Secret Stores...A Good Thing?

Jakarta’s imported food situation has reached CODE RED--CRISIS level. Thanksgiving 2006 was the first time we were personally affected by imported food shortages—canned cranberries and pumpkin, stuffing mix and marshmallows were no where to be found. Everyone American we knew was hunting for them, searching cupboards, sending SMS updates with markets checked, hording was rumored, clandestine trips to Singapore grocery stores planned. Since all the other usual imported goods were available, we chalked that shortage up to a general lack of knowledge about necessary Thanksgiving foods—after all, it is an American holiday.

The next imported food crisis moved into the CODE YELLOW category as it included alcohol thus affecting the entire Ex-pat community. Word was it was due to Muslim Indonesia’s aversion to alcoholic beverages—or someone didn’t pay off the right customs people.

The crisis after that followed the Melamine scare and met with a sympathetic CODE GOOD. Sure we were all irritated by the unavailability of our favorite comfort foods, including mayonnaise, salad dressing, cheese, cereal—specifically bran cereals (those of a certain age worry about regularity), and pickles, but we appreciated the Indonesian governments quick reaction to the Melamine scare and their efforts to protect us from possible harm. (That scare, you might recall, prompted the great Pickle Making Experiment of January 2009. For more than you want to read on that see the blog posting Jan. 7: “Pickled.”)

Government Line has it that the current food shortage is because certain…most… seemingly all of the usual imported foods do not meet the rigid labeling requirements for imports. This stuck me as funny since I didn’t know Indonesia had labeling requirements at all.

This current food crisis, which has already lasted 6 or more months— with no end in sight— is forcing Expats in need to take action. Visitors are being sent shopping lists with items they must hide in their luggage before relatives will welcome them into Jakarta. Back in the day, as the old-timers tell it, bringing back coolers stuffed with forbidden pork items, including diapers and kiddie food was routine. But that was in the good old days of generous baggage and weight allowances on airplanes. Suitcases are being checked on day-long doctor trips to Singapore so they can be stuffed full for the return flights and…”Secret Stores” are springing up.

This morning my e-mail included a note from one of the most active Secret Stores.” The advert read: OUR "SECRET STORE" HAS LIMITED SUPPLIES OF THINGS YOU MAY BE LOOKING FOR! Order NOW while supplies last!

The note went on to list “necessary” items available including:

  • Downey Fabric Softener, 40 sheets Rp 45,000; 90 sheets 90,000
  • Texas Pork Breakfast Sausage, RP 70,000 per pound
  • Oscar Meyer Bacon, 1 pound, Rp 70,000
  • Oscar Meyer Hot Dogs, 8 pack, Rp 70,000
  • 8 Hot Dog buns (no brand noted—don’t hot dog buns usually come in packs of 10?)
  • Velveeta Cheese-ish product, 8 oz; Red Cheddar Block, 8 oz; Rp 40,000
  • Imported Cream Cheese, 8 oz, Rp 50,000
  • Gold Medal Flour, 5-lb. Rp 60,000, 2-lb. Rp 30,000
  • Whole Wheat Flour, Rp 40,000 per kg
  • Imported Pure Cane Sugar, best for baking! Rp 60,000 per lb.
  • Powdered Sugar, for icings! Rp 60,000 per lb.
  • Brown Sugar, Rp 60,000 per lb.
  • Chocolate Chips, Rp 50,000 per 12-oz. bag
  • Vanilla Extract, Rp 40,000 per 100-gram bottle
  • Desiccated Coconut, Rp 50,000 per lb.
  • Baker's Angel Flake Coconu, Rp 70,000 per lb.
  • Cocoa Powder, Rp 50,000 per lb.
  • PAM Non-Stick Cooking Spra, Rp 90,000 per can

What interested me about these "secret stores" (aside from the exorbitant price one pays for contraband) is this: with the exception of PAM Non-Stick Cooking Spray, local substitute are readily available for each of them—including bacon, sausage, and hot dogs for which beef and chicken versions abound. Sure the flavor, texture, and bakeablity is different, sometimes odd—for instance, local flour is much finer and fluffier than good-ole Gold Medal so more is needed to make cookies puff-up; and in the case of the chocolate chip substitute, a baker has to smash up Cadbury bars thus creating chunks instead of tidy chips. If, however, one is truly desperate, the local products work

What really made me stop and think was the cost of these items. Sure, if one really, really, really needs Hellman’s Mayonnaise, as I do, even though a local version and Curtis’s fav, Miracle Whip (gag) are sold, then one will do just about anything including pay through the nose, break laws…break legs and backs, to get them. But seriously, Downey Softener Sheets???

One thing Indonesia does have, which rivals or surpasses any available anywhere, is fresh, fresh, fresh, fruit and vegetables, eggs, fish and chicken—and so cheap. So I ask myself and you, whether shopping in a “Secret Store,” smuggling, or cruising Wal-Mart or Whole Food aisles: Beyond the cost in terms of money or freedom, what is the cost of these items in terms of our health?

P.S. The spellchecker in Microsoft Word has Hellman’s, Velveeta, and Wal-Mart pre-loaded in the dictionary. Go figure...