Size and price matters... especially when it comes to onions
‘Give me one kilo of small big onions and half a kilo of big small onions,’ I said at the vegetable shop. The attendant looked baffled and turned to my husband for clarification. As is his wont on such occasions, my husband temporarily disowned me, turning his attention studiously to a huge brinjal that he had randomly picked up, and began to subject it to an intense philosophical examination.
Drawing a blank there, the attendant turned quizzically back to me. Action often speaks better than words. I swiftly went to the baskets with onions in conical heaps and sorted out the smallest among the large onions, and the biggest among the small variety, making myself clear to the meanest intelligence. Now he understood, and weighed and billed them. What he didn’t understand was that size and quantity matter, especially when it comes to onions.
No vegetable has hogged newspaper headlines and media attention, generated debates, influenced vote banks and toppled governments as the now no-longer-humble onion has. It has certainly brought all Indians together in a rare manifestation of solidarity and ...er...reduced them to tears. All right, I know I’m guilty of using a grossly overworked expression, and am sorry, but I can’t help it; it serves the purpose so well.
How has the onion, dear to everybody’s plates and palates, become so dear? Well, not everybody’s. There are groups that have steadfastly avoided the onion family for religious or pacifistic reasons – the Jains, for instance, who rigidly adhere to low impact living ethos and also, like certain other groups, consider it ‘tamasic’ food, that is, food believed to have the characteristics of darkness, apathy and a fetid smell. Whatever the reason, hats off to them for this farsighted decision that has left them totally unaffected by the hue and cry (yes, again!) prompted by rising onion prices in modern India.
The onion boasts an ancient history that has its roots in Asia about 5000 BCE when it grew in the wild everywhere. Ah, if only it had continued to do so! It appeared as a cultivated variety in Egypt in 3000 BCE and credit is due to the Egyptians for not having dismissed it as just another vegetable that adds to the flavour of the table. They believed its spherical shape and concentric rings were symbols of eternity and showed great prescience in realising that it was worth its weight in gold. It was the only vegetable whose image was created out of gold by their artisans.
Its special medicinal properties came to be recognised, leading to ancient Greek athletes consuming huge quantities of it and Roman gladiators being rubbed down with its juice. Though it is nowhere specifically mentioned, one must not discount the overpowering role the distinctive odour of the onion must have played in the victories of these athletes and gladiators. It steadily pushed its way up the gastronomical ladder to become a compulsory ingredient in dishes the world over. And when it was discovered to be a powerful antioxidant, it gained renown for its health enhancing quality too.
With such an impressive history, this ‘humble’ vegetable deserves to have leapfrogged from being just an essential part of the diet to becoming a prime factor in shifting the balance of political power. India is its second largest producer and exports it too. So when its demand-supply balance goes haywire causing prices to spiral alarmingly, it is obvious that something is rotten in the country of the onion. Excess rainfall in Maharashtra, the onion basket of India, hoarding by unscrupulous dealers and spoilage thanks to inadequate storage facilities are cited as reasons for the scarcity.
Now lorries carrying onions are being hijacked, onions are being offered as attractive freebies, chief guests are presented with baskets of onions instead of flowers, onions are said to have entered the lists of dowry items, bags of onions are being offered as bribes in our land of corruption, and, if stories are to be believed, they are even being stored in bank deposit vaults. Chefs are using their inventiveness to come up with unique onion-free preparations.
But try telling all this to the Indian housewife, oops, sorry, homemaker, who is only concerned about how best to stretch the few onions at her disposal and ensure that they appear, frugally at least, in the dishes she prepares. Off I go now to prepare a curry with one small big onion and season it with one big small onion. Ration the onions!