In the late ’90s, it seemed the only place to find certain spice blends, outside of a few villages in India, was the kitchen cabinet of my parents’ house in southern Connecticut. Growing up, I’d aimlessly peruse our pantry, stumbling upon Skippy containers filled with mysterious powders in deep browns, reds, and oranges. A container of fresh masala eternally lived in the fridge crisper drawer. At the time, I didn’t fully understand these ingredients or how, exactly, they arrived in our New England kitchen. I just knew they turned bland pink chicken into delicious brown curries flecked with neon yellow turmeric, and transformed plain cubes of pork into bright orange sorpotel.
Almost every year until my sisters and I hit high school, my family would go to India to visit relatives. Unbeknownst to me, my parents weren’t coming back just with memories of home. They were also bringing back some of its tastes: foods from small villages in Mangalore, seaside towns in Goa, and big cities like Bangalore. They double-bagged masala packets, nearly the size of burritos, and stored them in aroma-concealing containers like pharmacy jars from my grandfather’s medical clinic in Mumbai. Other family members employed more elaborate measures. My great aunt would vacuum-seal her homemade masala and affix a homemade but very slick-looking label, disguising her mysterious sack of red powder as a fake store-bought product called Magic Masala.
These surreptitious souvenirs were never okay with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. While dry spices and condiments are generally allowed into the U.S., the CBP bans agricultural items that could harbor “plant pests and foreign animal diseases,” and authorities generally frown upon homemade foods they don’t recognize. The Department of Agriculture makes it clear that travelers won’t face penalties if they declare agricultural items, but inspectors could throw out prized foods. If travelers are caught smuggling, the punishment is left to the discretion of the individual Customs agent: sometimes a warning, other times a fine. Elsewhere around the world, penalties can be even worse.
The CBP became even stricter following the 9/11 attacks, when Congress created the Transportation Security Administration, adding increased security along with seemingly arbitrary rules to routine flights. It also signaled a culture shift that recast illicit foods in a new light. The CBP now cites “agro-terrorism” as a real post-9/11 threat, despite the rarity of such crimes. In a 2005 Congressional hearing set on “evaluating the threat of agro-terrorism,” Connecticut Rep. Rob Simmons noted only 12 documented cases of non-state uses of biological agents since 1912, only two of which were “terrorist in nature.” No matter how remote the possibility of terrorism, the CBP has responded with renewed vigor, shifting focus from the “unintentional introduction of pests or diseases” to combating perceived nefarious threats intentionally hidden in agricultural items.
Despite the threat of punishment looming over every encounter with Customs, my parents — and countless other would-be smugglers — recognize how important it is to enjoy foods from their homelands in the U.S. When it comes to flying with food, they’re all Goodfellas: Keep your mouth shut, and never rat on your friends.
My late grandfather used to tell my mom it was not worth bringing food from India to America. There are so many great things to eat in the U.S., he’d say. But he broke that rule for one thing: the pickles his mom made from the mangoes grown in their front yard in Brahmavar, a small town north of Mangalore. It seems like everyone has a mango pickle of their own, a food infused with a special flavor or sentiment that supersedes all man-made laws. A packet of spices, or a frozen block of biryani, or links of extremely pungent sausage that would surely destroy the contents of a suitcase were they to leak — these are more than small indulgences with giant carbon footprints.
For those who’ve settled thousands of miles from where they grew up, the upsides are many. These ingredients offer a taste of home in a place that is otherwise unfamiliar, or worse, unwelcoming. Research has shown that smell is the sense most connected to memory, so filling a kitchen with a familiar aroma might be the closest thing to teleportation.
Foods aren’t just vehicles for nostalgia, either. They can keep traditions alive in a new country. I grew up in a Connecticut house filled with traditional Mangalorean and Goan foods, an upbringing that took much more work than I ever considered as a kid. Many of the same flavors that my parents associated with home are also my tastes of home, even if I grew up thousands of miles away from their point of origin. The sense memories they’ve passed down to me are a form of cultural inheritance.
