Sharv Ramachandran’s restaurant in downtown Vancouver has nearly 100 items on its menu, and most of them come with rice.
“We are Indian. We eat rice with everything,” he said.
Rice literally holds together some of the South Indian dishes he serves, including idli, a steamed rice cake; dosa, a paper-thin savoury crepe; and medu vada, a deep-fried savoury donut. And these things can’t be made with just any kind of grain: each derives its unique texture and flavour from one of a handful of specific varieties of rice, usually imported from India.
But lately, to the dismay of South Asian restaurateurs and home cooks alike, those types of rice have become much harder to come by, and much more expensive.
On July 20, India banned exports of all non-Basmati white rice, in an effort to calm domestic prices and ensure domestic availability, after heavy rainfall in the country’s north and insufficient rainfall elsewhere damaged this year’s crop. India had previously imposed a 20-per-cent tax on those varieties, to curb exports.
Now, supplies of the non-basmati white varieties used in many South Asian dishes has dwindled, causing a surge in prices.
While basmati rice is known for its fluffy texture, long grains and distinct aroma, non-basmati white, or NBW, varieties vary in size, glycemic index, aroma and flavour. Some are used to make rice-batter steamed cakes, porridges and congees, and others are served with South Indian curries as basmati alternatives.
India’s exports account for almost 40 per cent of the international rice trade. In 2022, Canada imported nearly 75,000 tonnes of Indian rice, amounting to about 21 per cent of this country’s total rice imports, according to Statistics Canada. More than 7,000 tonnes of that total was NBW rice, according to Indian government data.
Mr. Ramachandran’s Davie Dosa Company uses three different kinds of rice in its dishes: basmati, and two non-basmati varieties, idli and pongal. While basmati is still widely available, the other two are not.
“It is going to affect most of the small business owners … It is very hard,” Mr. Ramachandran said.
Analysts have said other rice-growing countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, don’t have enough rice in reserve to make up for the shortfall. The resulting surge in prices is directly affecting many South Asian communities in Canada.
Raja Selvaraj, a manager at Vancouver’s Madras Spice restaurant, said he now pays $70 for a 55-pound bag of idli rice, compared with $25 to $30 earlier this year.
Despite this, Mr. Selvaraj said he won’t increase his menu prices. Traffic has been slow at his restaurant since the pandemic.
“We have to buy,” he said of the rice. “We have no other option.”
Grocery stores that carry NBW rice varieties are rapidly running out of inventory.
Siva Anthaswamy, a manager at the Thurga Store in Vancouver, said his shop could run out of NBW rice in less than a month. Prices of these rice varieties have increased 20 to 30 per cent, he said.
Dibin Binoy, of the Surabhi Store in Surrey, B.C., said he has two weeks’ worth of idli rice in stock.
The last time he got a shipment, he said, was about two months ago – shortly after the ban was put in place. Since then, the store has increased the prices of its leftover bags of idli rice by $6 each.
“There is no alternative for these particular qualities,” he said. “It cannot be compared with any other rice.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story gave incorrect weights for the amounts of Indian rice imported by Canada in 2022.