Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bhutanese Cuisine – An Adventure in itself

It is no secret that most Bhutanese are calm by nature. This could be attributed to the practice of Buddhism, or to the fact that an essential part of daily adventure is often served on a plate. Bhutanese cuisine is not known to please the taste buds of the foreign guests and its low popularity has failed to draw the attention of food writers and critics. However, one of the foreigners who visited Bhutan happened to be a well-known food critic and, after having dined on its local cuisine rated it as bland, fatty and too hot for the average taste bud. But the recent findings that few international restaurants had the two most popular dishes in Bhutan- Ema Datsi (chilli curry cooked with cheese) and Phaksha Paa (dried pork dish) on their menu point to the fact that it has its share of enthusiasts. The best evidence of this argument on the increasing popularity is well portrayed by the account of the U.S President Barack Obama being served the fiery Bhutanese chilli dish in New York. He is believed to have relished it. However, indulging in the real Bhutanese cuisine which mostly comprises of dried meat(with fats intact), fiery chillies of all possible kinds, bones, hardened and fermented cheese, dried vegetables, etc, is an adventure in itself. It is one that cannot be recommended for the faint hearted, and most guides will recommend that the tourists stick to the continental dishes served in most of the local restaurants. It is but one thrilling adventure that the Bhutanese can’t do without. We, having grown on it, don’t mind seeing the little hairs on the hard skin of our Sikam Paa and love the extra fat on it. To have bones in fish is seen as the biggest crime one can commit as a chef on the international cooking shows, but to a Bhutanese a fish dish is never complete without having the bones in it. Even the soups aren’t Bhutanese if cooked devoid of the bones. We Bhutanese have for long been a tough breed with our muscles as evidence. The mention of muscles here is not the type that adorns the body of the modern day body builders but the ones that aid to excel in the art of eating. Firstly there is the wide and strong jaw muscles built through the rigorous training one endures while indulging in the adventurous dining. One can imagine the growth that results from the consumption of the hardened edibles like the doma (betel nut), bones of all sorts, and hardened cheese. Then there is the other attribute; the chewy aspect of the local delicacies like dried meat (which consist of both fats and sinews), vegetables, and animal hide. Even Chugo (hardened cheese), closest to a candy in the Bhutanese context, requires grit, determination, and extra strong teeth. Savoring its taste is no child’s play. Kai, a Thai tourist, on her first experience with a Chugo tried her best to figure out a way of enjoying it. It was only after three hours of trying that she asked, “Is this thing ever going to finish?” I said that we normally chew it for more than five minutes before it starts to get soft and gives out its taste. Trying to chew on it for several more minutes, she eventually gave in and ended up throwing it away. The strong vocal cords that some of the Bhutanese are famous for could be a part of this genetic muscle growth from adventure dining. Stories suggest that many a Romeos in Bhutan wooed their girls by singing out songs that were audible from as far as across the river, overcoming even the strong sounds of the wild currents. Even the great saint Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and his prophesized consort Khandom Sonam Peldon from the lower wang(Thimphu) valley first met and shared the famous ballads that are recited till this day. The Lama was on the other bank of the Wang River where her village stood. Then there is the strong nose muscle. Bhutanese people are known to be extra-resistant to any stench; their love for Zoeday, a strong fermented cheese used for seasoning local salads and dishes could be a logical explanation. When we talk about food, the taste buds come to the forefront. Bhutanese, irrespective of which country they are in, are never seen complaining about the food. Our own food equips us with resistive tongue that can withstand any kind of cuisine from around the world. However, there is a trick to it. Almost all Bhutanese travelers, despite strict airport food regulations, try and take with them a taste of Bhutanese delicacies, mostly chilli-based side dishes or pickles carefully sealed in air tight containers. Lastly, it would be extension of the tummy muscles. We Bhutanese love to pamper ourselves with sumptuous meals or drinks. For an example, one serving of Bhutanese Tea could make up for four servings for a typical Indian Chai(tea) drinker. But the fact that it could be termed as Pheeka(diluted) by them is altogether a different story. All in all, despite how it sounds, we Bhutanese simply love our cuisine. This trait of ours manifests itself in the size and shape of the tummies that an average Bhutanese adorns. A well rounded and protruding tummy is a status symbol and showcases how happy one is, and it is our food that really makes us happy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Normal alcohol drinking session. You start with the hellos. Hi, I am this, working for that company. All these create a clear sense of where you belong. The topic it hides, is the normal daily routine, a drunk you and the numerous problems at home. It could be a frustrated wife, a rapper of a mom or a closed door that is so uninviting to you. But the drive for a good time before the filled bottle overshadows all of it.

