What I discovered when I ate my way through Bhutan

PHOTO: The Daily Star

One of my oldest memories of the joys of eating, of wanting to eat again and again, was when my grandmother sat me by her bench and painstakingly broke into a rui fish head to find the juiciest bits for a happy four-year-old me. There are other memories too. The smell of khejur er rosh being churned into caramel goodness as dadi stooped low over the mud stove, her wooden ladle going round and round, the sticky caramel coating the spoon, the smell burnt, heavy and wholesome.

The Proustian punch of eating food that stirs a nerve is something I have always been on a quest for. Since reading Johanna Spyri's Heidi, I have longed to walk the Alps and sink my teeth into a loaf of bread and a big block of cheese, all to be downed with a glass of fresh milk.

And so it was during my travel to Bhutan, the small country nestled in the Himalayas, that I was jolted back into my wistful longing for a meal like that of Heidi's.

The crisp mountain air in the Himalayan country is sharp even during May, when it is the height of summer back home in Dhaka, and it whets your appetite.

In the trip, I diligently jotted down places I wanted to try, foods I had to have, something that would make me write like Proust wrote about eating madeleines in Swann's Way.

Hungry after a short 30-minute airplane ride from Dhaka, Naimul, Sakib, Tanni and I landed in Paro, and quickly made our way to the old farmhouse that would be our home for a good part of the stay.

Our host was kind and packed us a lunch of huge beef and cheese momos to take on our ride to Chele La Pass, the highest motor pass in the country. We also took along a flask full with piping hot tea made with milk.

All through the winding journey, the alpine forest loomed dark and ominous over our heads, the idea of the spicy momos a constant thought in me.

Finally on top, I took my first bite of the momo, and it was everything I had imagined and more. One bit and the drama begins. The oil trickled down my hand, the beef and finely diced onions, sweet and savoury against the red chilli dip.

Our hands were frozen, as the cold mountain wind blew down in the approaching dusk. We savoured the momos, one huge bite after the other, ending the feast with the sweet milk tea.

Back in Paro from the Chele La Pass, we grabbed coffee and butter cookies from one of the many new-style cafes that have sprung up all over the small Paro town square.

For dinner, at the farmhouse, nestled away from the city, we were served potatoes with cheese and chillies with cheese-Ema Datshi and Kewa Datshi-two of the most popular dishes in Bhutanese cuisine.

This was accompanied with bowls full of red rice, a staple in the Bhutanese diet.

A bite of the Ema Datshi and I knew I would be stumped for words to describe the taste to anyone who has never tried it.

Long green chillies slit all the way through, plump and mushy, coated in salty, rounded cheese, tingled all corners of my mouth. I took another bite to try and make sense of the flavour profile. The rice is nutty, chewy and full-bodied, a perfect balance against the spicy dish.

Over dinner, in the well-lit and spacious kitchen room, conversations flowed with Jojo, the grandfather of the house, and Pema, a local guide. Stories of tiger lairs and Buddhist monks dominated the night.

The next day we were to hike up to the famed Tiger's Nest. Again I painstakingly packed my bag, with cheese, candied lemons, dried vegetable sausage, and some Kit Kats.

A hike up through the forested mountains and a cold rainy descent later, we were ready for our next food mission. Back in Paro town, we looked for a restaurant frequented by locals.

In the old part of the town, men played carom, powder rose up and mingled with the smoke of tea brewing. For our late lunch, we chose Sushila Restaurant, suggested by our taxi driver.

Piping hot plates of momos, both beef and cheese, along with plates of red rice and Shakam Paa (dried beef curry with radishes), Kewa Datshi, and Jasha Maroo (minced chicken curry) were served for lunch. The food was served with glasses of their local wine and ezay (basically any kind of Bhutanese chilli sauce).

I chose the Jasha Maroo, a spicy chicken stew cooked in Bhutanese style (of course with chillies, I knew by now)-a perfect complement to the stinging cold of the Himalayas. As we four talked and sipped the wine, I stole bites from everyone's plates, the Shakam Paa my personal favourite of the stolen goods, the dried beef made to taste like beef jerky.

The food throughout West Bhutan remains unfalteringly similar. For breakfast, red rice fried with chillies and fried eggs. The Bhutanese also offer milk tea (chai) or suja (butter tea) plus a communal basket of puffed rice known as zaow for breakfast or if you happen to visit any household.

