Onions, coconuts and the politics of taste in S.Asia

NEW DELHI, December 24, 2010 (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 currently 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.

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 flavour, tempering spices and enriching sauces.

The current “onion crisis” in India has seen prices triple to nearly 80 rupees a kilogramme (88 cents a pound), triggering allegations of hoarding, official incompetence and price-ram