Some friends beleive that there is no better place to be at than home, with a serving wife and good friends willing to stay as long as the drinks flow. I say it is fun only if you are a visitor. You have a good time and you are not answerable to the wife who sits alone in another room hoping the homecoming ends. A good night’s sleep becomes a priority for her. But the alcohol effect is such that even after four glasses of whiskey, it feels like you have just started.

Then comes the conversations which somehow always ends in a debate with neither of the party in a mood for a truce. It never stops at one topic as drunks having conversation, and never follows the straight highway, rather takes the chowrasta as the Indian love to say. You go haywire with rationalizing and your frustrated homeys takes a backseat then.

It shows the sensibility and mental sturdiness that get victimized by the rising alcohol content in you...(might be continued)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The search for the Toebi Poenlop

My article on the last surviving Poenlop had taken me on a trip to Phuentsholing. The whole trip had me going back in time, thinking about the real warrior days and the might of swords, my one true fascination. And how can one not think about Jaigaon if one is headed for Phuentsholing. So the whole trip was part fun and part work.

I was finally going abroad, at least to Jaigaon, the shopping paradise for a middle class guy like me and where one’s bargaining prowess is tested to the highest level. I had prepared myself with the shopping line “Kitne ka hain? Sow! Pachas Doong ga, Thikhain, nah mera nah tera, Sattar then. It’s a deal” We made a good deal we think, only to reach back home and be told by our wives and sisters that the shopkeepers got the better off us once again. Oh! TP, when do you ever learn it echoes in your head, like in a Bourneville chocolate ad?

This time around I was kind of prepared, mentally, for the fight of wits with the seasoned Marwaris. “I would try and get a good deal this time around.” In addition, I was well equipped with the best shopping tool, my wife and my sister in law. Jaigaon here I come but what had me little worried was the interview. Poenlop was Ninety Five years old. So my excitement on the interview with the oldest surviving Poenlop was mixed with uncertainty on what to expect.

Meeting him in person was a totally new experience on its own. Due to his old age he couldn’t hear properly even with a hearing aid. So I had to use a recorder. Another reason was his pure dzongkha dialect he used. I had to shout the questions at him. Shouting at him after every word he said wasn’t a good option. So I just asked him to tell me about his life and just listened. Having the recorder on, was a relief as I couldn’t understand most of what he said and had to say. The recording lasted for almost two hours. He was choking because of the strain in his throat as he was talking non stop for the two hours. I made him stop. He said that he had just gotten started. I said it was all I needed.

It was a lie. 95 years could not be captured in just few sittings. I needed all the information I could get but at that time his health was far superior priority than a good complete story. I still listen to the interview at times. Now, I understand more of what he had to say; a summary of his life. The whole story was nothing I initially expected of. Swords were never talked of but I did have a story. I had the opportunity of being a spectator of oral history at its best. The 95 years of Toebi Penlop were filled with interesting experiences. He had been part of the changing times, witnessing a transition of 4 generations.

