Lentils, those tiny, dry lens-shaped seeds, seem an unlikely cause for an international uproar. But for America's 2-million East Indians, there's a lentil emergency brewing.
Most Indians eat lentils -- or daal -- every day. Loaded with protein, they're used in everything from porridge to soup and spicy side dishes. But now, the usually packed lentil shelves in Indian grocery stores are bare. Here at Dana Bazar, a busy Indian grocery in Fremont, California, customers are desperate for daal.
"We drove all the way here, then we find out that they are not going to let us have the daal," complains one woman. "It is kind of an integral part of life, I mean every day we need it," explains another customer. "Not a single pack left," marvels another woman. "How come we don't have daal?"
The answer to that question has to do with the global economy, and rising inflation in India - the world's prime source of daal. The government feared lentils might get so expensive that Indians couldn't afford it. So, to ensure an adequate - and affordable - supply for the domestic market, the government banned all exports of daal in June.
"India is trying to contain inflation in India, but at the same time it has created inflation outside of India," explains Neil Soni. His House of Spices in New York distributes Indian daal to more than 2,000 American stores. "The price of daals in the U.S. market has tripled. Indians living abroad are at the mercy of the Indian government."
Most Indians in the United States can afford higher-priced daal. The problem is, they can't get it. "Because I am not getting enough supply of the toor daal from the distributor," says grocery store manager Nilesh Dalal, gesturing at his empty shelves, "that's why I am restricting the supply to only one package per customer."
The daily appetite for daal is apparent at the nearby Udupi Palace restaurant. Inside the desert-hot kitchen, cook Jai Ganesh stirs a huge pot of sambar. It's a thick soup made from toor daal, vegetables, ginger, chili, and coriander. The 350-liter pot holds a one-day supply for a small Indian restaurant.
Ganesh, who is hoarding daal in a back room, fears even his stash will run out. So importers like Neil Soni are searching the whole world for daal. "We are securing supply lines from Malawi, Kenya, Turkey, Canada, Burma, Pakistan and Australia," he says.
Indians who complain of a 'daal crisis' get no sympathy from Ashfaq Swapan, a reporter for India West magazine, who points out that price increases in India could mean starvation for millions of people. "The funny thing about it is, it isn't really a crisis - and then it is. It's not life threatening by any stretch of the imagination, but on the other hand it gives you a little understanding of how these cultural issues of food or lifestyle have become so important."
India's ban on lentil exports will continue until next April. Swapan notes that the ban affects 2-million Indian expatriates in the U.S. and another 18-million in Central Asia, Canada, Australia, Africa, Europe and Great Britain. In fact, says Swapan, go anywhere in the world and you'd be hard pressed not to find Indians who are hungry for daal.