In spite of the pervasive influence of Buddhism, words such as austerity and renunciation don't apply to Bhutanese cuisine
THE ENTRANCE TO THE SACRED INNER TEMPLE OF THE DECHEN PHUG LHAKHANG
My Bhutanese friends tell me that in the country's east it is common custom to wake up with a hot mug of ara (rice beer).
Then maybe another round to help the breakfast down, one before going for work and then in the mid-morning as the sun comes out one more to relax the muscular systems. In the evening, one requires a couple of helpings to ward off the exhaustion of the day, and then a sweet nightcap for a sound sleep.
Given all this, it does not take an Aristotle to figure out that the Bhutanese have a soft spot for the bottle. In the still air of the streetside bars (dim, but not smoky, for it is probably the only country in the world where selling cigarettes is a crime), gho-wearing men hold firmly onto their beer mugs and bottles of Druk 11000.
Women don't drink commonly (or at least not openly) if you discount the breed of old wrinkled matrons who need a couple of early Rock Bee brandies to get them started on their day, but everyday millions of rounds of pegs and pints are consumed (no wonder the country measures development through GNH, or Gross National Happiness).
In fact, I have noticed an interesting ritual where a patron walks into a bar and before embarking on upturning the whisky glass into his mouth dips his little finger into the spirit and sprinkles the liquid in various directions in the manner of a solemn religious rite. And he can afford to do it, literally, for even in the most upmarket street of the capital Thimphu, called the Norzin Lam, a gin and lime in a typical bar costs just Rs15.
The country owes a lot to the spiritual heartland of Tibet including its religion brought in as the legend tells us on a tigress' back by Guru Rinpoche in the seventh century, but its cuisine takes an about turn of its own at least in one significant aspect: chillies. When Bhutanese ladies go out to shop for vegetables in the evening they do not return with merely a fistful of those oblong green canons tucked into the corner of the vegetable pouch as is the norm at your local thelawallah in India, but in fact bags laden with kilograms of chillies, just as you would stock up on potatoes or onions for your monthly supply.
Readers may have heard of Bhutan's national dish ema datsi (see box for recipe). Summed up by the four words, "Cheese, Chilli, Water, Boil" this indigenous style of cooking is astoundingly simple to follow and can also be replicated adding potatoes (called kewa datsi) or local mushrooms (called shamu datsi). Ema Datsi is typically served with some local brown rice (as against white rice which is nearly all imported from India), and the first time I had it in a bar in the border town of Phuentsholing where the saints were subduing demons on the walls through their flowery dances, my tongue nearly propelled out of my mouth in flames.
Not to say that the piquancy is not something one cannot get used to (unlike Naga food, for instance, for which one really does need a mortar shell of a liver). After more than a month in the Himalayan state I do not quite feel satiated if my beef does not have a few adjoining flanks of chillies to give it company. However, I quickly put my arms down when it comes to Sichuan Peppers (a greenish wild pepper locally known as thingye or timur). The LSD of the palate, even the faintest contact with the tongue sends it on a tingling trip. It happened to me first when I tried these large, dark sausages called juma, at another bar in Phuentsholing.
Made out of pigs' intestines and blood and of course, copious amounts of thingye, for a moment I felt as if a battalion of scorpions were marching across the walls of the mouth. A Bhutanese friend, later recounted an instance where he nearly swallowed his tongue for consuming a few spoonfuls too many of the grounded version of this deadly condiment.
Talking of spices, Bhutanese cuisine sets itself apart by a diligently maintained economy of flavours. There is a lot of reliance on texture as in the case of the moist granular rice, the tough meat and the creamy gravy of the ema datsi (usually consumed in a salad bowl) but when it comes to tastes, the only condiment used is cheese.
According to Subasis Bandhopadhyay, former Executive Chef at Taj Tashi, Thimphu which boasts of Chig ja gye, probably the only five-star Bhutanese restaurant in the world: "While travelling across the country, the only culinary variation I came across was the amount of cheese added and the stage during the cooking process at which the cheese is added." Typically soft milk cheese sold in discs and commonly available with streetside vendors is used, and its feta-like softness adds a lot of body to the various curries.
Religion plays an important part in moulding the dietary practices of the Bhutanese people, as seen in their ambivalent attitude to meat. Call it hypocrisy or call it ingenuity, since according to Buddhism, killing a being is a sin while consuming a dead one is not, most of the meat served on the dinner plates of this country (including beef) is imported from India. Thus, the Drukpas (a common name for Bhutanese people derived from the state religion) who love their beef or pork as much as any mountain folk escape piling bad karma upon them by surrogating their sins onto their south Asian neighbours and at the same time indulge to the teeth in the succulent pleasures of flesh.
Such a mentality also means that drying of meats is encouraged since such an intake is considered to be less sinful (and also owing to the harsh inhospitable winters), and across the older parts of Thimphu, it is a common sight to see strips of beef (called shakam) standing under the mountain sun in front of the traditionally-painted wooden windows. That also explains why in spite of the abundance of pristine rivers and streams whose unpolluted waters I suspect are brimming with trout, fish does not constitute an important part of the Bhutanese plate except in certain eastern districts.
Hence a typical Bhutanese meal would be some red rice, shakam pa and a mild-flavoured broth called jaju or some dahl or dhachhu (buttermilk) or even ema datsi. Pa is a style of cooking where huge chunks of meat (be it fresh beef which then is called Norsha Pa, or dried pork which is referred to as Sikam Pa, or even tender pork which makes it Phaksha Pa) are cooked with local seasonal vegetables and chillies in oil. The most common of these vegetables are large local moolis or cabbage, sprawled abundantly on the muddy grounds of the weekend Sabji Bazaar on the banks of the Thimphu river.
My most memorable meal came way above this banal world, among cypress and oak forests at the monastery of Cheri, some 19km north of the capital. One young monk invited me to his quarters and having been drenched to my socks in the monsoon rain, I thought it too unwise to refuse the offer of impending warmth. Inside, I sat down with him and some of his friends over our bowls of red rice and some shakam datsi and during the course of the meal, I noticed some interesting differences in the food etiquettes of the two cultures. I saw that instead of muddling the rice in the wetness of the curry, my Bhutanese fellow diners made balls of it and dipped it into the smaller bowl of datsi before popping it into their mouths. Everyone preferred to sip hot water along with their meals (for once, alcohol had no place here) and the most surprising of them all, none of them washed their hands after it was over. For my Indian sensibilities, it was a little awkward but I ungrudgingly and heartily joined them in licking my fingers clean.Chilli and cheese vegetable
The simplest Ema datsi recipe (Serves 4)
2 cubes of soft milk cheese or processed cheese
2 tbsp refined oil
12 large chillies (either fresh green or dried red)
3 pods garlic
Salt to taste
Slit the chillies lengthwise into four strands, deseed them, and cut on a slant across the width to form two inch long pieces. In a saucepan, add a little water, smashed garlic, oil and the cheese and boil with a lid on medium flame for about four minutes taking care that the chillies must remain al dente. Remove from the fire, mash the now softened cheese with the back of a spoon and mix with the chillies.
Ema datsi is best served with brown mountain rice.
(Courtesy: Ter Dzoe Hotel, Chubachu, Norzin Lam, Thimphu)