SAG & the No Spice for Chile Campaign

It was all Eileen’s idea. You know the one, the garlic mule (and it turns out she has priors: her pecan smuggling attempt went awry, but she’d learned the ropes by the time she moved on to rhubarb jam). She spilled the beans at bearshapedsphere and now wants the rest of us to do the same. Ok. I’ll come clean. I incited a failed intercontinental spice smuggling incident. There, I’ve said it. It’s off my chest at last. Now I can tell my sad tale.

Chile is an island.  Ok, so it’s not an “island” island, but it is a body of land hemmed in and cleft unto itself by mountains and desert and ocean and ice… Sounds biblical? So ask “The Maker” (or geographer) of your choosing about it. In terms of being separated from the rest of the world, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find another place as isolated as Chile that wasn’t surrounded by water on four sides! At least that’s how SAG sees it. Any bug that enters the country has the potential for devastating this agricultural paradise, and the powers that be will do just about anything to prevent that. In fact, back in the early 1990s, airline crews would fumigate the cabin before allowing the passengers to disembark (I kid you not). No one was allowed into the country without an unhealthy dose of Raid & Lysol (or some such equivalent) sprayed through the cabin!

If you’ve ever been to Chile, you already know about SAG. It’s the Servicio Agrícola Ganadero (Agricultural and Livestock Service), whose job it is to ensure that no undesired apples, oranges, pecans, or garlic, enter Chile without the proper authorization. Don’t even think about that putting that uneaten banana from the plane into your bag. In Chile you can do time for that!

So, once upon a time and way back when, my brother came to visit and I asked him to bring me spices. The basic Chilean salt, pepper, “ají de color” (flavorless red powder) and ubiquitous yet unappetizing “aliño completo” (complete seasoning) just didn’t do it for me. I was in chili withdrawal. I wanted Indian food. I wanted SPICE! So I sent a long list of ingredients I needed to replicate the flavor-filled dishes learned from fellow grad students from around the world, and he complied.

In those days when the airport was new, those who waited could clearly see those who arrived as they came through customs. “There he is!” we shouted, and he waved as he handed over his luggage for inspection. Out comes the assortment of spices and we all watched in disbelief as the agent ripped open bag after bag of packaged spices–MY spices–and dumped them into the trash. My brother—who spoke no Spanish—wondered what kind of a weird country he had just walked into. I was foaming at the mouth and finally barged past the guards and insisted that the agent explain himself.

“No seed items are allowed into the country ma’am.” I couldn’t believe it. Sure, they were from India, but they had passed inspection into the United States first! If they were good enough to enter the US, they should be good enough for Chile, ¿no? No. He cut me no slack. Rules are rules, and if the US is lax, that’s their problem. No potentially fertile seeds enter Chile. Period. He let me keep anything ground or roasted, but adios to those delicious whole chilies and pungent mustard seeds. The final insult: he doused them with rubbing alcohol. No one would appreciate their heady aromatics, their mouth-numbing delights.They were to be burned at the end of the day. Such a waste! Imagine the aromatic smoke that would lend no hedonistic pleasure. Such a shame… and such  sorrow… no spice for Chile.

28 responses to “SAG & the No Spice for Chile Campaign

  1. I actually didn’t know that you couldn’t bring in chilies, and before I didn’t know, I brought pasilla and chipotle and a bunch of others in, just in a plastic bag, straight from the neighborhood “Spanish store” in Washington, DC. I’ve used them all, which is sad, to be sure, but we do get more of a variety here than we used to, even in my five years.

    Your brother is a good doobie, and at least you gave him a (somewhat costly) tale to tell!

    Thanks for playing!

  2. Same here- I knew that you couldn’t bring in fresh fruits & veggies, but never dreamed that pre-packaged commercial items were verboten as well!
    And believe me, that was just the first in a long list of stories he had to tell about Chile!

  3. Is that the reason why spicy food doesn’t exist here? I’d bet goo money on it.

    You know what? I think they still fumagate the planes. At least when I fly LAN, they run up and down the aisles with these tiny bottles of spray and spray your feet.

  4. Do they really still do that? I haven’t flown LAN international in ages… Well, at least you know your feet don’t have fruit flies!

  5. OH! How very sad. I feel for you. I have had poppy seeds and cardamon sent me through the mail, but that was into Mauritania, where authorities are notoriously lax.

  6. Lucky you! I know other countries are very relaxed about this. I’ve even heard of Chileans returning to Germany with paltas (avocados) with no problems at all!

  7. Oh, what a crime! All those wonderful spices. 😦 Lucky for me that the Argentine authorities aren’t as strict as the Chileans… 😉

  8. So my next logical question is, do you get good Indian food in Argentina?

  9. I live in a small coastal city in the province of Buenos Aires where there are no ethnic restaurants. *sob* Any and all spicy food that I eat comes from my kitchen. Surely there are some Indian restaurants in the Capital Federal, but I have never been to one there.

  10. uuu- life without ethnic restaurants! Rough one. Bet you learn to be a really good cook that way!

  11. You must have been so frustrated!

    I wonder if the agent would have found them if the spices were packed in, say, an aspirin jar — something that looked legit. Or are there dogs at the airport that sniff out spices too?

  12. Pingback: I was a Peruvian Dishtowel Smuggler « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  13. Hmm- good question.. but my smuggling days are really over!

