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 were to be found.

The situation was dire because Lomba, which is celebrated by the Haaps on the 29th day of 10th lunar month, marks the beginning of the new year. As per tradition, on that night, the entire community dines only on hoentey for dinner – which like most Bhutanese dishes, featured green chillies in a starring role instead of as a mere supporting act.

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 – Bhutan’s national dish for instance, ema-datshi, is hot green chilies 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 turnip, 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 chili peppers in a cheesy sauce. Credit: 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 been dry. Though the market had local produce, there were none of the green chillies that Bhutan imports from the Indian border towns of Falakata and Jaigon.

In July last year, the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regularity Authority had banned the import of chilies from India. The ban followed a laboratory test conducted by BAFRA, which found that all three varieties of chilies imported from India (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 banned 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. Local organic chillies, usually sold for up to Rs 900-Rs 1,500 per kilo, were being sold at Rs 2,900 a kilo. Imported chilies, which cost Rs 25 to 50 per kilo in the past, were now selling at Rs 500 per kilo.

For the first time, poor families who did not have the land to grow chillies or the money to buy them, found themselves eating food with no taste.

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

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 Agriculture Ministry’s official estimate. The total chillies consumed in a year is estimated at 2,291 metric tonnes.

While the farmers of Bhutan do produce chillies, this is not sufficient to feed the entire population. To produce the required quantity, the country will need to cultivate chillies on nearly 770 acres of land, which it cannot do at present. To manage the crisis, on December 4, the Ministry of Agriculture again began to import 20 metric tonnes of chillies from Kolkata.

The import from Kolkata, apparently met food safety standards, and was sold at the subsidised rate of Rs 50 per kilo. But even this was not enough – by now, the local demand for chillies had increased. People were hoarding chillies, local vegetable vendors had begun importing them secretly (but were caught by BAFRA officials). The media attention on the crisis of chillies grew, and soon, officials were photographed dumping large quantities of seized chillies.

Ema Dhatsi. Credits: Flickr CC BY

Finally, during a monthly press meet in late December, Agriculture Minister Yeshey Dorji told journalists in Thimphu that the government would resume importing of 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 2017. 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 will be no shortage of chillies in Bhutan.

Most villagers like Zangmo are yet to be convinced.

A Bhutanese marketplace. Credits: John Macdougall/AFP