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FEATURE-No flour? No fish? Venezuela's chefs get creative amid shortages

CARACAS, Jan 28 (Reuters) - A sushi bar in Caracas makes tempura with ground oats and cornstarch to replace increasingly scarce wheat flour.

A Spanish restaurant, seeking to keep its fare affordable, revamps its paella recipe by removing exorbitantly priced prawns.

Restaurateurs selling "arepas" - the grilled corn pancakes that are a staple across the country - make them a bit smaller to stretch their unsteady supplies of corn flour.

Venezuelan diners continue to eat well despite soaring inflation and chronic food shortages, largely thanks to Herculean efforts by chefs to obtain prized foodstuffs and juggle menus to slow the rising prices.

In working-class canteens and high-end bistros, staff say finding basics such as flour, milk or chicken - all scarce, in large part, because of currency and price controls - requires making repeated trips to markets and harassing providers.

"I haven't been able to buy wheat flour or corn flour for more than a month. I'm working with what I had last year," said Eduardo Castaneda, 45, owner of La Guayaba Verde, or The Green Guava, in Caracas, which offers a modern spin on traditional Venezuelan food.

Venezuela's price controls require staple goods be sold at fixed rates that are at times below production cost, which often leaves them scarce because of the reduced incentive for companies to make or import them.

Even the most ethical of restaurateurs are finding themselves dabbling in the black market to skirt the strict regulations created by the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez and extended by President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela's food shortages are nowhere near as bad as the situation painted by opposition critics, who revel in the idea that government incompetence has created Soviet-style dearth in the country with the world's largest oil reserves.

Restaurants remain packed despite a rise of about 70 percent in the cost of eating out last year and the waiters' mantra: "Sorry, we don't have that."

The average Venezuelan eats eat more and better than they did before Chavez took power in 1999.

One of the most applauded achievements of his 14-year rule was to make food affordable through price controls and subsidized grocery stores, a triumph recognized in 2013 by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Since 1990, Venezuela achieved a 50 percent reduction in the number of citizens facing hunger, the U.N. said - two years ahead of a global target date for reaching that goal.

But without broad economic reforms to ease state control over the economy and boost importers' access to dollars, food shortages may worsen - and eating out may get more difficult.

'WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY HAVE?'

Venezuela's reputation for political conflict and violent crime has upstaged that of a vibrant restaurant scene built up over decades by immigrants from Europe and the Middle East drawn to oil-driven economic opportunity.

Diners who learn a menu item has gone missing often offer waiters a knowing smile or sympathetic eyeball roll as they share their own travails of chasing down groceries.

Others are less charitable.

"People have said, 'This is a fish restaurant and you don't even have fish? What the hell is wrong with you?"' commented one maitre d'. His restaurant specializes in fish-focused Basque food but has struggled to find fish such as grouper, traditionally one of their popular menu items.

Like nearly all those interviewed, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government or stepped-up inspections by state agencies.

The country's main restaurant industry association did not respond to requests for comment.

Sushi bars have been among the hardest hit because they rely heavily on imports including salmon, seaweed and roe that are difficult to acquire because importers cannot obtain dollars, owing to delays in the exchange control system that requires businesses to obtain hard currency through the government.

Tracking down staples such as chicken or flour requires having networks of "friends" at supermarkets or meatpacking houses who sell scarce products above regulated prices in transactions that are kept off the books or disguised through fake receipts.

One well-loved lounge-style Caracas bar and restaurant stopped serving sushi because of the seaweed scarcity. The kitchen switched to making ceviche, only to find shrimp was too expensive and many of the red onions were arriving rotten.

For months the bar did not serve popular cocktails such as Cosmopolitans for lack of cranberry juice.

"What's sad is that people stop complaining, or straightaway ask, 'What do you actually have?' rather than waiting to hear the list of what's missing," said the restaurant's owner.

BLACK MARKET PORK

Chavez's efforts to make food affordable have come at a price: In times of shortage, unethical entrepreneurs buy discount groceries and resell them on the black market.

Authorities last month detained four people at the Budare del Este restaurant in the chic but gaudy Caracas neighborhood of Las Mercedes on charges of illegally buying subsidized food, including nearly a tonne of pork and half a tonne of chicken.

"Those products are meant to meet the needs of Venezuelan families, not to line the pockets of scoundrels," wrote Maduro in a series of incensed tweets announcing the operation.

Bakers often seek to protect themselves from wheat flour shortages by building up stocks to meet holiday demand for breads and cakes. If they get inspected, however, they risk accusations of hoarding.

The owner of the lounge-bar restaurant said the combination of product shortages and potential legal pitfalls leaves him feeling like "a bullfighter in the ring waiting to see which beast I'm going to face.

"You wake up every morning and within around 45 minutes you realize some product has gone scarce, and you'll spend the rest of the day figuring out what to do."

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray, Prudence Crowther and Douglas Royalty)