His daughter told me that he had a collection of stories he had written about his experiences and he wanted it to be published someday. From what I learnt of what he had to say to me, there sure was more to be told about him. A two paged article would never do justice to it. I do hope that it does get published someday, a more in depth of a story.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hurt so good

One Indian laborer came into Palas, one of the few hotels in Kanglung, Tashigang. He asked on, what was on the menu for breakfast. Only balays were there in the offing. Balays are the Bhutanese version of Rotis but thicker, often served with green chili paste. It is often said that ignorance is bliss but sadly not so for Ramu. The instinct of hunger took over the normal behavior of questioning or enquiry on what it was. He was hungry. He took a hungry bite of the balay while his finger dipped in the paste. One lick and his eyes were filled with tears and his mouth with uncontrollable burn. He asked for water.

Kanglung is a cold place and the waiters often serve you with hot or warm water. Ramu instinctively took a huge gulp. His panicky state did not help. It was too late to realize that he had been served with hot water. He fainted. The heightened pain must have been unbearable. Chaotic, everyone around him went in to help. One waiter was sprinkling ice cold tap water to his face, while another fanned him. He finally woke up only to realize that a crowd had gathered in. In the midst of giggles and examining eyes his big frightened eyes met with the quirky smile of the observers which in a way said, welcome to Bhutan.

We Bhutanese, often say that there are stages of aftermath of indulging in the fiery experience with chilies. Stage one, burns the mouth. Stage two burns the stomach and stage three explanation would not be appropriate. Let me pass out a hint, it concerns to attending nature’s call. Now you can see that Ramu had just experienced the first stage and other two were to follow, one more painful than the other.

It is no surprise that food specialist who travels around the world indulging and describing the various cuisines in the offing, never think of Bhutan as an ideal place. Like shaolins being trained over time to be able to accomplish certain feats, one has to be trained in order to be able to make sense out of the experience one gets from eating chilies or simply be in a position to enjoy it. The Bhutanese menu should add a line next to ema datshi or eezay. ‘Try at your own peril’, or something like, ‘Not for the Untrained.’

We Bhutanese are in a way different from people of the western worlds. No meal is complete without chili being a part of it. It is here that chili is considered a vegetable and not just a spice. The vegetable market’s top selling item is the wide range of chilies. We are not exactly built for the kill like some animals and insects shown in National Geographic but we are surely built for the chilies.

“These chillips are weird. They drink sprite when they have a stomach ache, whereas, we simply take a dump,” said Jurmey Chhowing who is dating an American. We do have different take on things. It is normal to see mothers encouraging children to eat chilies saying that it will help them grow taller. However no studies have been done on whether chilies actually help spur growth.

I do have a theory on what chili actually does to the growth of a child. I will go against the mothers. I love chilies and if there was a rating, I would be a professional when it comes to eating chilies. Now the sad part, I stand but 5 feet 5 inches tall. That gives the teeth to my theory.

If you still think otherwise:

Mexico, Nagaland (India) and Nepal are the places where the hottest chilies of the world are found. Nagaland has the hottest of them all, the Raja Mirchi or the Naga Jolokia. Nepal has the other devil, Dalle and Mexico has the previous Guiness World Record holder, the Red Savina. See where I am getting to?
Let me break the ice. The populace of these areas is often short or average in height.
My theory is well reasoned. I would be surprised to see a 6 feet guy who actually loves chilies.

However, the benefits from chilies outweigh the ill effects. There is lot of health benefits but helping you grow is sadly not one of them.

Benefits or no benefits, chilies have been and will be an essential part of the Bhutanese culture. For most Bhutanese, it is like our own version of thrill that is equivalent to a roller coaster ride. It’s a thrill that most of us can’t do without. Consuming chilies lets you experience extreme sensations like pain and fear without actually causing you any harm. The experience of being in Bhutan is never complete without the taste of chilies. If you are a foreigner and you can stand the heat of the fiery experience of chilies, you are surely in for an extreme enjoyable ride. With a taste like that, it hurts so good. I have, however, warned you of the consequences. So complete the journey at your own risk.

Possible Health benefits

It is said that all hot chilies contain phytochemicals which are collectively known as capsaicinoids.

