Bhutanese food is subtle and strong like the mountains around.
It's all about chillies, cheese, asparagus and ferns; as an afterthought, pork and yak meat. I didn't know what to make of this; food in Bhutan sounded almost mysterious. A sceptical friend added, “Cheese is fried in butter and there is butter and salt in their tea.”
The plot seemed to be thickening. A mental shrug later, “At least they have chillies, how wrong can they go with that?” Another friend piped in, “Don't forget to get high on Ara.” I was already suffering from information overload.
The Bhutanese food restaurant at Taj Tashi is dramatically hued in red, black and gold. But it's quiet and serene, like the rest of Bhutan. The spell cast the moment we hit the road from Paro to Thimpu remained unbroken; there is something in the air here. It's the Mountain Spirits, I am told.
Our hostess for the evening moved with silent grace, beckoning us to sit next to a row of bamboo in gold patina reaching straight into the ceiling. A traditional herbal tea made from Himalayan gooseberries is served. Answering my query about why so many people share a common name Tshering, she explains that ‘Tshe' means long and ‘ring' means life.
We had Suja tea with salt and butter with egg rice and ezzy, a traditional Bhutanese breakfast. Ezzy is the red chilli paste served with almost every meal. Believe me, it is unbeatable in flavour. I carried back a whole jar and it sat by my plate for every meal, no matter what I ate.
Momos, though Tibetan in origin, have been absorbed into the Bhutanese food menu as constants. Stuffed with wild mushrooms and chicken, Nguango Shamu (fried mushroom) is served as the first starter followed by cheese momos. Yak cheese (Buntahang) is the best in east of Bhutan but most people who are visiting find it very chewy and strong in flavour.
“Traditionally, our meals don't have starters. We have soup and a main course.” A seaweed soup (churu weed and jaju stock), which is actually a riverweed in a mildly flavoured broth, warms the throat.
This can be made with vegetable or even chicken pieces in beef stock. Riverweed is normally found growing on rocks in flowing streams. The soup was very buttery and garlicky and, throwing all calorific thoughts away, I savoured it.
Norsha Paa or red rice with sliced beef and radish is served next along with EmaDatshi, again a traditional cheese and chilli dish. Accompanied by Kewa Fing (potato and glass noodles in vegetable broth), we spoon our way through all three dishes. I found the combination of potatoes with noodles rather strange but it was fun to venture into unknown territories of taste.
The rice and ema datshi stand out with distinct flavours as strong and hardy as the mountains around.
Wonder why so much butter, cheese, beef and yak meat is used? The intensely cold weather and the terrain demands such intake to fortify the body.
Ngetshoen (fish curry) and minced chicken curry are served next. Surprisingly both are mild and light in consistency. I happily added a dollop of ezzy to each bowl and dug into the curries mixed with rice. Puta (buck wheat noodles) tossed in butter and ginger from Central Bhutan is ubiquitous. “We can even make puta dumplings stuffed with yak cheese, greens...” our hostess gently revealed facts making sure she didn't confuse us and we could concentrate on enjoying each morsel.
Deceptively light in appearance, the food with all the butter and cheese began to sit heavy on the stomach. “We normally don't have dessert at home. Our parents eat betel nut (doma) and we prefer a cup of Suja to keep the heat in.” We were served Deessi, a sweet saffron rice normally served during ceremonies.
Breakfast next day was Thukpa, a light rice porridge served with a sprinkling of green chillies, to which, of course, ezzy had to be added. Despite all the warning, I took to Bhutanese food enjoying the way they combined various ingredients to dish out subtle and strong flavours.
A deep fascination for the country grew manifold as I glued my nose to the window. I had been forewarned, “Take the seats on the left of the aircraft; you'll fly past Mount Everest.” It stood, proud, majestic, unrelenting. The Himalayas stayed with us for almost half the flight. What more could a trip begin with?
I had time only to pop into the weekly vegetable market to grab packets of red chillies. Dochula, the dzongs, Tigers Nest, Taktsang remained dreams. This country makes you want to be able to imprison the all-pervasive calmness. I really did want to bottle some air and take it back with me.