Chilies and Cheese

Posted on July 15, 2010

Bhutan has no fast food and no chain restaurants. Many of our meals are taken in hotels, as often there is no other real option in a given area, with some of the hotels in remote locations. Some of the chefs have been sent abroad by the government, to learn how to cook for outsiders. At one point the government thought it necessary that someone in Bhutan know how to make fancy pastries, so they sent a promising cooking student to Switzerland to learn the art of European pastry. Not entirely sure this is progress. These days most chefs train their proteges, and each time I visit I find more and more places where the chefs expertise impresses ones palate. Still many of my groups find the food monotonous, though none argue it's not healthy. This group has not a complaint about the food, and I'm finding some of the places that 2 years ago would not have scored high in my book, now turnout really good food. Everything is fresh, local and organic, as that's the way it has been for thousands of years, and the introduction of chemical in farming is close to non existent.

There's this love for chilies so strong that Bhutanese can discuss chilies the way French can discuss wine.

Bhutanese eat red rice and chilies mixed with cheese (emma daatse). The red rice is a whole grain rice, more pink than red and tasting much like brown rice. While a staple on Bhutanese tables, we often get white rice, though we've told Dorji when there's a choice, we only want the red stuff. But it seems that the idea in much of Asia, that whole grain rice is for poor people has gained currency amongst restaurateurs here, thus white rice is served so as not to offend us, make us think we're being fed poor people food. It cannot help that when Japanese visit Bhutan, they refuse to eat Bhutanese rice, and bring their own rice. Worse than that, they bring their own food and water and often refuse to eat anything actually produced in Bhutan; germophobic, xenophobic, I don't know, but weird, weird, weird. All this mind you in one of the cleanest countries in Asia.

There's this love for chilies so strong that Bhutanese can discuss chilies the way French can discuss wine. Not the way American discuss wine, as this would make them chili snobs, and remember this is a Buddhist country in the truest sense of the word and one up man ship is unknown. Chilies with cheese, which means whole chilies in a cheese sauce, the chili a vegetable and not a seasoning or flavoring. The other main spicy staple is azay, a sort of fresh made condiment, chopped chilies, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cheese, some oil and then dried chilies for good measure, As it does not always appear on the table, we request, and moments later hear the chopping sound from the kitchen, then the azay arrives. The azay and emma daatse assault your taste buds (in the nicest possible way) and are counterbalanced by the savory flavors of sauteed or stir fried vegetables, battered eggplant or bitter melon, curries, chicken and beef, as well as wind dried pork (that's bacon to you and me, but they do dry strips of it from what looks like cloth lines), and finally fish, always with bones, always imported from India, and always our least favorite. Dorji always calls ahead to restaurants, in order for food to be ready upon our arrival (I tell you, is this service or what?) and he learns the likes and dislikes of each group, so orders according. While he speaks in Dzongha, I often hear the words "with bones" in English so I know he is discussing fish. Is there no word in Dzongha for 'bone?'

As Bhutanese are Buddhists, they don't slaughter cattle here for the most part, but import from India. They do slaughter pigs, chicken, and yak in season (just in case you're worried, yak season in only in the winter, but it tastes just like tough beef; it's not like restaurants in Cambodia whose menus read "we promise, no cat, no dog, no worm, no snake." If you ask a Bhutanese about the hypocrisy of eating meat killed by others, they have a good argument: it is better to eat only rice, whose cultivation kills many insects and worms in the field, or to simply kill a pig, resulting in the death of only one organism. I can't wait to use this argument on the next sanctimonious vegan I meet.

An article in the newspaper yesterday announces a tax on junk food, now entering the country from India. Mostly in the form of potato chips and candy. The ever vigilant government talks about an increase in obesity (though I've yet to see a fat Bhutanese) and increase in diabetes. The attitude here seems to be to stop problems before they begin. One reason being this is a poor country (it's actually one of the world's poorest countries, but yet without poverty, as the wealth is evenly distributed) and they wisely want to spend money on prevention, as it's obviously cheaper than the cure. With this in mind, (I'm getting a bit sidetracked here, forgive me, but I can't resist mentioning) they actually have a National Health Care system, free to all and you get to choose between western or traditional Bhutanese medicine. And if the government cannot treat you in Bhutan, they send you overseas for whatever procedure is required. Amen.