• Capsaicin was shown, in laboratory settings, to cause cancer cell death in rats.
• Capsaicin in chilies has been found to inhibit chemically induced carcinogenesis and mutagenesis in various animal models and cell culture systems.
• Recent research in mice shows that chili (capsaicin in particular) may offer some hope of weight loss for people suffering from obesity.
• Researchers used capsaicin from chilies to kill nerve cells in the pancreases of mice with Type 1 diabetes, thus allowing the insulin producing cells to start producing insulin again.
• Research in humans found that "after adding chili to the diet, the LDL, or bad cholesterol, actually resisted oxidation for a longer period of time, [delaying] the development of a major risk for cardiovascular disease".
• Researchers found that the amount of insulin required to lower blood sugar after a meal is reduced if the meal contains chili pepper.
• Chili peppers are being probed as a treatment for alleviating chronic pain.
• Spices, including chili, are theorized to control the microbial contamination levels of food in countries with minimal or no refrigeration.
• Hot peppers are claimed to provide symptomatic relief from rhinitis, but a review study found no effect.
• Several studies found that capsaicin could have an anti-ulcer protective effect on stomachs infected with H. pylori by affecting the chemicals the stomach secretes in response to infection.
• By combining an anesthetic with capsaicin, researchers can block pain in rat paws without causing temporary paralysis. This anesthetic may one day allow patients to be conscious during surgery and may also lead to the development of more effective chronic pain treatments.

Possible health risks and precautions
• A high consumption of chili may be associated with stomach cancer.
• Chili powders may sometimes be adulterated with Sudan I, II, III, IV, para-Red, and other illegal carcinogenic dyes.
• Aflatoxins and N-nitroso compounds, which are carcinogenic, are frequently found in chili powder.
• Chronic ingestion of chili products may induce gastroesophageal reflux (GERD).
• Chili may increase the number of daily bowel movements and lower pain thresholds for people with irritable bowel syndrome.
• Chilies should never be swallowed whole; there are cases where unchewed chilies have caused bowel obstruction and perforation.
• Consumption of red chilies should be avoided after anal fissure surgery to aid the healing process.

***Health benefits and health risks source: Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mentoring blues

My mentor handed me a two paged article. “TP, go through this.”

The title read “It’s hard to be a girl.” It delved into one girl’s life and the hardship during childhood which evidently made a tom boy out of her. Apart from the missing male anatomy, everything about her made her a He.

It was well written with all the flair you need in an article topped with a greater message.
I thought it was a great write up but I did not like liking it. It made me feel less of a writer.
I am the sort of writer who is not good at hearing out criticism, more so, when it concerns my own write up. But when it comes to praises, I have a different take on it. I take the compliments, even when its got lies written all over it. The only thing common would be that I would be smiling in both the events.

But this article did not have me smiling. So the whole article had me thinking, contemplating on why my mentor wanted me to go through it in the first place. I did not feel the same way when my mentor introduced me to Poe Ballantine’s and Hunter S. Thompson’s write-ups. In fact I felt motivated then.

So, why was there a change in my perception? Was it because it was written by a fellow Bhutanese? Like said in some movie, it feels bad to see your friends fail an exam, but worse still is seeing him securing superior rank than you. So, reading a good article by a fellow Bhutanese (my age group), was reminiscent of seeing your friend fetching better grades than yourself.

Was I giving into the Belief that I could only compete or be as good as any Bhutanese writer and only foreign writer could be better with all the advance technique and finesse, in a league of their own?

Like having drunk the elixir of realization, the message finally set in. I was just few articles old and there was a huge room for improvement. Maybe the article making its way to me, through my mentor, was a signal on how I needed to work more on my writing. I had to accept that there were better writers out there and we weren’t exactly competing. I just had to do my part in becoming a better writer. I knew it to be a part of his mentoring.

Yes, it is true that for some it is hard to be a girl and it is no lie when I say that it isn’t easy to be a writer either. The lesson I learnt: I am not a good writer yet, not even close, just a toddler as a writer, whining at every fall.

