As a daughter of refugee parents – both my parents moved from East to West Bengal following the partition of India – there are certain staple refugee romanticisms we grew up on since childhood. One of those stories was about their staple diet, panta bhaat. We were told how people in East Bengal ate panta bhaat every single morning for breakfast. Panta bhaat is leftover rice which is soaked in water overnight to ferment. It was considered a delicacy. Panta bhaat was to the East Bengali, what caviar is to Russians. The fermented rice was eaten in the morning with a huge slice of onion and a piece of green chilli. If the catch of the day had arrived by the morning, then some fish or fish egg was quickly fried in smoking mustard oil in a huge iron kadhai and added as an extra treat with the panta bhaat!
They say that something in your DNA pulls you to your ancestor’s diet. In fact, they say that the best diet to have is the one which your ancestors ate. Personally, panta bhaat has always been a big favourite of mine since childhood. I love to both eat and tell panta bhaat stories to people (as I am doing right now to you!) And as a fan of panta bhaat I will tell you one thing. You cannot eat this fermented rice without onions. Don’t even try. Don’t listen to what the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman patronisingly declares in Parliament in her broken Hindi – “I and my family don’t eat onions or garlic”. No one asked her what she ate – she was asked about the onion crisis in the country. One thing you do not do as a person in high office is to place your personal onions on the table.
And if you do then you open yourself to trolls who then liken you to Marie Antoinette who infamously said – “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake”. Sitaraman didn’t even notionally offer us a substitute vegetable. She seemed to cynically suggest – just give up your onion! “Give up this, give up that” has anyways been a favourite slogan of her party. She was merely parroting the same tune. Little did she know how the netizens would come after her. After all, women politicians and women journalists are all low hanging onions for social media trolls. So no surprises at how she is being trolled. And no sympathies either from me this time on account of the trolling – after all, she snatched away my onion from my panta bhaat.
If Indians are being shown on television in near stampede situations trying to get their hands on some affordable onions, the onion debris has also fallen on our landlocked neighbour- Nepal. In Kathmandu Valley onions were selling for ₹250 this week, thereby popping this vegetable onto the headlines in their leading dailies. Residents in the valley said that Nepal was not receiving onions from India due to the shortage in India. Instead, they were getting their onions from China. “The onion from China is big but tasteless,” said my cab driver Jeebon Shrestha. Both of us shed big South Asian tears about being deprived of our favourite crunchy Indian onions. He also added that the story was the same with apples. Nepal had not received its apple stocks from Kashmir due to the ongoing lockdown and was having to eat outsized Chinese apples. “The Chinese apples were completely tasteless- we like our apples from Kashmir,” Shrestha complained. Anyway, the apple story was just an aside and we will not deviate from our dish at hand – onions.
There is also ample evidence that no one should scorn at onions. Standard textbooks will tell us that onions may be one of the earliest cultivated crops because they were less perishable than other foods of the time. They were transportable, easy to grow, and could be grown in a variety of soils and climates. In addition, the onion was useful for sustaining human life. Onions prevented thirst and could be dried and preserved for consumption later when food might be scarce. Onions are a known dietary source of fibre, vitamin C, vitamin B, and calcium.
It is common genetic knowledge that onions have 12 times as much DNA as a human – hence technically it’s a much more complex organism. Onions also contain flavonoids, namely anthocyanin, and quercetin that have potential anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anticancer and antioxidant properties. Onions contain a variety of compounds that have health benefits. Fructo-oligosaccharides, for example, stimulate the growth of bifidobacteria which suppresses the growth of potentially harmful bacteria in the colon. Eating onions has also been linked with a reduced risk of stomach cancer and flavonoids in onions can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of blood clots formation. Some studies have even shown improved lung function in asthmatics who consume lots of onions.
I could go on expanding on the medically beneficial qualities of onions. But I will stop.
Even as I write this piece, television anchors deprived of their onions are breaking news that India is importing onions from Egypt, the land of pyramids which will be bought for ₹50 and sold at ₹65 to deal with this “onion emergency”.
Frankly, I don’t care where they source their onions from. I want my onions back on my plate and the plate of all my south Asian citizens so we can all have our panta bhaat, onion soup, biriyani, onion do pyajaa, onion bhajjis, onion ring pakoras …the list of onion indispensable dishes can run into pages.
(The author is a senior journalist and documentary filmmaker and if you still didn’t get it –she is an onion fanatic)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)