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    « BACK to Shomial Ahmad's portfolio

    Posted 12.11.06
    Lentil need spikes after shortage
    Area restaurants, stores try to make up for loss of Indian food staple and raise prices to match demand

    Aug. 9--The price of lentils -- a staple on the Indian dinner table -- has doubled at some stores, and area South Asians are feeling the pinch.

    India's ban on the export of lentils, commonly known as "dal," has led to the highest prices one wholesale grocery supplier has seen in his two decades of business.

    "In Indian food, it is essential," said supplier Mahendra Patel, owner of Raja Foods in Maspeth, Queens. "There is no dal, there is no meal."

    Patel said he increased his dal prices after the Indian government banned their export in late June because of supply shortages and inflation. The ban may stay in effect until March, Patel said. Before he was charging his customers 50 to 60 cents a pound, and now prices have shot up to $1.10 to $1.20 a pound, he said. Raja Foods supplies groceries to more than 300 Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi stores in the New York area, one of which is the Hicksville grocery store Patel Brothers.

    The store's manager, Sanjay Patel, noticed that customers were stocking up on the staple a month ago.

    "When it was first banned, people were buying like crazy," said Patel, who is not related to Mahendra Patel.

    Sanjay Patel initially increased lentil prices by 4 or 5 percent, he said, but since his store recently moved a few blocks away, he's slashed prices back to normal for its grand opening.

    But Rashmi Sahdev has noticed the price hike at ethnic grocery stores in Hicksville.

    "They were giving previously $4.99 for eight pounds, and they suddenly raised [the price] $4," said Sahdev, standing outside Subzi Mandi, an Indian grocery store in Hicksville.

    Sahdev recently returned from a trip from India, and was shocked to see the new prices. She was planning on bringing a packet of dry chickpeas that she bought from the store before leaving for India -- with the red-sticker price of $4.99 -- to show to a store manager. A store representative acknowledged a price increase but declined to comment further.

    Sahdev, 49, of Hicksville, who cooks some type of dal four or five times a week, said she can't afford to be without the bean. She hopes that if she comparison-shops in Queens, she'll find better deals.

    But New York City restaurants also pay more for lentils -- sometimes 30 to 40 percent more. Some suppliers are getting lentils imported from other countries like Australia, said Manjit Singh, manager of Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights.

    Nitin Vyas, who owns the restaurant Masala Bollywood on Manhattan's Lexington Avenue and two other restaurants, uses 110 pounds of lentils in one week. When prices increased, his kitchens switched to cooking lentils from different countries. His customers took notice, and now he buys the pricier Indian lentils.

    "We are not getting the flavor," Vyas said.

    Staff writer Bryan Virasami contributed to this story.