Flash in the Pan 

Flash in the Burnthang: Good eats high in Bhutan

When I, Chef Boy Ari, consented to the awesome responsibility of writing Flash in the Pan every week, I was prepared to go to the ends of the earth in order to deliver the goods. This week’s installment was e-mailed from the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Bhutan is a tiny country in the front range of the Himalaya, sandwiched between India and China, the last of the Himalayan Buddhist nations. Right now, I’m sitting in the Thuempapuenshe Bakery in Jakar, Bumthang, watching a monk wrapped in maroon robes buy a cookie. Outside the door, a little boy presents his penis to a passing girl, while across the street, a forest of colorful prayer flags hoisted on bamboo poles disperse the message “Om mani padme hum” into the wind, while monks chant in front of incense and butter lamps.

OK. This isn’t a travelogue. You turned to this page to read about food, and you will wait no longer. Interestingly, in Drung Ka, Chef Boy Ari means “Chef Boy Rice Paddy.” How appropriate.

In a nutshell, Bhutanese food scores very high on the Chef Boy Rice Paddy grub-scale, in terms of both taste and nutrition. The food is so good it doesn’t even need mayo. Rising from an altitude of 300 feet up to 25,000 feet, at a latitude comparable to Miami or Cairo, Bhutan sports a lot of agricultural possibilities—that is, if you can find a flat piece of ground to till, hence all of the terraces clinging to the mountainsides. Virtually everything that can be grown on earth can be grown in Bhutan, from asparagus to zee mango.

Most meals are served with red rice, a crop grown virtually nowhere else in the world except a few spots in India. Red rice is actually more pink than red and it is very high in zinc and iron. Our guide, Chhimi Dorji, claims that for him, no meal is complete without it. Perhaps red rice is the reason why the Bhutanese can walk up and down so many mountains.

On top of the rice, one generally has a choice of several dishes. Some of my favorites thus far have been lentil dal, mustard greens with baby corn, stewed pork fat (remember kids, Chef Boy Rice Paddy says “fat is flavor”), curried chicken, stewed cheese chunks, stir fried peas, carrots, cabbage and beans, and a huge assortment of potato dishes. Mmm, the Bhutanese potatoes. Bhutan is definitely the Idaho of the Himalayas, with red robes instead of rednecks.

The fact that there is meat here at all is interesting, considering that most people here are Buddhist. Nobody seems to want to kill anything, not even chickens that have stopped laying or cows that have dried up. But they don’t mind eating it. So most meat is trucked in from India. And everything else is about as local as can be, and is nearly all organic.

One thing that most of these dishes have in common is the use of hot hot hot chili peppers —as vegetables rather than spice. The national dish, hemadatse, consists of little more than chili and cheese. A little of this stuff goes a long way, and Chef Boy Rice Paddy prefers to take it as far as he can. Hence the bottle of Red Panda beer close at hand, for putting out the flames.

I’m in Bhutan with a group of students from the University of Montana, studying the agriculture system of Bhutan as guests of the Ministry of Agriculture. Independent photographer Chad Harder is here as well. In the past few days we have met with farmers, ministers, and monks. We have checked out the facilities of cheese makers, honey processors, medicinal herb growers, weavers, mushroom growers, and seed testers. At a potluck in Lobesa with the faculty of the Natural Resource Training Institute we sampled endless dishes of stewed fiddlehead fern, fried tofu, buckwheat pancakes, mushrooms, bitter cucumber (blah!) cheese dumplings, and deep-fried onion and eggplant. After a few cups of ara, the local libation, Chad accurately displayed his moves in a Bhutanese circle dance, looking like a monk in his shaved head. I grabbed his camera and proceeded to butcher a few frames, possibly the only things butchered that day in Bhutan.

The next morning I stood in my goh (a traditional Bhutanese dress—and I do mean dress, as Chef Boy Rice Paddy was showing some leg), watching clouds drift through the valley below, as rays of sun lit up neon green rice paddies and the whitewashed walls of the monastery below the jagged peaks of the high Himalaya. While birds of every denomination did what birds do in the morning from the branches of cedar and banana trees, I listened to the garbar in my tummy and wondered which dish was responsible. But the garbar soon…how should I say, passed, and I was free to enjoy the rest of that insanely idyllic morning.

Coming soon: Bhutanese pickled shitake mushrooms, and adventures at the Bhutanese Cum Bar. Chef Boy Rice Paddy can be reached for questions in Bhutan at flash@missoulanews.com.

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