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Munchies

Smuggling Food Through the Airport Can Be Harder Than Smuggling Cocaine

"My own father was once caught at the border with a suitcase full of stuffed pigeons."

by Bo Hanna; translated by Mari Meyer
May 13 2017, 4:00pm

Photo by Flickr user Paul Joseph

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in the Netherlands.

Dutch supermarkets have been stepping up their game when it comes to international food options. Whereas getting something as simple as hummus and falafel used to require a trip to a specialty grocery store, now you can just pick them up along with your regular groceries. Foreign food is becoming increasingly popular in the Netherlands, and it's nice to be presented with a wider variety of choices.

Even so, immigrants still long for certain foreign products that lack a Dutch equivalent. More often than not, they have no choice but to bring those items back in large quantities after they've visited their faraway countries of origin.

You wouldn't necessarily guess this when you're walking around Schiphol Airport, but many of the suitcases around you are stuffed to the brim with burrata, Turkish cotton candy, chicken jerky, and a slew of other tasty delicacies.

"My own father was once caught at the border with a suitcase full of stuffed pigeons."

My family is no different. My brother recently told me that my own father was once caught at the border with a suitcase full of stuffed pigeons my grandmother had given to him. "It was pretty embarrassing: the customs officer slowly lifted the plastic bag, so the dead pigeons were hanging in the air between him and my dad," my brother recalled. "Dad had the guts to ask if he could keep at least one of them. The customs officer didn't like the joke, so he threw everything in the trash right in front of us." We were only allowed to keep our cans of of Fayrouz, a non-alcoholic, pineapple-flavored Egyptian beer.

The rules and regulations for bringing food into the Netherlands are quite strict. It's easier to move food around if you're in the EU, because the health codes don't vary as much between countries. But outside the EU, you're not allowed to carry animal products with you unless you have a certificate for them. You don't just run the risk of losing your stuff—you also might get hit with a substantial fine.

READ MORE: Don't Try to Smuggle Raw Chicken in Your Luggage

I spoke to Dutch people with foreign backgrounds who've hidden food in their luggage just like my dad did, and asked whether they narrowly cleared customs or were caught red-handed.

Hélène Christelle (23), Rwanda

My family and I will often bring back a kilogram of fufu, or cassava flour, from Rwanda. It's the main ingredient in many African dishes, but customs sometimes mistakes it for cocaine. It's basically white powder in a paper bag. We've had many funny encounters at the airport because of it.

"Bringing cassava powder home is almost as difficult as smuggling cocaine."

I remember the expression on this one customs officer's face when my luggage went through the scanner. His face got red—he panicked and stopped the machine, then ran to get three of his colleagues. Together they eagerly opened my hot pink suitcase. It wasn't until they took the fufu out and inspected it that I realized they thought it was drugs.

They didn't use any drug detection dogs, but started sniffing the package themselves. I had a hard time keeping a straight face. After I explained what it was multiple times, they still body searched me three times.

It seems like you can only bring back exotic foods that are somehow mainstream in the West. Nobody says anything when you have dried noodles in your bag. But lesser known items are confiscated, and because of that we have [significantly] less access to our own food. Eventually the customs people let me go, but I wasn't allowed to take the fufu. Bringing cassava powder home is almost as difficult as smuggling cocaine.

Liza Lebedeva, Russia

Russian candy. Photo by Liza Lebedeva

My family and I have lived in the Netherlands for 17 years, but when it comes to food, we're Russian through and through. Our food is much heavier than Dutch food; we eat a lot of sausage and sauerkraut. There are Russian supermarkets here, but those products have a different taste to them—they're made with different ingredients from Germany.

"In response to the EU sanctions, Russia now has a boycott on food from the EU. It's very sad."

Whenever my parents and I go to Russia together, we take an extra suitcase just so we can fill it with food. We bring back sausages, special cheeses, candy, cookies, caviar, and a Russian soda that resembles Coca Cola. Our Russian relatives get Dutch food: caramel wafers, different kinds of cheese, and herring. Because of the political sanctions, Russians can hardly buy any foreign products. In response to the EU sanctions, Russia now has a boycott on food from the EU. It's very sad. My family loves cheese, but the only things they can buy in Russia are fake mozzarella and faux Parmesan.

Russian caviar. Photo by Liza Lebedeva

You have to be careful crossing the border with all that cheese. Customs will take it if they think it's intended for sale. Usually my dad is able to convince the customs guys that it's for personal use, but one time they didn't believe him and they took the whole suitcase. [Confiscated items] supposedly "get destroyed," but I'm pretty sure the guys from customs take it all home and eat it [themselves].

Suzan Yucel, Turkey

"I can still remember standing there: my heart beating fast, a suitcase filled with illegal food items at my side, and the only argument at my disposal was that my grandmother made me do it."

It's very common for Turkish people to take a lot of food back to the Netherlands after a family visit. My grandmother once gave me a suitcase full of börek [pastries], meat, Turkish cotton candy, and halva [confections]. That's not allowed, because [some of] those are animal products. I was terrified I would get caught and fined at customs. I didn't dare to refuse my grandmother's request even though I felt embarrassed. I can still remember standing there: my heart beating fast, a suitcase filled with illegal food items at my side, and the only argument at my disposal was that my grandmother made me do it. Luckily nobody caught me, and I was able to enjoy the food for a long time after.

Pete Wu, China

Pete's uncle with a suitcase of food. Photo by Pete Wu

Just like any other Chinese family, my family brings suitcases full of food back from China. Mostly dried fruit, dried fish, and chicken, and sometimes slimy shells in vinegar. When my mom and I visited China together last year, I was instructed not to buy anything. My mom was very strict about it, because our suitcases were reserved for food items.

My parents are always anxious when they go through customs. Every Chinese person with a lot of luggage is considered suspicious. There's a lot of stories about people who get caught at the very last minute. I wasn't worried in the least, though. Ultimately nothing happened, and we cleared customs with our bags overflowing.

Linnea Rungård, Sweden

Photo by Linnea Rungård

I've lived in the Netherlands for a few years now and definitely miss a few things when it comes to food, so I bring [something] back with me [whenever] I visit Sweden. One example is falukorv [traditional Swedish sausage], and Bregott brand butter and dip for potato chips—Dutch dip and butter are absolutely flavorless. Of course I also get Marabou, my favorite [brand of] chocolate, and Kalles caviar.

Kalles is cod roe. It's sold in a tube and we put it on knäckebröd [Swedish crisp bread]. Most foreigners think it smells bad and my roommate didn't even want to try it, but I really need to have it in my fridge. When I go [home] for Christmas, I take extra suitcases so I can carry even more stuff, like Swedish lemonade and my grandmother's jam. I'm already looking forward to going again!