My empire for an onion

Thus was born dopiaza, literally onion twice over, a dish cooked in onion sauce that remains immensely popular to this day and has been successfully transplanted to Britain as well.

Except, if you wanted to cook it today, you might once again wish to seek royal patronage (or settle for a recipe that required no onion). With the vegetable selling at Rs 85 a kilo, up from Rs 10 six months back, the staple of the average Indian household has gone extortionate.

The onion is rather ubiquitous in Indian food. Roughly chopped, it is an essential accompaniment to the sparse meal of the poor, while its braised, pureed, sauteed and garnished avatars surface in the meals of all others. Muthi piaz — onion smashed with a fist — is de rigueur at roadside eateries throughout the country, and sirkawala piaz — onions in vinegar — are as essential to any table as salt and pepper.

Mythology

So integral is the onion to the Indian way of life that it has its own mythology. Ayurveda claims onion is diuretic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and anti-pigmentationary. Highly regarded as an aphrodisiac in ancient India, it was banned to widows.

In the sizzling heat of the subcontinent, the onion is called upon for its cooling properties. This was brought to me forcefully when I began my sales training in the plains of Central India in summer when the average day temperature is 45 degree centigrade, fuelled by a hot tropical wind called Loo. Since my work required me to visit 40 grocery stores in one day, I was advised to keep an onion with me, preferably on my person, or in my sales satchel.

By way of explanation, my supervisor showed me his bag, where an onion sat shrivelling in one corner. He made his point further by requesting a labourer to allow me a peek at the folds of his turban — sure enough, tucked within was a red onion.

Legends have grown around the pungent bulb. Shivaji was reputed to eat a lean diet of unleavened bread with raw onions, as opposed to the effete Mughals, who gorged on twice-cooked onion dishes.

To add to the woes of the Mughals, Baba Buddha, when served a simple meal by the wife of a Sikh guru, smashed the onion and predicted that her son would one day similarly crush the tyranny of the empire. Obviously, the humble vegetable is an underdog’s ally.

For the runaway price of onions today, the government has blamed heavy unseasonal rains, but poor agricultural productivity, lack of adequate infrastructure for storage and transport, and deficient government investment are equally to blame.

So what is the average Indian to do? Use cabbage and radish as substitute. And protest. Effigies of the agriculture minister have been burnt. Opposition leaders adorned with onion garlands have held rallies.

A novel protest had Santa Claus handing out onions on Christmas eve. Meanwhile, enterprising businessmen are giving free onions with the purchase of televisions, cars, motorcycles and tyres.

Rising onion prices have historically felled governments. In 1980, Indira Gandhi ousted the ruling government by appearing at election rallies with strings of onions. The message was clear: If you can’t manage the price of onions, how do you manage the country? A recent poll showed that the Congress party would lose its parliamentary majority were an election to be held now.

The government has banned export of onions, turned to Pakistan for imports, and the prime minister has held cabinet meetings on the issue. Pakistan complied briefly before turning hostile, and now India is threatening in turn to halt cement exports.

It was always understood that you could knock next door for a bowl of sugar, some salt, an onion. With the current price of the vegetable, that would be akin to asking the neighbour for their family jewels. No wonder Pakistan is not responding.

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