MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russians spooked by the coronavirus epidemic have started hoarding a trusty national staple that has helped them get through multiple crises in their troubled history: buckwheat.
Cheap, filling and beloved by Russians as a side dish or as a meal in itself, buckwheat - "grechka" in Russian - was sold out in many Moscow supermarkets late on Tuesday or, at best, available only in expensive brands.
"This is the third shop without buckwheat," said Olga, 35, at a grocery store in Moscow. "We don't like it and we don't usually eat it, but people are grabbing it and herd mentality is a factor. What if we don't know something they know."
Russians have turned to buckwheat in times of crisis before. In 2014, supermarket shelves quickly emptied of buckwheat when rumours about damaged crops in Siberia compounded fears over an oil price slump, the then plunging rouble and Western sanctions.
In the dwindling days of the Soviet Union when food shortages kicked in people also fell back on buckwheat.
Russia has reported 147 cases of the coronavirus so far and no deaths, less than many other European countries. But the figure has risen sharply in recent days.
President Vladimir Putin told Russians on Tuesday that the situation was under control and urged them not to unnecessarily hoard groceries they could end up throwing away.
But that does not appear to have stopped the run on buckwheat.
One 69-year-old woman from Moscow who declined to give her name said she had made a panic purchase of buckwheat after noticing numerous people hauling shopping bags home.
"It's just a bit scary, everyone's carrying plastic bags and it made be feel uneasy that we don't have any reserves so I bought two packs of buckwheat," she said.
Another shopper in western Moscow grew angry at the sight of empty shelves usually stocked with buckwheat. As he heard a routine "see you soon" from a cashier upon leaving the store, he replied: "You'll only see me if you bring back buckwheat."
Boiled up like rice and easy to prepare, buckwheat is bland in taste and can be served up on its own with butter, linseed oil or milk, or as a side to accompany vegetables, fish or meat.
The Federal Antimonopoly Service said people had begun complaining about rising prices for buckwheat, as well as for sugar and flour, the RIA news agency reported.
Russians consume around 440,000 tonnes of buckwheat a year and in times of uncertainty the cereal, which is grown and harvested domestically, often tops panic-buy shopping lists.
"It's the same consumer response as with toilet paper in Europe," said Alexander Korbut, deputy head of the Russian Grain Union.
"During periods of consumer panic, there is high demand for buckwheat and it is the first to disappear from supermarket shelves," said Dmitry Rylko, head of the IKAR agriculture consultancy.
But there is no threat of a shortage, he said, pointing to large stockpiles left over from previous harvest seasons as well as last year's crop that was enough to provide 433,000 tonnes of ready-to-consume buckwheat.
"There is a stereotype about keeping grocery products in stock which historically developed in the psychology of Soviet consumers: salt, sugar, matches, pasta, and buckwheat," Korbut told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Olesya Astakhova, and Polina Nikolskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn and Alexandra Hudson)
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