Why Malayali expats stuff their suitcases with onions while returning to UAE?

Raw Indian onions
Raw Indian onions. Photo: iStock/Kailash Kumar

The Center’s decision to curb the export of rice and onions is a cause for concern for Gulf-based expatriates from Kerala. Undoubtedly, rice is the staple food of Malayalis as it is an inevitable part of the diverse cuisine of Kerala. Taking into consideration the Keralites’ strong sentiments towards rice, the Central government acted swiftly to lift the ban to ensure uninterrupted flow of rice to the UAE. But many Malayali expatriates in the Gulf countries had been hard hit by the onion export ban.

The Keralites living in the Gulf countries had to burn holes in their pockets as they replaced the Indian onions with the costlier ones from Egypt, Thailand and Turkey. A life without onions is inconceivable for many a Malayali as many dishes start and end with onions. Neatly chopped onions are sautéed with ginger, garlic, turmeric powder, coriander powder, chilly powder and salt as a precursor to making most of the delectable dishes. Onions cannot be avoided at any cost while preparing masalas for curries and other tangy food items.

Photo: Shutterstock/Melica

Besides the high cost, what’s working against the onions from Turkey, Thailand and Egypt is the fact that they don’t sauté well like the Indian onions. The Malayalis in the Gulf found the Turkey, Thailand and Egypt onions not suiting the demands of the Kerala cuisine. The restaurants serving yummy Kozhikode biriyanis couldn’t satisfy the palates of their regular customers for the simple reason that the onion bulbs were found wanting. It goes with saying that the flavourful taste of the biriyanis rides on the infinitesimal sweetness provided by the onions.

Pakistan brought the much-needed relief, albeit temporary, to Indian expatriates who were reeling under shortage of onions. Onions from Pakistan blended well with Indian cuisines, may be because of its close geographical proximity with India. It may be noted that the Center had imposed ban on export of rice and onion to ensure price stability in the domestic market.

Meanwhile, interestingly, some people literally threw the onion export ban order to the winds and started “smuggling onions”. The culprits were the expatriates returning from Kerala after vacation who could not shrug off the urge to buy onion, which has become a premium commodity in the Gulf countries, with a price tag of just Rs 25 per kg. Some even stuffed their suitcases full of Indian onions while travelling to UAE, due to the nightmaring experience of having to buy Turkey onions for 12 dirhams (Rs 265) per kg. The bag compartments, which were earlier occupied by dry coconut chutney and banana chips, had been taken over by Indian onions.

Bringing cheer to the onion-starved Malayali community in West Asia, the Central government had given the nod to export 14,000 tonnes of onion last month and 10,000 tonnes of onion this month to the UAE.  

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