12.20.2020 Dinner in Thimphu
Momos (pork dumplings)
It’s difficult to trace the origin of dumplings, as they exist in one form or another on almost every continent. The momo is the delightfully delectable dumpling of the Himalayas, prevalent throughout Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. Fillings and shapes vary, and ours are stuffed with pork, coriander, scallions ginger, garlic and spices. We have to confess that the tri-fold hat shape, while not unheard of, is not the most common shape of momo in Bhutan. Yet neither of us possesses decades of dumpling wrapping skills, which was evident when we attempted the traditional “no-tail braided” momo style. The good news is that they taste delicious regardless of how they’re wrapped and if you’re anything like us, you’ll finish these before anyone has time to judge how authentic the shape is. Contains gluten, eggs.
Ema Datshi (Chili & cheese stew)
Although chilis didn’t exist in Bhutan until relatively recently, having arrived via India, the people of Bhutan have made them their own. Chilis are everywhere in the mountain kingdom, hanging from balconies and spread over rooftops to dry. No meal is complete without a healthy portion of the fiery vegetable (and yes, they are thought of as a vegetable in Bhutan, e.g. chili salad). The national dish, ema datshi (literally translating to chilis and cheese) is a rich and warming stew of whole chilis simmered with cheese, often made from yak milk. I was skeptical the first time I had it, but now I can’t imagine a food better suited to keeping you warm in a cold Himalayan (or Michigan) winter! Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Kewa Datshi (Potatoes & cheese stew)
Second to chilis, cheese is probably the most common ingredient in Bhutanese cuisine. While processed cheese imported from India has become prevalent throughout the country thanks to its convenience, most cheese is traditionally made from yak milk. Kewa datshi (translating literally to potatoes and cheese) is another very popular dish similar to ema datshi, but much richer and with less heat. Shockingly, we weren’t able to find yak milk or yak cheese anywhere in the area, so we’ve used a combination of more readily available cheeses and stewed them with potatoes (and a liiiiittle bit of chili) to recreate the same savory flavor. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Jasha Maroo (Chicken, leek, & tomato stew)
A dish that falls somewhere between a stew and a curry, jasha maroo is a popular chicken dish in Bhutan. As with most Bhutanese dishes there are numerous iterations, and we’ve made ours with a base of ginger, tomatoes and onions, then added bone in chicken thighs and leeks for a deceptively complex stew. Gluten free.
Puta (Stir fried buckwheat noodles)
Given its short growing season and proclivity for cooler climates, buckwheat is one of the few cereal-like grains cultivated in Bhutan. The seeds are milled into flour which forms the base of this Northern Bhutanese noodle dish. Buckwheat noodles are stir fried in butter with leeks, onions, garlic, chilis and and szechuan peppercorns. Contains dairy, gluten; vegetarian
Ezay (chili sauce)
In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, the love of chilis runs deep in Bhutan. Even when dinner is a big bowl of ema datshi and rice, no Bhutanese meal is complete without a side of ezay on the table. At its core a hot sauce, ezay is a condiment that can come in an infinite number of variations, as long as it’s spicy. Ours is a combination of Kashmiri red chilis and arbol chilis along with garlic, ginger and coriander. Vegan, gluten free.
Bhutanese Red Rice
Red rice is the staple grain of Bhutan, and also currently the only agricultural export of the country to the US.. Eaten with every meal, it’s a highly nutritious strain of rice that grows well at high elevations, making it ideally suited for the harsh climate of the Himalayas. Vegan, gluten free.
Suja (Butter tea)
Dessert is very uncommon in Bhutan, with most sweets taking the form of imported Indian goods. So in order to keep things authentic, we thought we’d serve the typical after dinner drink of the Dragon Kingdom, Suja. Black tea is brewed with milk and butter, then finished with Himalayan pink salt. We’ve added some sugar to ours for a touch of sweetness. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
As with all spicy food, beer is simply the best at quenching the heat. Since we can’t find Bhutanese beer in the area, we’d recommend you pair this meal with your favorite easy drinking lager. Most beers will do but we’d recommend staying away from anything too hoppy, as in our experience hops can exacerbate the heat.