P.S It’s not the usual Bhutanese disease of being too modest.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A tenant for rent

Available: A tenant for a two bedroom flat at a reasonable rent.
Just married, so no children
Will pay the rent on time
No, vehicle so no parking space required

My typical day starts. I rush to the nearest shop and get hold of the daily newspaper. I flip the pages, robotic in a way. Page 6, and the eyes fixed on the rental ad. A two bedroom flat for rent, at last. I punch in the numbers and wait.
“Hello,” a lady replies.
“This is with regard to the rental advertisement in Kuensel,” I enquire.

Today could be my lucky day, ending my three-month long search. Maybe the karmi in the Lhakhang has helped. Moreover, my horoscope says it would be a day of fulfillment.

The flashback:

My search started three months back.

Olakha housing boom has brought in many construction. I identify it as an ideal place to start looking for a flat. I start from one corner and it takes me two hours to reach the next corner. Most of the buildings would take at least 4 more months to complete and strangely all of the flats are pre booked.

As I get to the last building things seemingly get better. I meet one landlord whose building is almost complete and is not pre-booked. He was generous enough to give a detailed tour of his building. “I have incorporated Korean architecture and design,” he starts. The tiling in the bathroom was done so that cleaning would be much easier, I learn from him. Even the wide support for the sink had a story. “One of my cousins met with an accident and as he fell and brought down the sink with him and broke his leg. So to avoid such instances, I have made the sink this way,” he says. The rooms are paneled. The front yard is carpeted with grass and nice lighting pole are near completion. “This place I have made it this way so that couples and sit here in the evenings”

It would be nice to live here, I tell myself. There is sudden glimmer of hope. All of it shatters as I ask for the rent. 13,000 for the three bedroom flat. No wonder his flats are empty. Reaching the maxim of pessimistic reproach I head home.

Rejuvenated by a good night’s sleep I start the day with renewed optimism. It is a weekend. I think of going through all the newspapers. I start and list down five potential places to call.
“Hello! This is with regard to your advertisement”
I ask for the rent and say thank you and strike out the numbers. Some of them are pre booked and some are too expensive. I zero down to a duplex in Babesa. A duplex with 7 bedrooms, 3 toilets just for 12,000. I fix the time in accordance to the zakar. No coins would be left unturned. Meanwhile, I already start making plans. I will take the ground floor and ask my parents to take the upper floor. Six thousand for a three bedroom flat. “Not bad.”

The day arrives. I go and meet the owner, who looks like a gem of a person. He makes me feel at ease. He starts relating the forces of nature, of karmic connection between us. “Tshe nge mai ley imbay,” he says. I sit there nodding, “Yes sir. Yes sir.”
My happiness bloats like a helium inflated balloon.
As he takes me to the duplex, my bloated happiness deflates in a flash. It looks like a century old house. I gather myself and resolve to check out the room. The master bedroom is a meager 2metre by 2metre in size. The biggest turnoff is the bathroom, custom made for skinny people. What of the time my wife is pregnant? Will she fit in? The questions start forcing my brain into action. Ten minutes of witnessing the karmic force in action is enough for me to say, “I am sorry but this house is too big for me and my wife. Thank you anyways.”

Three months of search has made me an expert on how difficult it is to find a decent house in the capital. The rare vacant houses are mostly reserved for the high spending foreigners or consultants. A three bedroom bungalow in changzamtog, semi furnished, I am told, would be rented for Nu. 20,000. An advert in Kuensel had me enquiring on a two bedroom flat near the Rigsum institute, an ideal location given the distance from my office.
“It is ideal for consultants,” “Are you one?” a husky voiced girl asks me.
“No. But could you tell me about the rent,” I ask back.

“It is fully furnished and is for Nu. 30,500 only,” the reply has me in awe. No wonder it is ideal for consultants. With my typical thank you greetings I hang up the phone.

