I came to know this mysterious country through the first meal I had there
My First meal in Bhutan de-mystified this country which I had come to explore on my own
Bhutan is not for the regular tourist looking for a relaxing vacation , everything is deceptively simple and yet an adventure waits for you at every corner, it may not always be the skydiving kinds but it is just as adrenaline pumping. On my first day in the capital city of Thimpu, I found myself sitting in a very small restaurant trying to interpret images & words in an unknown language and write down my lunch order in a small notebook that the waitress had set down in front of me grudgingly ; after finding out that I had hesitated to order even after 5 minutes of sitting down. I looked at the short laminated menu in front of me with pixelated and images which would never make it to a food magazine I guess , and nothing looked familiar. The lack of internet and the fact that the waitress hovered over me did not give me much chance to decide ; a process I enjoy immensely while eating out.
I had been recommended this small local establishment called ‘Kalden’, in the first 3 hours of landing in Bhutan by Dilu, the GM of the most prestigious hotel in Thimpu, The Druk Hotel . He is a man who knows everyone worth knowing and my first impression on visiting the century old ,tasteful and artistic hotel was that he would recommend some place expensive, some place where the ordinance of the cutlery is not unknown. At this point I had no idea what a Bhutanese food menu looked like. One of my first questions to him was “Where can I get beef?” , which I had been craving. Since beef is not available freely in India everywhere, except of course Kerala; but I lived in Bangalore, and other than the spicy versions of ‘beef fry’ or ‘beef curry’ that I realised I did not really care for I had yet to taste a dish that was memorable. And of course there was no way I had ever tasted it at home, growing up in a Bengali household and on top of that living in Gujarat. “You should go to Kalden, it's a small place just before you turn the corner to your hotel, we (as in him & the Hotel staff) have our food there too” he informed me. I am sure that if I was a guest at his distinguished Hotel, he would not have been compelled to recommend that place as much.
When I travel, I am always on the lookout for places frequented by locals and not the ones made to attract tourists or the ones based on tourist guide recommendations. They are not always easy to find but a chat with a taxi driver or a local shop owner usually does the trick. I found ‘Kalden’ after 15 minutes of walking in the hot but not unpleasant sun, still in my airplane clothes. I remember I was hungry, tired and lacking sleep for two days. As I reached the place I noticed immediately, that it was filled with only locals, men & woman dressed in the traditional dress of Gho & the Kira respectively. It was a week day but they didn’t look rushed and at the same time they didn’t look like they were whiling their time away either. Everyone occupying the 5 tables looked like they had stopped by for a short break between their shopping or work but seemed to be enjoying their meal thoroughly, ordering more dishes than there were people on a table. The place had the unkempt look of an Indian Dhaba but the people dining had an air not unlike any good fine dining restaurant. I soon found out that this defined almost everything in Bhutan, everyone seemed very content with themselves , very comfortable with their surroundings and all that they have. My only yardstick being other Asian countries which are tourist hubs and everyone looks like they aspire to a more western ideal of contentment, more materialistic if I dare say. Since, India is no different I wouldn’t say I am completely wrong.
I felt awkward for a moment like I was walking in to a party where I know no one. It felt more like walking in to someone’s house and not a public eatery. And as I started looking at the menu, I tried to remember from my online search earlier what each dish name meant but nothing looked familiar.
I gestured to the guy sitting behind an old wooden desk. “Do you have beef”? And just then the name of the beef dish came to me; “Shakam Paa”- dried beef with red chillies dunked in copious amount of butter and cow cheese. I order some Ema Datshi, red or green chillies made with cheese to go with it , all of this is accompanied red rice ,organically grown.
Everything in Bhutan is organically grown, every piece of produce or plant. It says a lot about a country, run by a monarchy that they are doing something right. The food came to my table along with a generous helping of butter milk.
My first bite in Bhutan tasted like nothing I had tasted before , I had no reference , my palate was refreshed , locked in a new taste. I am not one to cook with cheese a lot and my forays that time were largely limited to sandwiches, pizzas and pasta sometimes. How was I to know that cheese can enhance the taste of a protein. The second bite , I smeared with more chillies and cheese that is ‘Ema Datshi’ , which is kind of the national dish of Bhutan. The Bhutanese eat it with every single meal and in my limited time there, whether in restaurants or homes of locals, it was made fresh every time. The smell is heavenly, the cheese is almost always home made made with cow milk. I am in love. I would say the food is one of the main reasons for tourists to visit Bhutan, other than the unlimited trysts with raw & wild nature.
I successfully created a memory that makes me smile every time I think of it, making me think of the perfect time when I walked in to a small restaurant, my first time in the country, sat at a small sunlit table and ate one of the best meals of my life, which satiated my hunger but mostly my soul. I knew the rest of the trip would be just as magical.
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