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A case of exploding tomatoes

The extreme fluctuations in the prices of tomatoes among other food staples over the past few weeks have caused a strange kind of panic. Yesterday the price of tomatoes was Rs330 in my area, Defense Phase 6, Karachi. Last week, it rose to Rs 550 per kilo almost everywhere in the city. Meanwhile, when I checked on Kravemart, one particular variety was selling for Rs197. When I checked last September 7 it was Rs 279 but of course they refused to deliver those particular stocks of tomatoes to Defence. Pandamart the same day was selling for Rs205 and ready to deliver to my area, but I had already purchased my tomatoes. When I was discussing this price yo-yo with my colleague Ariba Shahid, she mentioned that her mother said that tomatoes in Gulshan cost 250 rupees per kilo. What? I had just paid Rs400.

That day, on my way home from work, I stopped at my vegetable wallah to buy some stuff for the house, and I made it a point to ask him why his tomatoes were more expensive than Gulshan’s. I was getting ready for him to say how substandard these must be and how amazing his stock is. Instead, he explained that these had to come from either Iran or Afghanistan. I would need a news story to justify what is happening to Pakistani tomatoes right now and why they are so expensive, but since Abdullah Niazi, Profit’s agri-journo resident is already discussing this, I’ll stick to discussing how we can solve this problem and budget better when the going gets tough.

My cook is someone I have known all my life and she said “let me buy the tomatoes from my area for you” when the price reached Rs 500 at Defense/khadda Market/Clifton. It was cheaper but not much cheaper in his area. For a while it worked. When the price dropped to Rs350, I complained that it was still so expensive. She told me to buy cans of mash which she thought would cost me less. I’m sure it was less but the difference seemed negligible to me at the end of the month.

So I took my grievances to my best friend who is a celebrity chef and asked her how she handles this in all of her kitchens. And she gave me advice that I think is about to change my life. Once a month, she will go to Sabzi Mandi (because she has to go there anyway) and buy me about 10 kilos of tomatoes at Rs100 per kilo. Yes, that’s how much it costs there right now, if you buy larger quantities, and it should drop further to Rs80.

I think a breakdown here is important to understand why I’m excited about the Mandi. An average household of four family members plus two domestic workers will consume around 350g of tomatoes per day in their sale, this averages about 9.8 kg per month. (I don’t take into account how many Karahis you decide to make in a month because such a dish for four requires about two kilos of tomatoes.) At Rs250 per kilo, it will cost Rs2450 per month. If we buy at Mandi, it will cost us Rs980. Therefore, the difference in tomatoes alone is Rs1470. Of course, at this point you’ll bring up how much gas it takes to get there and back from there, how expensive gas has become, and how totally stupid that idea is.

Enter into community life. If we decide to take turns going to Sabzi Mandi each month and buying things for our close friends, maybe a group of three or four people, we can share the cost of vegetables and fruits as well as gasoline. We all have friends. It is not impossible. This will save us multiple trips to vegetable vendors. I am aware that this would be tantamount to depriving vegetable sellers of their income, especially those who sell their wares on handcarts. It’s a no-win situation, isn’t it, and I guess it deserves another debate. For now, I’m just trying to figure out how to be an organized and efficient human being. Taking a trip to Mandi for things that can be stored makes me feel like I have one less thing to worry about. And it will save you time in the kitchen; if you’re like me and don’t cook, it’ll save your cook/boy/housekeeper time. All you need with tomatoes is to puree them and then freeze them until your next trip to Mandi. It is of vital importance to know that it is not only tomatoes that can be frozen, but also many staple foods such as ginger, garlic, okra, spinach among many others. Okra will need to be fried first, spinach will need to be blanched. The general rule is that anything growing above ground can be frozen. But it’s not a cooking show, so you can google it all later if you’re interested.

If this still doesn’t make sense to you, and you think the problem won’t be solved by these monthly trips, let me ask you, have you heard of the ecologist extraordinaire, Tofiq Pasha Mooraj? As an independent agricultural professional, his advice is almost sacred, but people don’t seem to listen. He believes that as a people we don’t have the culture of having processed foods like canned tomatoes. “We don’t have the culture of pickling and preserving our vegetables. If we did this when they are in season and prices are low, we could save a lot for a high price period. We are the largest milk producers in the world, but we don’t have riwaaj to make paneer,” he told me. In addition to the lack of a food processing culture, he adds that we have no storage facilities. “A farmer will have to walk away from his harvest when he has a lot because he will get nothing in return.”

Prices for staples like tomatoes, onions and potatoes fluctuate a lot anyway. It’s a seasonal problem. But the highly productive lands that have been destroyed in Sindh will take years to recover. “The floods wiped out the availability of fresh produce,” he said. So what do we do, I ask plaintively. We have to work as a community, he says. “We can work and start developing in urban areas, semi-rural areas; this way we can complete part of the harvest that is supposed to come from the farmland. This will mean that imports will be reduced, maybe not too much, but so what? “Even if it’s 1000 kilos less, it’s still 1000 kilos less.”

My friend and Mooraj told me about the green revolution in India and Sri Lanka. If everyone is growing up at home, it can mean so much, they insisted. People can help their neighbors, different people can grow different things and then barter. The problem won’t be solved by freezing tomatoes (although that’s good advice at the moment and one I totally follow), or using yogurt instead, or even cooking foods that don’t require it either more. It’s much bigger, and it’s here to stay. Community living is the way to go, it’s cheaper, it’s greener and it connects us all. One shouldn’t have to feel alone in these difficult times, especially when hunched over at your computer googling “tomato prices in Karachi” to compare prices on Kravemart with those on Pandamart and even Nice store near me, and the internet with all the ironic humor of which it is capable throws images of the annual Tomatino festival which has just taken place in Spain.