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.

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