WORLD IN AN ONION

So, I’ve been back in the US now for roughly four weeks, with several more to go before returning to India for a year.  I’m seeing things differently, with the new perspective afforded by the five month stay just completed.

Take the humble onion.  Onions are everywhere, and just about every really tasty recipe in just about every food tradition starts out with “take an onion…”

Onions in Pune are small and red-skinned, with white flesh. If you find one the size of a billiard ball, you’ve found a giant. They’re neither as sharp nor as sweet as selected varieties here. But they’re very tasty.  And it doesn’t matter where you shop for onions.  The same variety is available everywhere, from the most exclusive supermarkets catering to the well-heeled elite, to the smallest street vendor’s basket.  I’ve also seen the same variety, picked when the bulbs are barely there (but larger than scallions here), and sold as spring onions. Now to be fair, there may be more available after monsoon season, and what I saw may be just the tail end of the agricultural year.

In contrast, I counted the variety of onions available in our local supermarket here in Arlington, Massachusetts.  It’s a plain old supermarket in a standard suburban area, and not a fancy gourmet store.  There are plain yellow keeper onions, big white Spanish onions, huge red sweet onions, Vidalias, tiny white boiling onions, the small, ovoid yellow Cipollinis, Bermuda onions, ordinary white onions, scallions/spring onions, shallots, and leeks.  Plus several of these varieties are also available as “organically grown.”  Counting the organics, that’s about 15 separate and distinct onion types, for sale side by side.

One or two of these might be considered local.  The Pine Island area of New York near Hudson Valley is still considered a major onion growing area, but by and large – this embarrassment of onion riches is trucked here from all over the country, and some of it is even imported from Mexico, or even flown in from South America or Europe.  That means there’s a huge perishable-goods transport and storage network, enabled by cheap shipping, and established distribution channels.

India is evolving very rapidly, but it still has a long way to go before it can match the infrastructure required to support this variety.  Produce there is local.  Intercity roads and trains exist, but what’s there isn’t sufficient for major distance transport of perishables.  Even the sturdy onion.

For example, Mumbai and Pune are major cities, about 95 miles apart – about six miles closer together than Boston and Hartford, CT.  Googlemaps shows the travel time between Boston and Hartford as being about 1 hour, 45 min.  Having done this trek many times, I know it’s 4-6 lane interstate highways all the way, and (unless it’s rush hour) most folk exceed the mostly 65mph speed limit where they can.

The road from Pune to Mumbai is well traveled, and is considered a major toll highway.  It’s 2-4 lanes throughout, with some interchange areas a bit wider, and for India is pretty uniformly paved.  It twists and winds a good bit, ascending up steep hills, and goes through several rock-cut tunnels.  However, traffic moves extremely slowly, even on this best-of-roads. Traffic moves slowly, winding around lumbering trucks, three-wheeled goods transporters (Tempos), and a sea of two-wheeled vehicles.  On parts there are even local three wheeled taxis and animal carts, although other parts of the highway are restricted. Googlemaps says that it should take about 2 hours and 25 minutes.  However cars even in uncrowded times would be lucky to 80kph (about 50mph), tops, and that only on the few straight sections with good visibility, if no slowly lumbering trucks are around.  The trip rarely takes less than three hours, and often significantly longer, with mammoth multi-mile traffic jams of the type seen in the US mostly on holiday weekends being the daily norm.

Now, if travel on this best of highways is “twice as far” in terms of travel time compared to US roads, you can begin to see the logistics challenge.  Add to that the high cost of fuel, the lack of refrigerated trucks, the average size of a farm’s plot being something smaller than a third of a football field, lack of distribution centers, and the challenges really pile up.  For a supermarket just to obtain onions in a quantity sufficient for its sales, it would have to deal with a middleman who collected produce from several smallhold farmers.  Then the goods would have to make their way over land to the city.  Slowly.  So it’s no wonder that eating in India is a localvore’s experience, that produce is only available in season, and that varieties are limited.

I’m sure that there are other cross-cultural lessons to be learned by peeling back the layers of this onion – land ownership and transfer, relationships between agricultural and urban areas, the economics of small vs. large scale farming, how limited transportation on the part of consumers shapes retail buying, and the like.  But for now, I look at the wealth of onions and marvel at the profligacy and indulgence, and have a First-World Guilt moment as I mince my way through some while cooking dinner.

One response

  1. Fascinating! We’ve got a new TV series I’m Canada called “Don’t Drive Here”. I believe they showed Pune to Mumbai in the first episode. Scary!! The number of road deaths in Mumbai every day was terrifying! Hadn’t really thought of how all that affects retail. Also, I used to live near an area of Ontario known for it’s onion farms. You could drive down the highway and smell the onions with your windows rolled up!

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