After a bland new year, Bhutan is reversing an import ban on India’s toxic chillies

Not hot enough.
Not hot enough.
Image: Reuters/Enny Nuraheni
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The new year lacked flavour for Zangmo, a villager in Bhutan’s western district of Haa. She had been looking for fresh green chillies to prepare hoentey—a dumpling-like dish served exclusively during the annual Bhutanese festival of Lomba—but none was to be found.

As per tradition, on the night of Lomba, which is celebrated on the 29th day of the 10th lunar month, the entire Haaps community dines only on hoentey for dinner. And like most Bhutanese dishes, it features green chillies in a starring role.

If Indian communities are known for their desserts, the Bhutanese are known for their love of chillies. There is no dish that is cooked without them. For instance, Bhutan’s national dish, ema-datshi, is made with hot green chillies mixed with Bhutanese farmers’ cheese, which resembles feta in texture and flavour. To make hoentey, hundreds of chillies are cut into pieces and mixed with ginger, garlic, onion, dried green leaves, dried turnips, butter, and cheese. The mixture is then filled into dumplings.

These days, Zangmo said, none of the local vegetable vendors were willing to sell green chillies. “We have no option but to use whatever we had of the local dry red chillies.” Since the entire village chose to opt for red instead of green chilies this year, Zangmo was unsure of how the night of Lomba, and thus symbolically the year, would turn out.

Ema datsi is a spicy dish made with large, green chilli peppers in a cheesy sauce.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The treacherous spice route

For the last few months, the vegetable market in Thimphu, usually replete with an amazing variety of chillies, has looked different. Though the market had local produce, there were no green chillies imported from the Indian border towns of Falakata and Jaigon.

That’s because in July last year, the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regularity Authority (BAFRA) had banned the import of chillies from India. The ban followed a laboratory test conducted by BAFRA which found that all three varieties of the imported chillies (hybrid, teransani and akashi) indicated the presence of chlorophenol—a pesticide classified as moderately toxic by the World Health Organisation. In addition to chillies, Bhutan’s agriculture minister, Yeshey Dorji, said that BAFRA would also ban the import of cauliflowers and beans from India for failing to meet food safety standards.

It didn’t take long for the price of chillies in Bhutan to shoot up as a result. Local organic chillies, usually sold for up to Rs900-Rs1,500 per kilo, were being sold at Rs2,900 a kilo. Imported chilies, which used to cost Rs25 to Rs50 per kilo in the past, were now selling at Rs500 per kilo.

For the first time ever, poor families who did not have the land to grow chillies, or the money to buy them, found themselves eating food without any flavour.

A man sells vegetables at a market in Punakha.
Image: Reuters/Desmond Boylan

A winter without fire

With a population of over 700,000 people, Bhutan requires 1,527 metric tonnes of chillies during the winter months of December, January and February, as per the Ministry of Agriculture’s official estimate. The total amount of chillies consumed in a year is estimated at 2,291 metric tonnes.

While the farmers of Bhutan do produce chillies, their yield is not sufficient to feed the entire population. To produce the required quantity, the country would need to cultivate chillies on nearly 770 acres of land, which it cannot do at present. To manage the crisis, on Dec. 04, the Ministry of Agriculture imported 20 metric tonnes of chillies from Kolkata.

The import from Kolkata apparently met food safety standards, and was sold at the subsidised rate of Rs50 per kilo. But even this was not enough—by now, the local demand for chillies had increased. People were hoarding them and local vegetable vendors had even begun importing them secretly (only to be caught later by BAFRA officials). The media attention over the crisis grew and soon officials were photographed dumping large quantities of seized chillies.

Finally, during a monthly press meet in late December, Dorji told journalists in Thimphu that the government would resume importing chillies, at least until the country was able to produce enough to meet its own appetite.

“As a regularity authority, we are obligated by the Food Safety Act to ban food products with toxic levels of chemicals,” he said, when asked why the ban had been imposed in the first place. Tests on chillies from Falakata still showed toxic levels of chemical residue, agriculture officials said, but the demand was simply too high to ban them.

The local crop of chillies is expected to hit the markets only in early February. Meanwhile, the government has launched a programme to boost vegetable production in the winter. At the press conference, Dorji assured people that by the next new year, there would be no shortage of chillies in Bhutan.

But most villagers, like Zangmo, are yet to be convinced.

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