Fire in the dragon belly

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 16, 2018

Best of Bhutan Red rice, mushroom datsi, spare ribs, and seaweed soup at Dorji Trozey, an eatery in Thimphu images zac o’yeah

Ready to blaze Chillies being dried outside a restaurant in Thimphu Image Zac o’Yeah


You may want to insure your intestines before the onslaught of chillies in Bhutan

Like most tourists to Bhutan, all that I knew about its cuisine was that various chillies are the most popular vegetables. The Bhutanese national dish emadatsi, for example, is a quarter kg of chillies cooked with a tiny lump of cheese (serves two). So I did realise that I might not have any intestines left by the time I boarded the flight home.

My master plan was to avoid places suggested in guidebooks and instead eat like the locals, sneak into all the places where I noticed that they liked to eat, order the same things, and if it meant overdosing on chillies, then… well, so be it. Helpful people who thought I was heading for disaster tried to direct me towards the other culinary delights of Thimphu — for a small town of 91,000, the Bhutanese capital has a surprising array of cuisines ranging from Italian, Lebanese, Mexican, Thai, Korean and Japanese, to American-style burger joints, bagel cafés and even a Swiss bakery.

However, I ignore all these and, at the northern end of the main street Norzin Lam, I find an eatery called Apy’s. The lady running it explains that she hails from the town of Phuentsholing, so she’ll cook a south Bhutanese meal. She asks which meat I prefer and says she’ll make a datsi of it (with cheese and chillies), and also serve dal, fresh salad and the staple maaso (red rice).

In case the food turns out insufficiently spicy, she takes out homemade pickles — one with mangoes from her own garden in Phuentsholing, another with cocktail-cherry sized chillies from Sikkim.

While she’s in the kitchen, for my entertainment her uncle connects a video call on his smartphone to Phuentsholing and I get to wave to his wife, mother, and father — they are excited that foreigners eat at Apy’s and ask me how I like it. I do a thumbs up and, to prove how much I’m enjoying myself, pop one of the innocuous-looking Sikkimese chillies into my mouth. It’s oh-so-juicy, and I swallow it only to feel it suddenly release its bombastic fury. Hot burps of gas shoot up my throat. Throughout the video call, puffs of chilli smoke erupt from my mouth and every other word I speak is an oral volcano. How do the Bhutanese handle this? Later, reading local writer Chador Wangmo, I realise that toddlers are fed chillies for breakfast in this country:

‘“Dechzangmo, come, eat your breakfast!” my mother yelled… It was red rice with beef emadatsi. My mother’s special dish always had me licking my fingers. She cooked small chunks of dry beef with a lot of green Indian chillies and datsi”, starts chapter five of her novel La Ama: A Mother’s Call.

Spicy enough to set tummies used to Indian spice levels on fire, Bhutanese food also differs from Indian (and Chinese) in its cautious approach to oil. In fact, it can be made without any oil at all — emadatsi, for example, is chillies boiled with water and cheese for 10 minutes. Other varieties have fairytale names such as the kewadatsi, which is like a potato-au-gratin and quite mild; saagdatsi of stir-fried greens; and several types of meat datsi — usually either pork ( sikam) or beef ( shakam) — and shamudatsi, which is cheesy chillies with mushrooms.

Regarding shamu, Bhutan has at least 100 species of edible wild mushrooms (and 250 inedible ones, so choose wisely), of which the finest varieties include matsutake and chanterelles. I am a total cheese-and-mushroom fanatic — even my writing style, as you may have noticed, combines cheesiness with a mushrooming mentality — and as soon as I get into the habit of ordering shamudatsi I’m at ease in Thimphu.

At this time, the annual Mountain Echoes literary festival is on, and there are lots of authors in town who’ve eaten the world, so I ask some for their favourite food experiences. Pico Iyer waxes lyrically about the hamburgers at Cloud 9, which other authors also rave about. The only one who doesn’t go on about those gourmet burgers is Amitav Ghosh, who instead tells me that he was ‘blown away by Bhutanese food’ and went to the weekend market where he filled a bag with wild mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns, and brought it all to a restaurant to get it cooked Bhutanese-style. Food writer Mita Kapur gave me an epic account of her best meals, such as the Folk Heritage Museum’s celebrated showcase menu of 160 different local dishes.

My own best meal is a total chance experience — at the Dorji Trotzey, which a local man points me to. The eatery is otherwise impossible to find as it is hidden off the main street and not aimed at tourists. Kind of cool in a Bhutanese way: Low benches and tables, lunch menu comprising staples written on a whiteboard and, as they run out, wiped off it. I paid ₹400 for shamudatsi (mushrooms in you-know-what sauce), pork ribs with chilli, and shakam paa. After datsi, paa is the second-most popular dish here, usually made from sundried meat such as beef, pork or weird intestines. Refreshing riverweed soup ( jaju), chilli pickles and a cooling whey beverage are complimentary, as is the Himalayan red rice.

My next meal is at the Red Dragon, adjacent to the traffic junction on Norzin Lam. It has the looks of an average Chinese eating house, but the one page of Bhutanese specials has more veg options than you get in the basic canteens, plus square noodles ( bathup) and various chicken dishes. Rice is charged extra, but a massive lunch including beer came to ₹545 all the same.

Incidentally, one must try the local beers. Red Panda is a peculiar brew made in Bumthang district and has a strong, yeasty flavour that takes some time to get used to. According to the label, it is not filtered and has no preservatives — which suggests that it is to be had as fresh as possible, and if the bottle has been stored well it may not result in diarrhoea. Druk beer, brewed with Himalayan spring water, has a more delicate flavour and is available in lager, luxury-supreme and super-strong options. However, the strongest beer of the country is Thunder 15000 and well worth sampling, too.

If you want something even stronger, perhaps as an appetiser, the infamous aniseed liquor sonfy is a bit like taking medicine but in reverse. Everybody I spoke to gave it a wide berth, but I suspect the bright green colour and the potency might remove any bacteria in the guts (and much of the brain cells in the head), so I thought it good to have a few pegs. But not too many.

To round off the meals, I order the savoury butter tea known as suja. It looks much like a cup of frothy hot chocolate, but with a hue more light purple than brown, and with the character of a creamy broth. Generally it is made with milk from the domesticated yak, by churning it to butter and then fermenting it inside bags made of sheep stomachs that are wrapped in yak skins; this butter is then boiled with black tea leaves and salt.

Back home, I try to recreate the shamudatsi. It had appeared so simple, but turned out to be trickier in one’s own kitchen. I experiment with different cheeses and mushrooms, including yak’s cheese and dried mushrooms from the Himalayas, but it just isn’t anything like it was in Bhutan. The only thing that tastes about right is the pickles I brought back — homemade shakam ezzay and Chuniding brand fish ayzey. To find a good selection of pickles, try Karma’s convenience store at 2, Changlam Square.

As a matter of fact, genuine Bhutanese food is next to impossible to get outside the country’s borders. I’ve heard of one joint called Ema Datsi in New York and I’ve been to a Tibetan settlement in south India where emadatsi is eaten. That’s about it.

Yet what I sampled in Bhutan was always perfect, once my taste buds had been sufficiently adjusted… meaning, numbed. This left me wondering whether Bhutan might become the next big gourmet destination. The combination of exclusivity (ain’t easy to get there) and accessibility (once you do get there, good cheap food can be had everywhere) is hmm… how should I put it? Yum.

Published on December 02, 2016

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