“Yaar, Indian atta nahin mil raha (We can’t find Indian wheat flour),” says San Jose resident Meera, for whose family, rotis are a daily staple.
“Kisne socha tha kabhi ki atta nahi milega (who thought that we would not find atta),” Niva Kapoor of Madison, Alabama says with a laugh, adding, “We make roti daily. We have been using Indian atta in this country for many years and never faced shortage till now. I thought it might be a temporary supply chain issue, but it’s more.”
Conversations in desi circles in the United States of America these days are centered around atta – the Indian wheat flour used to make roti – a staple in Indian American households.
The shortage started around Diwali in October, continuing through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and well into the New Year.
Indian Americans who love soft, round rotis (also called chapatis) made from Indian sharbati wheat flour are in disbelief that atta shelves in Indian grocery stores all over the country went bare a few weeks back, but are now slowly coming to terms with it.
Indian Atta Replaced by Durum Wheat Flour
The Russia-Ukraine war is impacting desi atta choices as India stopped exporting locally grown wheat from May and wheat flour from August 2022 to control domestic prices.
“There is a scarcity, and it is not artificial. Government of India banned export of wheat flour that’s why until the ban is removed, the US will not get Indian atta supply,” says Michigan based Jagdish Rughani, Founder-CEO of Premier Food Supplies, a food import and distribution firm.
North American atta producers and suppliers are trying to fill the gap created by the Indian wheat ban with flour from North America. “Tons of local atta is coming in, but the sudden increased demand for Californian and Canadian atta has put a lot of pressure on us to increase production.
"We mill flour daily in California under our Santos Elephant Brand Atta, and are trying to increase capacity,” says Santos Parmar, CEO of Santos Agency Inc.
California-based Indian food products distributor Hathi Brand Foods pivoted to milling American durum wheat to supply their family-owned stores and other outlets.
“We were producing atta in India for more than two years, in Haryana. Now we get it milled here to supply to many stores,” says CEO Sanjay Birla.
Atta aisles once full of Indian, American, and Canadian atta are now slowly being replenished with locally produced wheat flour bags. Except an occasional supply of a few Indian flour bags from a rare batch lying around in a warehouse or from a delayed cargo ship, most flour available now is North American.
“In the beginning, there was a little bit of panic buying and for a few weeks there was little atta on shelves. Now with local supply, it is a coming back slowly. Even now it goes off very quickly from the shelves,” Sanjay Birla says.
‘Eating Fewer Rotis’
But flour from durum wheat, a variety grown in North America, is not going down well some daily chapati makers.
“Rotiyan sookhi-sookhi ban rahi hain (The rotis are dry). Durum wheat atta looks like atta, but it has maida texture when I roll it. Plastic ki tarah lagta hai (It feels like plastic). I am kind of living with it. Now we are eating fewer rotis, opting for other foods. Office lunch ke liye rice de rahi hun aajkal instead of rotis (I am packing rice for office lunch instead of rotis)."Meera
Some others like Leena M, who is based in San Francisco Bay Area, find the ‘fuss’ to be irrelevant, “Families have been using Canadian atta for years. It’s not a life-or-death situation!”
Santos, whose family has been producing atta in the US for over 35 years, explains:
“Sharbati atta is generally from Madhya Pradesh in India. Durum wheat is grown in India too. The soil conditions are different. Anything grown in a different soil subset will vary slightly. Californian durum wheat is slightly higher in protein and is different in terms of how it cooks. Its characteristic is such that you must mix the flour in not just warm water, but hot water to get soft chapatis.”
Remedies to make the ‘challenging’ durum wheat flour more palatable are being tried. Using warm water, ‘mixing tofu’, adding ‘boiled daal’, sprinkling oil - no experiment is off the table.
Some others have opted for pre-packed rotis. “We eat roti once or twice a day. Earlier our cook used to make rotis using Indian atta for us. Now it’s easier to get packet rotis from our local Indian grocery store,” shares Alisha Bhattacharjee of Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
The Hunt for Indian Atta
Although driving for miles to hunt for their favourite brand of Indian sharbati wheat flour, crosschecking with friends in other cities about availability, and using social media groups to share atta woes continue, Indian Americans are slowly reconciling to a life without ‘tasty chapatis’.
Online forums are proving useful for reviews of chapatis made from new atta brand purchases.
Along with comparing roti-binding qualities of alternate flours, chatter includes the rising cost and rationing of atta in the USA. Indian atta bags on Amazon are more than five times the price compared to store prices from a few months back.
Alisha exclaims, “A local store is allowing purchase of a 20 lbs bag of atta only with a minimum $50 worth of groceries!”
“Even grocery stores in other cities, a few hours away from us are allowing only one bag per family! I wish I had purchased a few bags when they were still available,” says Niva.
“The prices are three times now and we are not even getting what we really want!” remarks Meera.
Even though the desis want soft rotis made from ‘sunhari sharbati gehun ka atta’, the consensus is in support of the Indian government’s ban of wheat exports. “They will protect their citizens first, which is fair,” remarks a San Francisco Bay Area store manager.
Along with storms on the East coast, atmospheric rivers on the West coast, tornadoes in Alabama, severe weather in the South, and the icy chill of mid-west, this winter for desis has been about atta shortage in Indian grocery stores.
A Tamil Indian American suggests, “What’s the big deal! Just eat rice for a while, guys!”
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)