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The Enjoyment of Bhutanese Comfort Food
Story and Photos by Diana G. Armstrong
A mountain road in Bhutan.
With frayed nerves and jackhammered bodies, we arrive in Thimphu. Our shock absorber-free vehicle has come to a stop in the largest city in the country of Bhutan. To get here we jostled over mountain passes that were veritable nail biters. The journey had taken 9 hours to drive 100 miles. Bhutan is a stately, well-ordered Himalayan mountain kingdom that brings Switzerland to mind. The landscape is spectacularly precipitous and Swiss-Chalet-like dwellings dot the mountainsides. There is one difference, and that is in the exterior artwork on these chalets. Instead of murals of Edelweiss, in Bhutan they have murals of phalli, each delicately decorated with bows and ribbons…for in Buddhist Bhutan, the phallic symbol is one of good luck and prosperity. You can tell that this is not your everyday kind of country.
Bhutanese citizens paint phalli on their buildings for prosperity and luck.
We had come to this exotic and remote kingdom by way of India, traveling through the bright green Assam tea plantations of West Bengal. The Indian border post at Phuentsholing is chaotic and unbridled, with traders selling tea from dilapidated wooden sheds, cows and people sleeping in the street, and goats wandering through the shops. Then in a blink of an eye we entered the Asian equivalent of Helvetia. We were mixed up and rattled, and were in definite need of some comfort food. After all, just three days earlier we had come from Japan, where we were served lots of inhospitable-looking raw fish and seaweed.
Feeling perplexed and a little out of sorts, we feel blessed that our first dinner in Bhutan is a dish so comforting. We sink into our backless seating arrangement of floor cushions and feel like we are right back at home sitting on the porch at the Colorado Ranch, tucking in to a spicy version of Grandma's Cheesy Twice Baked Potatoes. We are lucky to be reveling in the quintessential Bhutanese comfort food called Ema Datshi (sometimes spelled Ema Tatsi), a dish of cheese, onions, potatoes and green chiles. This dish combines downhome potato and onion with aromatic, flavorful chiles with a velvety rich background of cheese.
Ema Datshi (pictured in foreground) is Bhutanese comfort food.
Ema Datshi tastes and feels like it could have had its origins in Switzerland, then someone spiced it up (just like the architecture). The Bhutanese have a penchant for spicy food. The taste is luscious and unusually familiar for being so far from home, and was a welcome surprise after the Grilled Tuna Head that we had tried to nibble on in Japan.
This national dish, apart from being a freestanding meal, is also the catch-all used to "stoke up the flavor and spiciness of any meal." For example, it is also served over rice, or served as a vegetable alongside any main course. What's more, it is available in all Bhutanese restaurants.
I arrange with our guide to be shown how to cook this dish. The owner of the restaurant unimaginatively called "The Bhutan Kitchen" invites me into his kitchens to observe Ema Datshi preparation.