  14. Ugh, makes me physically ill to think of all that good flavor wasted. Thankfully I’ve been able to find most of what I want locally, but my daughter has sent a care package or two with some spices that we can’t get here.

  15. ssshhhh! Don’t tell anyone! Your secret’s safe with me… err…. us!
    But not having access to it here sure makes me appreciate the stuff all the more when I can get it!

  16. After 3 years living in BA, I can say that ethnic food is not much better over the Andes, although there’s some half decent Middle Eastern and Armenian food in the capital. Peruvian food is a million times better in Chile which makes up for a lot of the lack of variety here, in my book.

    My father and step-mother managed to get raw British butcher’s sausages and bacon through customs here, despite the SAG official seeing them on the x-ray machine and asking a lot of questions. The answers to all the questions were: ‘It’s cooked meat’ (mentira) and they let it through. I ate it all a couple of weeks ago when my bacon withdrawal symptoms were at their peak.

  17. You’re right about the Peruvian food! And to think the rest of the world is just beginning to discover it.
    Your parents (and you too!) got lucky. I recently came in between a Peruvian woman who got carted away for cazuela smuggling (honest, she had tupperware containers full of stew!) and a Japanese woman with a suitcase full of mystery items that had the SAG officials scratching their heads. They quickly lost all interest in me and the hard drive I had in my bag!

  18. can't tell , maybe juanito?? but we know each other margaret

    easy. put everything in your pocket as people don’t get screened. buy those pants with lots of storing room and you can bring in everything you like as long as it fits in the pocktes. tHIS Includes spices, that dangerous cheese made out of non pasturized milk, seeds and yes…. vines (at least cutings) and all sorts of planting material.

  19. Hi, er, Juanito…
    Really? People don’t get screened? What about those sniffing dogs in the baggage areas?
    But, like I said… I’ve changed my sinful ways and am doing my part to keep Chile clean, green, and spiceless!

  20. Pingback: Cachando Chile: a Year in Review « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  21. mmm, So sad. But you should know there is a reason for what just happend to your spices.
    Chile is an island in south america, the other countries are full of bugs and diseases, thats why the SAG is so strict.
    We have to take care of our agriculture, and save ourselfs from the deadly drosophila melanogaster from Peru, or the cow fever of Argentina. Agriculture is very important and our wines, fruits and vegetals are so popular here in Europe. You can still find some of those spicys in Stgo, you just have to look for it. Its not part of our diet, and eating really spicy for us is like killing the food. But i guess unless you come from a country were food is cooked like that your wouldn’t understeand.
    I’m just gonna say i fill proud of our SAG. They are doing their job
    Nice blog, i enjoy a lot reading your understeanding of our cutlure. I had leave in the US for some time, i might start writing on my behalf about the situations i had lived there.
    Saludos desde Europa

  22. Hi Javi-
    Yes, I do know and respect the reasons for this measure… I work closely with the wine industry and understand the potential for disaster to Chile’s agriculture and economy if some of these diseases entered the country, so yes… I support SAG’s efforts… and do NOT bring in any unauthorized substance (I even declare my wasabi-coated peas that I bring back from the US–which ARE allowed, by the way!)…
    Thanks for your comments on the blog–glad you enjoy it–and maybe you should write a blog about your experiences in Europe!

  23. I agree with Javi about SAG and about Chilean attitude to spices. What really surprises me is that so many gringos miss the spicy food of Bolivia, Mauritania or who knows where (clearly not from Chile or the US).
    I know that Chilean food is dull–like many things Chilean—, but now there are plenty of foreign restaurants in Santiago and Viña.

  24. Hi Raúl. Yep, no complaints about SAG being ultra protective… Are you surprised that gringos like spicy food? (some do, some don’t, of course)… but I think most of us who are willing to travel to the ends of the earth (AKA Chile) like variation, and yes, Chile’s larger cities, especially Santiago, Viña, and Valpo, have a much greater selection of food options.

  25. Hi,
    I was just going over SAG’s list and was wondering where maple syrup would fall? It’s not a bee product, but it’s honey-like and from a tree. I’m wondering whether it’s worth traveling to Chile with it, if it’s going to get thrown out because it’s so expensive.

  26. Hi Camila-
    I don’t think there’s a problem with maple syrup. It is not a bee product and therefore is not honey (which in English only refers to a product from bees). Syrup is a sugar product (in this case, made from maple sugar which is reduced from maple sap). Since it is a cooked product, there should be no problem whatsoever. If anyone asks, be sure to tell them it is ALMIBAR, not “miel”.
    Please let us know if you have any problems!

  27. Hello All,
    Recently my wife not being aware of the restrictions, came off the ship in Valparaiso with some spices that we had found in Usuraia, Argentina. Unfortunately, she had them in her carryon luggage, and they were found by the SAG agent. He filled out some sort of citation which required that she appear in one of their courts on a particular day which is now past, and we weren’t about to return for her appearance. Does anyone know how their government responds to someone not appearing?


  28. Hi Norm-
    Oops- your ship should’ve warned you about that, but what’s done is done. I really don’t know what will happen–nothing probably, since you don’t live here. They might be interested in her should she come back this way again though! It might not be a bad idea to try and check with International Police to see what they have to say… just in case!
    I hope that your time in Chile was wonderful otherwise!
    If anyone else knows the real answer, I’d sure love to hear it too-

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