CALCUTTA, India — What hamburger is to Americans, cheese to the French and potatoes to the Irish, mustard oil is to India's 55 million Bengalis.
The lack of it has plunged Calcutta and most of surrounding West Bengal state into a "kitchen crisis."
The shortage, brought on by a yearlong drought and subsequent hoarding, has triggered riots, police raids and political wrangling. It has provoked debates in the national Parliament in New Delhi.
The government has urged Bengalis to switch to peanut or rapeseed oil, but Bengalis want none of that.
"We cannot fry and make fish curry without mustard oil," said housewife Malobika Chowdhury. "It is a terrible situation."
A typical Bengali meal is incomplete without fish curry and a few drops of raw mustard oil and salt on rice.
"No oil can match the aroma of mustard oil. There is no substitute," said another Calcutta housewife, Sipra Halder.
'A Crazy City'
"We all know Calcutta is a crazy city," Prasun Mukherjee said, "but can you just imagine people fighting over mustard oil and creating a law and order problem?"
The crisis began with this year's drought that affected a third of India's 780 million people.
Dwindling supplies caused the price of mustard oil to jump from the equivalent in rupees of 85 cents a pound in September to $1.58 a pound in October. (Oil is sold by weight in India.)
Then the government imposed a price ceiling of 87 cents a pound.
People started hoarding. Mustard oil vanished from marketplaces. Riots broke out.
At least one vehicle was set on fire during disturbances in Calcutta in late October. An effigy of West Bengal's chief minister, Jyoti Basu, was burned.
"For mustard oil, we Bengalis can do anything," said restaurant owner Bana Behari Pal. "I support the boys who demonstrated for it."
The Bengalis' use of mustard oil is not limited to cooking. Tradition holds that the liberal use of mustard oil on one's head before a bath increases brain power and intellect.
West Bengal state is by far India's largest consumer of mustard oil.
Of the annual mustard oil seed production of 1 million tons, about 350,000 tons--more than one-third--are consumed in the state alone.
West Bengal itself produces only a little more than 50,000 tons. The rest comes from other Indian states.
Calcutta, India's largest city with 10 million people, has a knack for making a political issue out of almost anything, and mustard oil is no exception.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party, the main opposition in Communist-governed West Bengal, has taken up the issue and is accusing the Communists of mismanagement.
"It is a great insult to the Bengalis . . . depriving them of mustard oil. How can you do it?" said the local Congress Party leader, Subrata Mukherjee.
The party has threatened to organize demonstrations if sufficient amounts of mustard oil do not reach the open market.
To counter Congress Party criticism, the West Bengal government revoked the licenses of 28 mustard oil businessmen after they were found hoarding oil in November.
In the meantime, Bengalis stand in line for hours in front of state-owned shops that have mustard oil.
Bengali bridegrooms are now expected to give mustard oil as gifts to their new in-laws.
"My son-in-law is bringing the real stuff from New Delhi next week," Anuradha Banerjee said.
In New Delhi, the "real stuff" is plentiful, she said, displaying a letter from her daughter.
"Happy days are here again," the letter said. "You will soon get mustard oil."