Onions are so dear, that you will shed many a tear. But what about the humble daal? Don’t choke on what we are about to say
Decades of travel by road and rail all over India have taught me many things-one of which is that it is always safer, better, cheaper and cleaner to survive on fresh vegetarian food.
Boiled eggs in shells may be an exemption to this rule. But here too, it is advisable to look for shops selling fresh eggs. That's about it-and to take it one step further, the safest and easily available option, which is clean and healthy, is steamed rice, freshly-cooked boiling hot daal-and onions.
This meal has worked well for me all over the Subcontinent, even at locations as diverse as Chittagong, Lahore and Rohtang Pass.
Of course, there are dhabas peppered all over India-the meals served there are not cooked in animal fat.
At your normal eateries, onions are now grudgingly offered-and sometimes at an extra price. Lentils, daal and pulses of all sorts, which were not too many decades ago offered as part of a "buy-the-roti-and-get-the-daal-free" deal, have acquired a price point of their own.
The costliest of all roadside daal is often one that has had the prefix 'Bukhara' added to it... for no fault of its own. And at the bottom of the heap used to be what were called "dun peas", simply boiled in water with or without a pressure cooker, salt to taste and off you go.
The history of dun peas in India is in itself very interesting. While some variety or the other was always available locally, they weren't really consumed in bulk, until the first shiploads started arriving in India sometime in the late 1970s.
Wheat imports had almost ceased, the Green Revolution was in full swing, but suddenly there was a huge shortage of lentils and pulses in India. This, incidentally, was also around the time the price of daal (as an extra) stopped being an issue when truck drivers and others went to eat at dhabas.
The rest of the country had not really discovered the concept of eating out all that much, leave alone drive out of the city to a dhaba, just to eat. And when they did go out to eat, it wasn't for daal-Bukhara as something other than a Central Asian city had not been invented as yet, while Moti Mahal was all about tandoori chicken.
So anyways, along came these shiploads of dun peas, landed cost close to nothing-because most of the varieties imported were of the high-protein type, also used as superior feeding material for animals.
The Internet not being what it is now in those days, and free daal at dhabas being more important, it was just a matter of time before word was out-here was a superior imported dried kind of "pea" (mattar).
And it didn't cost too much either.
Today, India is the largest importer of all kinds of lentils, pulses, daal-and dun peas-from Australia.
At one of those many commercial parties in Delhi thrown by diplomats of assorted hues and leanings-selling everything from luxury cars to better bars-I was sharing table space with an Australian. The conversation was all about how India could not get enough of the basic daal from Down Under-and how the trade was set to grow, simply because it was cheaper to grow and then transport shiploads to India, than to grow it locally in our country.
Of course, the banter was followed by an impressive folder-with a lot of pretty photos and many fancy numbers.
So, with some more research, with the kind courtesy of the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, here are some numbers to enliven the issue of your daily daal chawal, and the now almost-absent onion:
That's not all. To add to these problems, large parts of agricultural Australia are currently under water, causing major problems as well as price hikes locally. This will in turn impact export subsidies, as Australians also consume large amounts of pulses-albeit for their livestock.
So are we going to see the next price hike, after onions, on daal? Chances are that we just might, and as a result, importers seem to be scrambling to cover the odds-by bringing in more from China and Myanmar.
What will we eat on our highways, then, next? One answer is already visible in the by-lanes and alleyways of urban Delhi-a plate of rajma daal chawal is now at almost the same price as a plate of paneer curry chawal and chicken curry chawal. But your dish will come to you sans onions-you will get radishes instead.
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