When friends heard I was headed to Bhutan, many asked “where is it?” Very understandable as this tiny Himalayan kingdom, sandwiched between China and India, only opened to tourism in 1974 and regulates the number of visitors by imposing a daily fee of $250 per traveler.
Getting there is not half the fun as you have to fly to Kathmandu, Nepal (a long way from Hong Kong, Dubai or all other stopovers and featuring one of the world’s darkest, most chaotic airports) before boarding a Drukair plane (a fleet of three) into Paro, Bhutan. However, the trip is worth it to see a country hurtling into the twenty-first century with an expanding economy, a rich culture and welcoming people, mostly young.
I’d anticipated that the food would be mostly rice and chilies but it turned out that “tourist” food is a sort of Chinese/Indian mashup, often served buffet style with at least eight offerings including lots of vegetables. Bhutan is a great place to be a vegetarian (I’m not) and, if you’re spice-adverse, plenty of dishes are have none. As Buddhists, Bhutanese don’t kill animals but import meat from India. Many lunches and dinners included “boneless chicken with bones” or pieces of pork, usually in a delicious sauce.
And those yaks? Grazing all over the place although they belong to nomads who live high in the mountains. Far more unusual is the takin, the country’s national animal, which I saw at a preserve. Takins, a sort of
goat-cum- antelope, look like they’re made from a combination of spare animal parts—so ugly they’re almost cute. Bhutan is also home to the wild boar, red panda (small and foxyish), golden lemur, barking deer, snow leopard, tiger and other species. There is a huge variety of birds including the black-necked crane which we saw in abundance in the beautiful Phobjikha Valley as well as all kinds of trees and flowers because Bhutan is one of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots in the world with forests covering seventy-two percent of the country and an emphasis on keeping it that way.
If you insist on five-star hotels, unlimited internet or super highways, Bhutan is probably not for you. However, if you go there, it’s impossible to be unmoved by the spirit, tenacity and unique charm of this little nation.
This recipe for Ema Datshi (chilies with cheese, eaten by Bhutanese at every meal) has been toned down for western palates. If you want a hotter version, substitute green chilies. (Recipe courtesy of Compass and Fork)
8 ozs Anaheim chilies (if you want the dish spicy use green chilies)
4 ozs red chilies (if you want no spice whatsoever, remove the seeds)
1 medium onion roughly chopped
2 tomatoes roughly chopped
2-3 cloves garlic roughly chopped (I’d use a garlic press)
1 cup water
2 ozs feta cheese (because Butanese cow cheese isn’t available anywhere else)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
8 ozs gruyere or Emmenthaler cheese, grated
In a wok or large pan over a moderate heat, add the pepper, chili, onion, tomatoes, garlic and water. Stir to combine, cover and bring to the boil.
When boiling, turn heat down to simmer. Add feta and butter, stir and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the gruyere cheese and stir well to combine. When the cheese has fully melted, stir again to fully incorporate.
Put in bowl and serve with red (or other) rice as a side dish.
Toast gross national happiness, the philosophy of Bhutan coined by the country’s fourth king, with beer. Or the beverage of your choice, perhaps tea. Tashi delek!