In our travels, we often missed regular lunches and instead snacked on products from roadside stores. The mountain fruits are sweet. When you tear into the small oranges, the paper peels off like skin easily. The orange broke off, spraying droplets that landed on my spectacles. The tiny oranges, flood your mouth, like a dam giving way to floodwaters. I ate a couple in one go.

For our last night in the Himalayan country, we were served fresh sugar snap beans stir-fried in oil with some fresh garlic and a homely take on Shakam Paa.

There are many meals and memories I brought back from my travels in the country. The warm eclairs and butter cookies I got during a bathroom break in the clouded Dochula Pass. The salty butter tea for the cold, rain-soaked evenings, and the unending dumplings.

Bhutanese food is little known outside of the country, but my appetite is whet and I want to explore more. Whether I got to live my dream of having Heidi's meal is something I am still unsure of though. The little child in me will keep searching for that memory and in that quest hopefully eat through all the cheeses and breads among the mountains.

Singaporean photographer captures gorgeous scenes in Bhutan

  • Families and friends take this opportunity to gather for the festival. Children are enjoying the dances and made quite an expressive audience.
  • The Fifth King Of Bhutan and the Queen at Paro Tsechu, spotted on Caroline's first trip to Bhutan in 2015.
  • This Grey Langur is all fluffed up in its winter coat and sound asleep on top of a mossy tree.
  • Ancient spiritual dances are performed throughout the festival and are collectively known as Cham or mask dances.
  • Trongsa Dzong is the largest fortress in Bhutan. It is located right at the centre of the country providing a strategic location to control Bhutan in the olden days.
  • Monk looking out from his prayer chamber in Trongsa Dzong.
  • Panoramic view of Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Tashichho Dzong is now the main administrative office of the government of Bhutan and the King’s office since 1952. At night, the dzong is totally transformed by the colourful lights.
  • Bhutanese food is still very traditionally prepared. It is from their harvest. Pasta and bread are made from wheat and rye from their backyard. They grow vegetable and chillies. Cheese is from their yaks.
  • Most Bhutanese households would consume this drink by soaking cordyceps in alcohol whisky, and have a shot or two each day.
  • This is a breathtaking view of Thimphu (2,320 m) from Kuensel Phrodang Nature Park in the early morning of spring.
  • Liberating The Souls - These cones are contain human ashes, placed in between cliffs and temples by relatives of the deceased hoping to liberate their souls. This is one of the beliefs of Tantric Buddhism in Bhutan.
  • Monks gathered outside the courtyard of Chagri Monastery after a morning recital.
  • These are ingredients to make aromatic incense. A mix of herbs and plants acquired from the high mountains of Bhutan. Some are grated into powder while some are sold as dried herbs and roots.
  • At Chemi Lhakhang, it is common to see a woman carrying a phallus and walking clockwise around the temple to pray for fertility. It was built by Lama Nawang Chogyel in 1499.
  • Punakha dzong means the Palace of Great Happiness. This fortress (dzong) was constructed in 1637. Today, it houses a monastery and government offices of Punakha district.
  • Flapping colourful prayer flags written with mantras and prayers circling trees and vegetation in this cypress oak forest.
  • Jambay Lhakhang in Bumtang is one of Bhutan’s oldest temples founded by the 7th king of Tibet in 659 AD.
  • The atsara (clowns) were a hit with the crowd. They mock the audience, the dancers, toss around with phalluses and create jokes. They are mostly monks in disguise.
  • The Shava or Deer Dance.
  • A game of basketball at a boarding school in Bumthang.
  • The Black Hat Dance is also known as the Shana Cham in Tibet. This dance is performed to commemorate the assassination of a Tibetan King, Langdarma in 842 by Pelkyi Dorji, a Buddhist monk.
  • The King was against Buddhism. The Black Hat Dance is performed in several sequels, from graceful walk with slow steps and chanting with hand gestures to fast whirling movement around the dance arena.
  • Paro Taktshang, also known as Tiger Nest Monastery is perched on the mountain cliff at 3,120 metres, which is about 900 metres above Paro valley. It is one of Bhutan's most sacred monasteries and pilgrimage sites for Buddhists.
  • At the village temple in Chumey, monks were playing the long horn or Dung Chen. This ritual instrument is originated from Tibet and is always played in pairs or in multiple.
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