ABU DHABI // Despite the cost of rice more than doubling because of food shortages and India's decision to halt some exports, many ethnic South Indians and other Abu Dhabi residents say they will not abandon the staple, no matter the asking price. Non-basmati rice in Abu Dhabi sells for up to Dh7 (US$1.90) a kilogram for the best quality and retailers expect prices to rise soon by another dirham. The average price is Dh4 per kg. Those prices are double what Biju Thomas, a businessman who has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 10 years, said he used to pay.
"Even if I can't afford it, I will buy it," Mr Thomas said yesterday, while shopping for groceries. "I grew up eating this rice." He carried the 10kg of non-basmati rice he had just bought for Dh45 inside a brown paper bag; the single purchase accounted for about 35 per cent of his grocery bill. "Since it's just myself, my wife and my daughter, this should last us a month," Mr Thomas said. He hoped prices would come down by next year.
Worldwide, prices rose from $650 (Dh2,386) per tonne to a 25-year high of $1,000 in the first three months of this year. The UAE imports 750,000 tonnes of rice annually from countries including India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. The price spike and curbs in supply have rattled South Indians, who rely on non-basmati rice, also known as parboiled rice. Because of its consistency when cooked, only this type of rice can be used to make the paste for dosas, a rice crêpe, as well as a number of other staples in South Indian diets, according to Satish, a cook at Arab Udupi restaurant. Basmati, he said, was good only for North Indian cuisine, such as biriani.
Satish makes more than 500 dosas every day for customers at the popular South Indian eatery. But he can afford to make the dish only once a day for himself: the restaurant has raised the price of dosas by a dirham to make up for the cost of the rice. To preserve supplies at home, Satish mixes the rice with other grains and lentils - but he couldn't do that at the restaurant. "We wouldn't have any more customers," he said.
South Indians prize non-basmati rice not only for its hardiness, but because it is more nutritious than basmati. Some have gone to extremes to be able to eat meals like they do back home, with reports of people flying in from India with bags of non-basmati rice in their luggage. "If oil is black gold, then rice is grain gold," said Raju, with the India Social Centre. "What can we do? Being South Indian, every day it is a must for us to eat."
While the chain grocery stores in Abu Dhabi sell non-basmati rice sporadically, the foodstuff can be found in small quantities at ethnic Indian stores. One such store is the Abu Dhabi Flour Mills grocery, behind the National Cinema. Yesterday, it had an open 20kg bag and another half-container of non-basmati rice for customers to dip into, among barrels full of spices and grains. Still, the supply was being squeezed, said an employee who did not want to be named. The store got its non-basmati rice from Dubai, but he did not know when stocks would be replenished. "It has stopped coming," he said. "There are shortages and it has tripled in price."
The asking price for the cheapest non-basmati rice was Dh4.50 per kilogram. Similar prices could be found at the Arab Gulf Flour Mills, a small shop off Mena Road. The less well-off, such as Avel Nabarro, say they have just cut down the number of times they eat rice. "It's gone up 300 per cent since I came here," said Mr Nabarro. "We're eating other food now." @Email:email@example.com