Scramble for Lentils 

India's export ban on dal has residents and restaurants hungering for a staple.

When India announced in late June it was cutting off all exports of lentils and beans, a ripple of concern ran through local Indian kitchens. Now lentil prices are spiking, and with retailers and restaurants scrambling to bulk up on supplies, that concern is turning to panic.

It all started with a drought that gripped India last year, shrinking its lentil harvest to a level barely able to cover the country's domestic market. Collectively known as dal, India's huge variety of lentils are a daily staple. With the export ban expected to continue through March 2007, local cooks face a crisis.

Part of the problem is that there are no good substitutes grown in India, especially for the small, mustard-colored ones called toor dal. "It's my main protein every day," laments Laxmi Hiremath, a San Ramon food writer and cooking teacher. Like many Indian cooks, Hiremath's daily routine includes simmering toor dal into a fragrant, tamarind-laced soup-stew. And while other countries grow toor dal, most cooks think the quality isn't the same. Canadian yellow split peas, she says, are the worst.

Local retailers still have Indian toor dal on their shelves, but that's unlikely to last. Ajit Kaushal, owner of Bombay Trading Company in Concord, says he's pleading with customers not to start hoarding. "It will only make the prices go higher," says Kaushal, who sold up to seven hundred pounds of toor dal a week before the supply started drying up. Since early July, he has had to double the price, which is currently at $2 per pound.

But with major West Coast importers like Hayward's Dhanraj unable to get toor dal on the world market, prices can't help but shoot into the stratosphere. "Once India announced the ban, every other country immediately raised the price of dal," says Dhanraj vice president Harish Parmar, "if there were any available to begin with."

Bala Dhana, a manager in the Bay Area's four-restaurant Udupi Palace chain, says he's been sending employees out to buy packages of toor dal from whatever retailers he can find. "What can we do?" he asks. "We're vegetarians. Toor dal is our main ingredient."

So far, retail customers seem to be taking price spikes in stride. But as store shelves empty, cooks like Hiremath may just have to settle for those Canadian yellow split peas.

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