You’ve probably seen them by now: the empty shelves in your local Lidl, Aldi or Rewe where the cooking oil used to be. In an ominous echo of March 2020, signs on the shelves inform shoppers that they’re only allowed to purchase a couple of litres, “for household use”.
A side effect of the war in Ukraine, the world’s leading exporter of sunflower oil? Partly – but the situation is worse than you think. And for Berlin restaurants, many of which still have yet to fully recover from the impact of Covid-19, it could be catastrophic.
Sichuan lunch spot Liu Chengdu Wei Dao, whose signature noodle dishes rely on copious amounts of homemade chilli oil for their characteristic flavour, was among the first to call attention to the crisis with an Instagram post on March 15. On the phone, co-owner Bernhard Sroka described a convergence of factors that led to a shortage of both sunflower and rapeseed (canola) oil, the two most commonly used cooking oils.
“We knew without our chili oil, we could close in three days.”
It all started last year with a failed canola oil harvest in Canada, he told us. “Already then, our suppliers put up a sign saying you should only take 5 or 10 bottles.”
Covid-related supply chain interruptions exacerbated the issue, while the increased use of biodiesel fuel in Germany further drove up demand for plant oil. And then came the war.
“At the beginning of February, we saw that they put up the signs again, so we started buying a little bit more,” said Sroka. “We knew without our chili oil, we could close in three days.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine, supplies dried up almost entirely. Today at Metro and Hamburger Großmarkt, the wholesalers relied on by nearly all Berlin restaurateurs, “they put out one pallet in the morning, if you’re lucky. If you come in time, you might get something. It’s the same with supermarkets. We tried our suppliers for the Asian stuff in Holland – overnight they called us back, saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t help either.’”
When oil is to be found, it’s astronomically priced. “Before Covid we paid €1.09 a litre. After Covid, it was 50 cents more. Now it’s up to €2.50.”
Curiously, the bottleneck doesn’t yet apply to Frittieröl (fryer oil), a specialised blend of sunflower and rapeseed oil formulated to have a high smoking point. Vladi Gachyn of Goldies, the gourmet French fry stand on Oranienstraße, assured us his restaurant would keep serving Pommes for the foreseeable future. “We do use pure sunflower oil for mayonnaise and our other sauces. Our suppliers let us buy 50 litres of that a week, since they know we’re not ‘hamstering’ and we’ll use it all. That’s just on the edge of what we need, so we’re looking for other sources… we’ll see how the next weeks develop.”
The situation at Liu is more precarious. Unable to substitute Frittieröl as a chili oil base (it would affect the taste too much), they’re trying to stay afloat by reducing the amount they use in their dishes. A difficult task in Sichuan cuisine, where “we really love oil”, per Sroka. “For now, we’re separating the chilis from the chili oil and putting those on the noodles, along with just a little bit of oil. It does make things on the spicier side.”
Between the rationing and the judicious use of olive oil, which is still widely available but too expensive to be cooked with in large quantities, he estimates Liu can stay open for “another two months. Maybe more, as fewer people have been coming in since we made that Instagram post.”
Fear of scaring away patrons might be why few other Berlin restaurants have spoken up about their oil woes – with the exception of The Panda Noodle, which announced it would be discontinuing its Thai fried chicken until further notice. But in an anonymous Instagram poll by the group Feminist Food Club, 56 percent of responding restaurateurs reported they were affected.
Like the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine war has exposed the weaknesses in a global food system that most of us have taken for granted our entire lives. Flour is also becoming scarce (Germany doesn’t import much wheat from Ukraine or Russia, but shoppers have been stockpiling it in anticipation of rising prices), and experts are already warning of a mustard shortage that could leave bratwursts naked later this year.
The restaurants fortunate enough to source all the ingredients they need will still have to struggle to keep costs down. “When prices rise in supermarkets, customers are willing to pay,” Gachyn pointed out. “But not in gastronomy.”
There isn’t much he and his fellow chefs can do but roll with the punches, improvise and hope their customers will follow them along for the ride. “You could call it a perfect storm,” Sroka says. “Now we have to see if the house flies away or not.”