Present day:

It is almost three months since the hunt for the house began. And still I find myself living in with my parents. “What are you doing? Are you even trying to find us a flat? My friend found a nice place in Changzamtog and for a reasonable rent,” my wife’s typical reminder begins.
I feel like screaming out my feelings but I resolve to saying, “I am still trying dear. I will go check if Kuensel has any rental ads.”

“Madam I believe that it is a two bedroom flat. I would very much be interested in checking it out at the earliest”
“Oh! Sorry to inform you that it has been booked already,” the lady on the line disappoints the optimistic me. I had called in at 10 am.

Who ever coined the frequently used line in Hindi movies? “If you search, you will even find god.” Here, I am just searching for a flat.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Combat Extreme!!!

One day I found a video cassette without a printed name, lying on the road. Curious, me and my friend Dorji went home and put in the cassette. The starting was weird, not like any good Hollywood movie which usually started with twentieth century fox or Warner brothers. Nor was it the Puja initiated Bollywood flick.
X…X…X in the startup just put up confusion in our head. We had never watched any movie of that sort. With confused looks, we stared at the screen, excited and ashamed at the same time. It was our first experience with porn.

Since the cassette didn’t have a name, we decided to give it a name of our own, for avoiding suspicions. After much discussion we gave it a neat name: Combat Extreme.

With the name printed on it, Combat Extreme was on its way to put some action in my two best friend’s life.

My friend Dorji wanted to take the cassette home for a more personal viewing. Chetola, Haha. Once at home, he took the full liberty of being alone at home. Curtains closed, doors locked and excitement at the fullest he played on the VCR. Eyes transfixed, and fully lost in the action of Combat Extreme he completely forgot about the high volume. In his excitement, Dorji had forgotten to check the master bedroom. He wasn’t alone. His father was at home, sleeping in his room. The loud volume had done its part in waking up his father. What followed is imaginable. One can now understand. He was just 13 then. Parental Guidance came in, in the form of what he calls as the beating of his life.

“Take this ill fated cassette back,” said Dorji, as he returned Combat Extreme to me.

Suraj, my other friend was totally into action movies. Jackie Chan was his god. One day he had come to my place to exchange movies. As he was going through my collection, he stopped at the sight of combat extreme. “How is this movie?” he asked, totally taken by the name.

“Oh! This movie is great, great action. But I don’t think that I can lend you this one. I don’t want to lose it as it’s my favorite,” I replied with a smirk. Evidently from his love of action movies he pleaded with me. I finally agreed as he promised to let me ride his newly bought Bike for a day. He was a miser when it came to his Avon Bike. Deals done, we went to his place and I rode back home in his Avon bike.

“Jatha (Asshole), your cassette put me in great trouble,” was all he said as he returned the cassette and rode off in his Avon bike. The angry look on his face was enough for me, not to ask anything further. Later I found out. I hadn’t known that his mother loved Bruce Lee and father was totally into Chuck Norris and they had planned for a family viewing. Real action packed family. They had all been anxious to watch the movie after the preview from their son. Dinner done and Combat Extreme was played. No one moved in the 10 minutes of the movie. They had all been numbed by the surprise. 10 minutes was all it took for the Chuck Norris dad to give a flying kungfu slap to the Jackie Chan Son. Bruce Lee mom couldn’t get out of the shock to react.

My friends’ nightmares became the source of my laughter. I spent days laughing imagining them with blank looks and the extreme fury flurried at them by their parents.

My quick thinking and luck saved me from joining them at the laughing end of the Combat Extreme experience. One day my father was cleaning the TV box and was arranging the cassettes. He came upon Combat Extreme and said, “Hey I haven’t watched this.”
Freaking out, I quickly chirped in “this cassette is spoilt.” He bought my word and grunted his disappointment.

The experiences of my two friends and my personal close shave with the Combat Extreme action were enough for me, to finally decide to get rid of the cassette. On my first chance, I left it on the same place where I had found it, but with its promising name intact: Combat Extreme.