Getting Caffeinated in Bhutan

Posted on December 02, 2015

Cappuccino arrived late in Bhutan. Then again so did pretty much everything else that we in the west take for granted. But real coffee, brewed from ground coffee beans was non-existent in the Kingdom until recently. Bhutan is a country where liquid nourishment, or pleasure came in just a few forms. Traditionally there was ara, brewed from rice or other available grains (no strict recipe), the result a bit like sake, and until recently this the preferred and only tipple in villages, the cause of much pleasure and merriment and probably also lots of hangovers. Decent beer is now available. To fortify oneself for a hard and long day in the fields, as the rice paddies are in need of constant attention during the planting and harvesting season, a drink called suja is favored. Translated to English unfortunately as butter tea, it conjures up a distasteful image in the mind of most non-Bhutanese. Suja is nothing more than a brew of various herbs (none of them actual black tea), salt and butter. It’s broth, nothing more, and its translation as butter tea was a great error in my opinion. I have to lobby hard to get those with me to try it, though when they do, they generally deem it acceptable, if not delicious.

Black tea and sugared and spiced milk tea (naja) are readily available all over Bhutan and much drunk by the Bhutanese. But my palate and body craves larger doses of caffeine and coffee in Bhutan is always the powdered instant version, which the Bhutanese find acceptable, but this is like putting low-grade fuel in my body. I function, but not at peak capacity.

Not bad that I have but one complaint about the country, lousy coffee. The areas in which Bhutan excels are numerous. Many of its virtues have nothing to do with the government or people of Bhutan, they cannot claim credit for eons of geological work that caused the floating plates of Pangaea to crash into the landmass that would later be come to be known as the Indian subcontinent, the collision forming the wrinkled and crumpled result is mile high mountains we now know as the Himalayas. At this latitude and altitude the result is that forests cover these near vertical slopes, lending an already impressive landscape a cover of forest so old and immense, as it’s close to untouchable, that the physical scenery in Bhutan exceeds stunning. Then the people who came to populate this land are not only nice, they are friendly to the extreme not found elsewhere, and seemingly derive from a gene pool that lends them a very pleasant countenance.

Modern Bhutan is a new concept, as the modernization of Bhutan came about in the 1960’s, under the guidance of the wise 3rd king (the story of Bhutan is much the stuff of make believe), who sought the best not just for his people, but also for actual land where his people lived. His son the 4th King continued this slow and well thought out policy of modernization, and decided that good governance, protection of the environment and culture and the idea that this system should all be sustainable would be the corner stones of his reign. His Majesty gave it a name: Gross National Happiness. Sometimes disdained or disparaged outside Bhutan and even hotly debated inside Bhutan, it’s a philosophy of governance, one that is meant to guide all decisions in Bhutan. Depends on who one talks with, or what one reads, but GNH now has enough traction and legs, that criticize it or not, it’s a part of the culture, and informs the development and institutions in Bhutan, much in the same way that in the west we accept labor unions and recycling and affirmative action as something that’s part of the society and culture, though they all come under scrutiny, debate, criticism and praise. But Gross National Happiness says nothing about good coffee.Therefore, with all the accolades one can heap on Bhutan, it seems perhaps petty of me to have actually been telling Bhutanese the one thing I don’t like about their country is that the coffee is bad. Due to politeness and ignorance, no one ever seemed to take offense at my increasingly common lament. I’d instruct those coming with me to bring their own coffee if this was important and many a group brought ground coffee, filters and the plastic cone that one uses to brew drip coffee. Doing this had 2 benefits, we picky foreigners got our coffee fixes, and it provided endless amusement for the staff at breakfast dining rooms, as we fixed our concoctions. They’d typically display enough interest in the process that we’d offer them some of this real coffee of which we were so proud. The result: almost universal disgust. Much too strong for their Nescafe habituated stomachs (though these are the same people that munch entire raw chilies and then make other chilies into the national dish of chilies with cheese, with is simply whole cooked chilies doused in cheese sauce. And brewed coffee upset their stomachs?) Though they quickly cottoned on to the idea of dousing our coffee with milk and sugar, and then pronounced it palatable. Whereas our tender stomachs generally could find no manner to consume more than miniscule amounts of the chili and cheese concoction. So guess who is the more adaptable group here?

One day, my bad coffee lament was met with more than the usual shrug. The woman whose name I forget (but to whom I owe a great debt) said that there is a place in Thimphu, called Ambient Café, located near the traffic circle on Norzin Lam (Main Street); giving directions in Thimphu is ridiculously easy as the place is so small, and if one fails to grasp these instructions, simply ask anyone and they’ll likely lead you to your destination. So I hightailed it over to Ambient Café, and not for the first time in Bhutan felt like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole. Here was an establishment, hiding in plain sight; surely I’d walked by this many times. On the second floor, (which in Bhutan is actually the first floor, as by their easy to follow logic the first floor is the ground floor), there was a café: Eric Clapton playing when I walked in, collection of books and newspapers, tables and sofas, and a very handsome Bhutanese man came over to talk with me. Letho introduced himself as owner, I told him I’d just heard about his café and their good coffee. He smiled modestly and said, “we try our best” and I ordered a cappuccino. It arrived, foam floating on top, a design inscribed in the foam. A picture perfect cappuccino. I fixed my cappuccino with sugar, took a sip, and I was hooked. Not just a good cappuccino, but also one of the best ones ever. Thus began my Bhutanese coffee habit. Daily visits to Ambient Café. The face of Ambient Café is Letho, always there with smile and conversation, though the co-stars of Ambient soon apparent. Junu his wife, in charge of baking the pastries, their son Jigme, only 3 years old at the time, though fluent in 3 languages, and Lama Shenpen, the British monk who lives with Letho and Junu and Jigme and works helping Bhutanese youth with substance abuse problems. Walking into Ambient Café soon became part of my daily routine and it was not long before I felt a part of the Ambient family, a friendly assortment of the most interesting Bhutanese and the handful of foreigners that live in Bhutan. Ambient Café quickly became my home, very far away from home.

I now have no complaints about Bhutan. Superb coffee in Shangri-La, what more can a man ask?