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Monday, May 2, 2022

Fried foods ! - will Ukraine war change Indian eating habits ?!?

Do you know that all ration card holders receive one litre of palm oil along with their monthly quota of other food commodities !! 

Miles away in the war-torn land – dozens of civilians have been evacuated from Mariupol to both Russia-controlled and Ukraine-controlled territory after weeks under siege. Some have left the Azovstal steelworks, the last hold-out of Ukrainian troops in the strategically significant city. Russia said dozens of civilians have arrived in a village it controls. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said a large group is also on its way to Zaporizhzhia, which Ukraine maintains control of.  In every war, it is the truth that is the first victim ! – the  United Nations confirmed that a "safe passage operation" had begun to evacuate the citizens.

As you go to pantry, the item most sought after is the ‘fried one’ – may be chips, pappads or other items, deep fried.  Anything floating in oil appeals to the taste buds [though most jump to say that they are not good for health !] – in the simplest of cooking process, the method of submerging the food in hot fat, be it in any vegetable oil, or ghee or dalda [so popular earlier and not heard these days at all]. For some, food items, however tasty or well made they be, will not roll down in the mouth unless you have some fried items as accompaniments.    The best oil for deep frying is any oil that has a high smoke point. Oils such as peanut oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil naturally fall in this category.  On a casual talk with a caterer, learnt that they use - ….brand of Rice bran oil !

As the highest ranks of the world’s palm oil industry gathered in a virtual conference recently,  it became clear they were anxious about the same issue: The oil has a severe image problem in India. India, home to more than $5 billion in palm sales a year and the top export market, is no longer enthralled with the oil. Demand, mostly driven by the service sector, has dried up due to the Covid-19 lockdowns, and households just don’t want it.  The hurdle is that palm is viewed as a cheaper, less healthy option, and households prefer oils made from soy, sunflowers and mustard seed. With restaurants, hotels and school cafeterias — the largest buyers — unlikely to return to normalcy any time soon, the industry needs to find a way to change people’s minds.

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the mesocarp (reddish pulp) of the fruit of the oil palms, primarily the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis, and to a lesser extent from the American oil palm Elaeis oleifera and the maripa palm Attalea maripa.  Palm oil is naturally reddish in color because of a high beta-carotene content. Along with coconut oil, palm oil is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats and is semisolid at room temperature.  Palm oil is a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil.  In India, we have a different one – the ‘palmolein’.  The fad for this oil was so high a couple of decades ago, that the Govt. was importing them in bulk tankers and redistributing to households, who were using this oil moving away from dalda vanaspathi, groundnut oil, gingelly oil, bran oil and other cooking oils. Now refined oils like sunflower, olive, safflower, avocado have all taken over.  There were concerns that at any point time, the palmolein available in the market far exceed the quantity of oil that had been importing, hinting that there was heavy adulteration in this brand.

Now read this interesting report in BBC titled – ‘Ukraine war: A wake-up call for India - the world's biggest cooking oil importer’ !  (with a disclaimer, never be under the mistaken impression that what appears in BBC needs to be taken on its face value)

India is the world's second largest consumer and largest importer of cooking oil. Indonesia, the world's biggest producer of palm oil, announced last week that it would halt exports to stabilise spiking prices at home, which it blamed on the war in Ukraine and the pandemic. Cooking oil is an integral part of the Indian diet. So much so that India is the world's second-largest consumer and largest importer of vegetable oils. Some 56% of its requirements are imported from more than seven countries.

Indians mainly cook with palm, soybean and sunflower oils. For palm oil, the country imports 90% of its requirement from Indonesia and Malaysia. Nearly half of that comes from Indonesia alone. If this was not enough, half of India's sunflower oil requirements come from Russia and Ukraine, which account for 80% of global exports. The war in Ukraine is likely to lead to a 25% cut in supplies of sunflower oil in the next fiscal year, according to a report. Palm oil inventories in Malaysia, the second-largest producer, are also tight.  This year, India will end up spending about $20bn (£16bn) in importing cooking oil, double of what it spent two years ago. "No country can depend so much on imports. We are bleeding now. This is a big crisis. We need to learn from this war to reduce our dependence on imports," says BV Mehta, executive director of the Solvent Extractors Association, a vegetable oil trade organisation.

India has cut tariffs on cooking oil to calm prices. But rising prices since 2020 and now the disruption in supplies due to the war in Ukraine have made things difficult. There has been a more than 300% rise in two years in global prices of palm oil - the cheapest oil preferred by Indian households, hotels, restaurants and bakeries. Not surprisingly, cooking oil prices have surged more than 20% in less than a month. There have been reports of people stocking up on supplies. Much of the country's fabled cheap street food is deep fried in oil. Along with rice, wheat and salt, cooking oil is a staple for the poorest Indians. "The rise in cooking oil prices is definitely hurting," a food official is quoted as saying.

It also easily fuels food inflation, which hit a 16-month-high of 7.68% in March. Di Yang, a food economist with UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (UNFAO), says that if prices continue to hover around such high levels, India might need to ration supplies as "there is almost no alternative to compensate for import shortages in the short term".  To partially compensate for the shortages, India is pinning its hopes on a good crop of mustard and soybean this year. But palm is also a water guzzling crop, and new plantations will require slashing down of vast swathes of forests. The government has proposed that a third of the new oil palm plantations can come up in India's hilly-north east.

Traditionally, Indians have cooked with aromatic and strongly flavoured oils like mustard, groundnut, coconut and sesame depending on which part of the country they lived in. The move to foreign vegetable and seed oils like palm and sunflower has possibly something to do with rising urbanisation and cosmopolitanism.  Many believe that with more people moving into cities - and migrating within the country - a lot of urban cooking is done with colourless and odourless oils like palm and sunflower to make the food friendly for families and guests with different regional palettes.

The BBC report tries to picture a gloomy situation of price-rise and problems and that oils would hurt India – it projects as if it would impact cooking practices and   could even nudge people to use cooking oil wisely !! – but most of these would remain on elite media, not understood and not impacting common man.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
2nd May 2o22.

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