“Cooking food that tastes like something I ate in Singapore kind of tides me over until the next time I can go back,” says Taina Teravainen, an otherwise law-abiding citizen similarly willing to risk fines to travel with food. Over the last eight years living in U.S., she routinely flew back to Singapore and returned with packets of curry, nyonya sauce (a deeply flavorful mix of galangal, coconut milk, and curry leaves), garlic chile sauce, Chinese herbal soup mixes, and kaya jam (made from pandan and coconut). She carries jars wrapped in clothes, bubblewrap, or taped-up Ziplock bags. More than just a taste of home, she says these items are “a nice reminder that somewhere else claims me too.”
For some, though, it’s less about emotions and more about business. Many food-industry professionals have no choice but to travel with contraband. For Erika Kubick, cheesemonger turned “cheese preacher” at Cheese Sex Death, flying with the stinky stuff is standard. “I’m fully aware it’s illegal,” Kubick says, “but it’s just so worth it. And I just think it’s ridiculous that we’re not allowed to have [certain cheeses] in America.” While she avoids traveling with delicate “ooey-gooey” cheeses that could spoil even in a cooler, she has flown into the U.S. with French charcuterie and raw milk butter (which she suggests spreading on cheese).
“My method, personally, is to wrap it in all my dirty laundry because really stinky cheeses, some of them have a bacteria on the outside called B. linens. It’s the same bacteria that lives in human sweat.” She also relies on Global Entry, allowing her to breeze through Border Control with just a scan of her fingerprints.
“I never made it through without the Customs people hauling me over,” says chef Anita Jaisinghani. “And I would just say okay, sometimes they’ll let me through. I’ll just take my chance. If they throw it away, they throw it away. At least I tried.” The chef now runs the popular Houston restaurant Pondicheri, but she began flying with food in the ’80s when she first moved from India to Edmonton, Canada.
She didn’t waste any time, filling one of two suitcases entirely with food on her first flight. Even after a bottle of mustard oil ruptured in one of her bags, ruining her clothes, and after run-ins with authorities — Canadian agents once accused her of trafficking a new drug when she attempted to bring in datun, a twig used for cleaning teeth in ayurvedic medicine — the chef continued for years to transport ingredients on the sly for research and development. After retrieving a mawa cake from the 100-year-old Mumbai institution B. Merwan, she reverse-engineered her own version, which became a smash hit among her American customers.
Chef JJ Johnson of Harlem restaurant FieldTrip doesn’t even limit himself to foods unavailable in the U.S. He argues that some ingredients are just higher quality abroad, so they’re worth risking confrontation. For example, he says he has purchased superior turmeric in India to what he can find in America because the spice has a longstanding role in Indian culture for its taste and medicinal properties. He explains that in India, “that tumeric farmer, that’s all they do. And they live based off of how much amazing turmeric they sell.” He compares this to what’s found on the shelves in the United States, where “it’s just getting injected into the culture because scientists or health people are telling you about it.”
But Johnson’s record isn’t spotless. “My most embarrassing trip was coming from Israel,” he says. “The [Israeli authorities] opened my bag. They must’ve been so furious with me that they cut the spice bags open [but left them in the bag].” When his suitcase emerged on the carousel at JFK, it nearly exhaled paprika, turmeric, and curry. “It was like they were trying to embarrass me. Like, ‘Okay, you want to take some stuff home? Then your clothes are gonna smell like it.’”
“I’ve had Customs officers ask me if I’m bringing food through, and when I said no, they look skeptical and say, ‘Are you sure?’” says Teravainen. “I have a U.S. passport, though, and can speak in a generic American-accented English, and I think that has shielded me from most harsh treatment.”
Regulations were not always so strict. My dodda (grandmother) came to the United States from Mangalore in the ’80s transporting laddoos (Indian sweets made of rice powder, brown sugar, and powdered nuts) to her daughter and son-in-law. When a Customs agent asked what they were, she explained. The agent took one, ate it, then let her through.
As restrictions have increased and airports have employed new measures like food-sniffing beagles, even persistent food smugglers have hung up their Ziplocks, especially with global ingredients increasingly available stateside. Jaisinghani rarely bothers traveling with food anymore, since Houston is now home to many Indian grocers.
But many more continue to take the chance — for work, a taste of home, or simply because there is something inherently satisfying about successfully smuggling contraband. Whether it’s soup mix mummified in plastic wrap or biryani stuffed inside a sweatshirt, good food outweighs any risk.
Ashwin Rodrigues is a writer based in Brooklyn.
Minnie Phan is an illustrator and cartoonist based in the Bay Area. She specializes in editorial and children book illustrations.