.

“But you have to have some onions and tomatoes, otherwise the food becomes tasteless,” Gupta said.

“If we are feeling the pinch, imagine the lower classes. They will have to eat their chapatis with salt and green chilies, that’s all. It’s very difficult,” she added.

In the meantime, the Times of India is running tips from five-star hotel chefs on cooking onionless curries, and an enterprising tire trader in Jharkand state is offering free onions with every purchase (5kg for a truck tire, 1kg for a car tire).

SRI LANKA

In Sri Lanka, the government has also been forced to step in to alleviate a severe coconut shortage, banning the felling of coconut palms and, for the first time, arranging nut imports from India and Malaysia.

Coconuts are as indispensable to Sri Lanka’s national cuisine as onions are to India’s and shortages can have a similarly dramatic political impact.

In 1977, a leftist coalition government was voted out amid public anger at soaring food prices. The cost of coconuts had become so high that traders would often crack a nut and sell the two halves separately.

Last week, the government set a ceiling retail price of 30 rupees (US$0.27) per coconut in a network of state-owned stores, but stocks quickly sold out and then reappeared at more than double the price on the black market.

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