“You live only once. I don’t mind paying more or travelling to find the ingredients, but I cannot afford not to have the food I enjoy,” says Sandeep Singh, 34, who works in a clothing store on London’s Southall Broadway.
For many Indians in the UK, the most visceral link to home is found at the dinner table. In dishes prepared to family recipes with familiar vegetables and spices imported from the subcontinent, the Indian diaspora finds a sense of comfort and nostalgia in food.
With a current shortage of food, major supermarket chains like ASDA, Lidl and Tesco are unable to keep up with the demand, hence imposing restrictions on the number of each product that can be purchased at one time.
Why Are Fruits & Vegetables Missing From The Supermarket Shelves?
Over the past few weeks, the shortage felt in the UK has impacted out-of-season vegetables grown and imported from sunnier climes during the harsh winter months.
According to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), “current issues relating to the availability of certain fruits and vegetables were predominately caused by poor weather in Spain and North Africa where they are produced.”
This has meant that salad crops like tomatoes, onions, peppers and cucumbers, as well as broccoli and citrus fruits, grown mainly for the UK market in Morocco and Spain, have been in limited supply in the supermarkets, with independent grocers charging far higher prices for once-common produce that has become increasingly scarce over the past few weeks.
Mohinder Singh, 65, who operates the vegetable stall outside the Quality Foods independent supermarket in Southall, was shocked to discover the sharp spike in prices of certain produce: “Tomatoes used to be 99p for 1kg, now it is £2.99 for the same amount.” Whilst Mohinder Singh has not seen a shortage of people coming to the store, he has noticed that those coming are buying less.
“We used to sell coriander at three bunches for £1. Now one bunch alone is 75p. Not many people are buying coriander now.”Mohinder Singh, Operates the vegetable stall in Southall
Looking Out For Alternative Eating Lifestyle
Alongside the fruit and vegetable shortage and posing another, perhaps more violent, blow to the eating habits of UK Indians has been the cost of living crisis.
Harmeet Singh Gill, 32, General Secretary of the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Southall, notes that over the past few months, the Gurdwara has seen a significant increase in the number of people coming in to eat throughout the day. “We’ve seen a mix of families, young children, the elderly – they’re coming here, so they do not have to eat at home. They can come here and spend a couple of hours in the warmth. Equally, many students who have come over from India seem to be solely dependent on the Gurdwara - they can’t afford to cook meals themselves. At the same time, people can’t afford to donate as much, so we have to purchase pallet loads of produce.”
On the vegetable shortage, Gill sees the Gurdwara’s longtime use of tinned tomatoes as a lucky buffer against such circumstances. “We depend on seasonal vegetables, but if something isn’t available, we pivot over to cooking tinned or dried produce instead. The shortage will probably impact and restrict what we can make, but we can cope by making alternatives as we have always done. Instead of vegetable-based dishes, for instance, we’ll make extra courses of lentils.”
For Baljit Khamba, 66, a businessman who lives in the North West London suburbs with his wife and two grown-up children, the current fruit and vegetable shortage in the UK has meant having to forfeit the Punjabi cuisine that the vegetarian family usually enjoys. “I do the weekly shopping for my family in the supermarkets in the area and haven’t been able to get tomatoes over the past week or so. We’ve not been able to make the tomato-based Punjabi dishes that we usually have, and we are cooking more western dishes at the moment, just making do with what we can get our hands on.”
In Central London, on the other hand, university student Shubhodeep Chatterjee, 34, has not had much difficulty procuring tomatoes or any of the other now-scarce vegetables in the smaller grocery shops that dot the heart of the city, but has similarly noticed a spike in their prices. “I’m pretty sure this surge in cost is due to the current shortage, and I find I’ve been buying fewer vegetables and relying on cheaper carbs to fill me up, like pasta and bread.”
Shortage Of Food Impacts Indian Restaurants
The shortage has also impacted Indian restaurants, with dishes being more expensive to produce and fewer diners visiting regularly. At Rita’s Curry House, a popular Indian restaurant on Southall Broadway, manager Manmohan Khera, 45, has noticed a drop in customers over the past few weeks and laments that the restaurant has also been hit by the increased prices that have come about due to both the shortage and the cost of living crisis. “We have recently had to increase prices of certain dishes by 0.50p and even £1 in some cases to accommodate rising costs.” Like much of Southall Broadway, the restaurant is eerily quiet on weekdays, though, as waitress Isharpreet Kaur, 28, observes, the restaurant is much busier at the weekend. “People don’t come multiple times a week anymore but make it a point to come at weekends. They always want the usual items, so we can’t remove anything from the menu.”
As winter makes way for spring in the UK and the growing season of these essential fruits and vegetables commences, stocks are expected to rise. The National Farmers' Union (NFU), however, has warned that homegrown produce may not be able to meet demand due to inflation, rising energy bills and staff shortages arising from Brexit. Whether the local growing season and better weather conditions abroad will ease the shortages and see stocks return to normal levels is yet to be seen.
For now, Indians in the UK will need to brace themselves for the next couple of months and expect to pay steeper prices to cook their familiar staples, or else be prepared to look to alternative cuisines and substitute ingredients to tide over homesick palates.
(The author is a freelance writer and Odissi dancer based in London. She is an alumnus of SOAS University of London where she studied South Asian Area Studies, focusing on the politics of culture in India and the diaspora.)