Bhutan, the last true Himalayan Kingdom, has worked hard to retain every aspect of its cultural identity. Every home that is built must conform to guidelines that mandate traditional woodwork and craftsmanship on the facade. Whenever a Bhutanese citizen sets foot on the premises of a government office, a school, or a college, they are required by law to don traditional attire – the gho (for men) and the kira (for women). The Kingdom of Bhutan not only keeps its traditions alive from within – it also takes active steps to limit outside influence while reaping the economic benefits of tourism. Only 21,000 foreign tourists are allowed to visit each year, and each of these tourists is required by law to a) book all travel through a licensed Bhutanese or international travel agency; b) spend a minimum of US$ 200 per day, paid in advance, for food, transport, sightseeing and accommodation; and c) enter the country via air, thereby filling the coffers of DrukAir, Bhutan’s state-owned monopoly airline (as of August, Buddha Air, a Nepalese airline, is also being allowed to operate flights into Bhutan).
Happily, thanks to the bonhomie between our two countries, none of these strictures apply to Indian citizens. Indians are allowed to enter Bhutan by road, without a visa (you need a permit-on-arrival, though); make their own travel arrangements; and spend however much (or however little 🙂 ) moolah they choose.
Bhutanese Food: hot, hotter, hottest
Bhutan was the final destination on our Great Indian Family Road Trip. Driving into the country is surreal. One minute, you’re in Jaigaon, a dirty little West Bengal highway town; the next, you’re passing through an elaborate archway, erected to mark that imaginary line we call a national border. Suddenly, you find yourself in another country… and the fact that it is another country is unmistakable. It’s cleaner – far cleaner. The people are dressed differently. The buildings are distinctly Bhutanese. And the food – well, that’s the first thing we checked out, even before getting our permits.
Bhutanese cuisine is… well, unusual. For one thing, the country has an obsession with chillies, treating them as a vegetable rather than a spice, and cooking and eating them as entrées in their own right. For another, the range of the cuisine seems to be confined to just four variables:
- the kind and quantity of chillies used;
- the kind of meat, if any, preferred;
- the addition or omission of a vegetable (usually radish, cabbage, potato or mushroom); and
- the presence or absence of datse (a local cheese akin to paneer).
A dish called phing was the only thing we tried that added a fifth dimension to this simple culinary algorithm: glass noodles. Otherwise, the combinations are limited only by your preference. No spices, seasonings, or herbs are added – just salt, leaving your taste buds to discern which of the three categories (hot, hotter, hottest) each dish belongs to.
Bhutan’s cool climes are perfect for growing asparagus, and the Bhutanese like to eat copious quantities of young asparagus spears boiled in water that’s been generously laced with butter.
If boiled asparagus isn’t your thing, though, you could begin your exploration of the Bhutanese culinary landscape with ema datse, popularly known as Bhutan’s ‘national dish’. Ema datse consists of a quarter of a kilo of slit green chillies (ema), cooked with chopped onion, and smothered in a sauce made from datse. If you like meat, you can add add a small amount of phagsa (pork), norsha (fresh beef) or shakam (dried beef) to the mix.
This is consumed as a sort of curry-dip with eue chhum, a local red rice with a distinctly nutty aroma. Yes, you eat the chillies whole. Yes, with the seeds still in. No, postprandial life support is usually not necessary.
What’s that? You’re going to want a side dish? Sure, help yourself to some eezay – finely chopped fresh red chillies and raw onion, seasoned with salt and lime juice.
Oh. You aren’t exactly keen on chillies as a side dish. In that case, would you care for some paa, meat pan fried with fiery red chillies until its fat is infused with their heat? Paa is available in phagsa, norsha and shakam (dried beef) versions. You’re vegetarian? No problem, Try kewa (potato) or shamu (mushroom) ema datse… yes, you’re right, that’s just ema datse with a veggie thrown in.
The only time we tasted anything other than eue chhum, paa, phing, and various avatars of ema datse, was in a tiny little restaurant in Thimphu. We got a delicately flavored ginger rice in place of the red rice, and sliced ema roast pork (yes, it was spicy)… and a beef ema datse, without which we were told that our meal would have been incomplete.
Too hot to handle?
Why the chilli mania? Because it’s extremely cold up there! In a concession to those who are not blessed with a fireproof palate, some eateries in Bhutan thoughtfully deseed the chillies. In my usual bid to eat like a local, however, we stuck to the more fiery versions. Surprisingly, the excessive use of chilli does not kill all flavor – rather, it acts as a counterfoil to the creaminess of the cheese and the plain-Jane treatment of the meat. I especially enjoyed the kick it added to the otherwise bland datse sauce.
Mr. Small and I are chilli-heads; although my own palate soon tired of the lack of variety in flavor, Mr. Small couldn’t get enough. And although Giant Vacuum Cleaner couldn’t consume his usual awe-inspiring quantities at each meal, he loved eezay (we brought a jar each of beef and fish eezay back with us). As for The Spouse,who is a self-confessed chilli-wimp, suffice it to say that he ate mountains of asparagus over the duration of our stay. Don’t waste a minute of your time feeling sorry for him, though – every plate of asparagus was washed down with ara, the local liquor – a somewhat smoother version of the rice-based raksi of Sikkim. Asparagus and ara – now that’s what I call a healthy meal!