འབྲུག་ཡུལ་ - The Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon
Nestled high in the Himalayan mountains, The Kingdom of Bhutan is a magical place, in a way only a place that has existed in relative isolation for centuries can be; pristine and mysterious, ancient yet youthful.
The country seems to occupy a unique space in time; simultaneously a relic of the past and an example for the future. Having never been colonized by outsiders, The Kingdom of Bhutan only formally united as a nation in 1907. Television and the internet were outlawed in the country until 1999. When the king of Bhutan lifted the ban, he acknowledged that technology was necessary for Bhutan to grow, but cautioned that “misuse” of technology could threaten traditional Bhutanese values. The country was an absolute monarchy until 2008, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated his throne in favor of his son’s rule alongside a newly established house of parliament and a new constitution. Written into that new constitution were laws mandating environmental conservation. 60% of the country’s landmass must be covered in forests, and 40% of the country is designated as national parks or protected nature reserves, with biological corridors connecting each conservation area allowing animals to migrate safely. Conservation has been placed at the core of the nation's development strategy, making Bhutan a model of proactive environmentalism.
Even tourism is regulated with the goal of sustainability and conservation of both nature and national values. This takes the form of daily tourism fees mandated by the government, and are set so high as to be nearly prohibitive (when I visited in 2019, costs for a solo traveler was $300 per person per day). Despite its focus on conservation, Bhutan is perhaps best known for pioneering the idea of the Gross National Happiness Index, a measure of its citizens’ happiness, and replacing GDP with GNP as a measure of national well being.
This is not to say that Bhutan is a land free from troubles or worry. It is a developing nation, and as with any country going through a period of growth and change, there are opinions about how things should be done, or if they should be done at all. Community elders lament the deviation from tradition by today’s youth, longer hair as opposed to traditional cuts, jeans and t-shirts instead of Ghos and Kiras. Other concerns are more existential. An increasingly warming climate is melting the glaciers of the Himalayas, the snowmelt from which powers the numerous hydroelectric dams throughout the country. Hydro electricity is the country's primary source of power, as well as its chief export. A disappearance of glaciers means the country could be left without power and with limited economic resources to deal with the fallout. Nor is it a country free from blame or controversy, having carried out a massive campaign of denationalization of ethnic Nepalese people in the late 1980s, forcing over a hundred thousand people into refugee status. Still others within Bhutan critique the Gross National Happiness Index, claiming that the tenets of Buddhism necessary to live a happy life cannot be distilled and neatly quantified by a government survey.
Despite all this, the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan is one from which we all stand to learn. Genuine concern for the well being of its people, sustainable development and a thoughtful balance of old and new are all values the world would do well to practice.
Featured Recipe: Ema Datshi
360g Indian long green chilis, about 35, stemmed and halved (You can use any chilis you like here but we like the long green chilis for their mild heat and flavor. Jalapenos or Serranos are easier to find, but will change the overall spice level of the dish)
150 g white onions, about half of a large onion, thinly sliced
30 g garlic, about 10-12 cloves, sliced
10 g ginger, about 1 in piece, minced
120 g tomatoes, about 1 large roma, diced
100 g of white melting cheese (grated or thinly sliced; kraft white cheddar singles actually work well here as processed cheeses are more commonly used for this dish in Bhutan)
70 g farmer’s cheese
50 g feta cheese
40 g butter
20 g vegetable oil, or enough to coat the bottom of your pan
10 g salt
500 g water
In a large saute pan, put sliced chilis, onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger salt and vegetable oil. Cover with water and bring to a boil on medium to medium high heat. Cook for 12-15 minutes, until chilis are softened but not about to disintegrate
Add butter and turn off heat. Layer the white melting cheese followed by farmer’s cheese and feta and cover, allowing residual heat to melt it all
Stir to combine, returning the pan to heat if necessary
Serve with red rice
Recipes Inspired By:
The blog of Tashi Choden, aka Druk Girl
The helpful folks over at My Bhutan
The Bong Eats blog