Chili crisis tests our love of spicy food

Ika Krismantari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Mon, 01/10/2011 11:24 AM | Feature



Our everlasting culinary love affair with chili appears to be on the rocks since the price of our darling spice has skyrocketed over the past few weeks.

The world already knows about Indonesia’s infatuation with chili. People here hardly go without eating fiery dishes during mealtimes.

The hottest condiment known as sambal or chili paste is a must-have accompaniment for every meal.
Statistics also show Indonesians’ liking for chili is far from a myth.

According to a report from the Australian Center for International Agriculture Research, chili production in Indonesia has increased by an average of 20 percent a year since 2001.

It is estimated Indonesia will consume 1.2 million tons of chili this year.

Travelers’ bible The Lonely Planet even acknowledges Indonesians’ craze for hot foods. The guidebook ranked sambal third on its list of the world’s 10 hottest foods in 2010, right after India’s Bhut Jolokia and Thailand’s Yam.

However, hot food lovers in Indonesia may have to brace themselves for hard times.

Since the end of 2010, the price of chili has gone through the roof, reaching an impressive Rp 100,000 (US$11.1) per kilogram, or five times its normal price.

So, to buy or not to buy chili is the now first question that pops into the head of housewives when they go shopping. Consumers now only get three chilies for Rp 2,000, compared to a bunch of red and green chilies a month ago.

It comes as no surprise then that many people have given up their chili obsession for the sake of their wallets, although a few have proved their love of chili is unconditional.

Like Asnidar, 55, who is willing to sacrifice her family’s meat consumption in order to keep chili on the table.

“Chili is our staple food, not rice or meat,” said the woman from Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, which is known for its spicy food.

To satisfy her love of hot food, Asnidar has doubled her daily grocery budget to Rp 50,000.

“But it’s still not enough, even though I have taken meat off the menu,” said the housewife, adding that her family ate a quarter of a kilogram of chili every day.

Intan Sari Boenarco, 23, has also decided to stay true to her love of spicy food despite the ensuing sharp increase in the family’s expenses.

Intan now has to spend Rp 15,000 each time she buys chili, a dramatic rise from the Rp 2,000 she used to pay to get the spice.

The saddest thing is that no one really knows why this chili crisis came about. The government has reportedly not paid much attention to the issue.

It isn’t the first time the price of chili goes through the roof too. The public experienced a hike in the price of chili before the fasting month of Ramadan in August 2010, when prices went up to Rp 60,000 per kilogram.

Many people believed the crisis was a result of extreme weather that had caused the rainy season to drag on longer than expected.

Bad weather took its toll on the supply of chili because plantations require dry weather before being harvested.

Some have cited the same weather problem as the cause of this second chili crisis.

However, others blame the price increase on speculators wanting to maximize short-term gains.

Amid this uncertainty, the government, which has chosen to blame the constant rain for its chili woes, seems to be twiddling its thumbs, despite the public asking for some kind of action to ensure the situation doesn’t get worse.

Recent statistic shows inflation in 2010 peaked at 6.96 percent, higher than the government’s estimate of 5.3 percent, mostly due to increases in food commodity prices such as rice or chili.

Left unaddressed, this situation could curtail the country’s economic growth as higher inflation will force the central bank to raise interest rates and therefore deteriorate economic conditions, slowing down loan growth and increasing unemployment.

Authorities have so far only provided small solutions to the chili problem. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the agriculture minister have been calling on people to start planting vegetables in their own yards to help maintain food security.

Needless to say the public is on the whole rather underwhelmed by this recommendation, given it is hardly better advice than the one dished out by neighborhood community chiefs.

But amid their disappointment and financial hardship, as usual, Indonesians are still able to joke about the crisis.

Social networking sites have been flooded with ironic messages and posts about chilies.

“Chilies will be like cigarettes. You will only get three pieces for Rp 2,000,” said one woman on her Facebook account.

Many have joked they would leave their jobs and become chili traders instead to reap handsome profits.
Others are wondering why the price of chili is now higher than the price of meat, asking when the nightmare will end.

That has not stopped smart people from finding ingenious ways to cope.

Housewife Desi Octaviani, 31, said her family had replaced the hot flavor of chili with pepper.

“I got this idea from my mother. She started using it after chili prices went out of control,” the mother of one said.

Culinary expert Bondan Winarno has asked people to look on the brighter side.

“Rising chili prices have given us the chance to explore other Indonesian flavors,” he wrote in an email from Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The crisis has also given people a chance to lessen their dependency on chilies, he added.

“There are other hot spices such as pepper, andaliman [szechuan peppercorn] and ginger.”

So perhaps it isn’t the end of the world after all for all lovers of chili in Indonesia.