Bhutan

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Kuzu zangpo! Welcome and blessings in Dzongkha, the official language of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Much smaller than its neighbors, India and China, the kingdom is nestled high in the Himalayas and practices a form of vajrayana Bhuddism as its state religion. While Bhutan is perhaps most famous for being named the happiest country in Asia, we would soon discover that not everything was perfect in the land of the thunder dragon.

On Saturday morning,  Jess got up early to prepare an traditional Bhutanese recipe: thupka, a warm red rice porridge made with ginger and cracked pepper. The red rice, which Jess spotted at our local co-op, was actually harvested in Bhutan!

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According to the recipe, this porridge is often eaten in the winter. We imagined how good it would taste on a cold morning in Bhutan, back indoors after milking the family yak.

Following this hearty breakfast, we got ourselves acquainted with the kingdom as a whole through a documentary we had borrowed from the public library called Bhutan…Land of the Thunder Dragon (2002). Even though the American narrator emphasized repeatedly that the kingdom remained stuck in “Medieval times,” and despite its Windows-98 production quality, Bhutan left us with some sense of what the kingdom had been like about fifteen years ago.

For lunch, Jess prepared a pot of ema datshi, a stew of hot peppers and cheese which is known as the national dish of Bhutan. We ate the ema datshi with some Bhutanese red rice as well as another traditional dish: a cucumber salad.

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To accompany our meal, I brewed some (yak) butter tea using the strong black Indian tea we’d acquired for our trot to Bangladesh and some regular cow butter. Here’s the basic recipe.

In the afternoon, we flipped through Jess’s copy of BHUTAN, an enormous book of photographs published in 2004 to showcase the country’s beautiful landscapes and people. You can see one image from the book at the top of this post. With each spread of pages over two feet wide, this was quite a treat.

Our dinner destination was Martsa on Elm, a Tibetan restaurant in Davis Square which nevertheless had a few Bhutanese items on the menu. Jess ordered the kewa-dhar-tsay, a dish of stewed potatoes cooked in the traditional Bhutanese style with spicy peppers and cheese. You can see it in the foreground of the photograph below, with Jess’s white rice on the right:

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Behind the kewa-dhar-tsay is my order of sha-kam-pa, or Bhutanese-style beef cooked with potatoes in a fiery red chili sauce, with my brown rice on the left. We also ordered some authentic Tibetan butter tea, which (though I don’t think the butter came from a yak) tasted far better than the tea I had brewed at home.

That night, we watched one of the only feature films ever produced in Bhutan: Travellers and Magicians (2003), the charming Dzhongka-language story about a mismatched group of hitchhikers on their way to the capital city of Thimphu. Here’s the film in full, with English subtitles:

On Sunday morning, after I had set another batch of thupka porridge to simmer on the stove, I brewed some more butter tea. Without yesterday’s pinch of salt, and with a little more milk and butter, it tasted somewhat more similar to the tea we’d enjoyed last night at the restaurant.

While the red rice porridge continued to simmer, we watched a short tourism video about Bhutan that showcased many of the distinctive villages, monasteries, and monuments scattered throughout the kingdom:

For lunch, I made a batch of hot and spicy Bhutanese noodles, although I had misunderstood “pea shoots” as “bean sprouts” in the list of ingredients. Without much history or explanation to be found in the recipe itself, I’m not entirely sure that the noodles would have been entirely authentic even if I had managed to procure all of the correct ingredients, but they certainly were hot and spicy!

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Jess discovered that a certain Bhutanese citizen and I share a similar educational pedigree: 35-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth Dragon King of Bhutan, studied at Phillips Academy and later earned a degree from the University of Oxford. (For me, the emphasis is reversed: I earned a diploma from Phillips Academy and later studied at the University of Oxford.)

To learn more about Bhutan’s royal family, we kicked off the afternoon with a viewing of Asia’s Monarchies: Land of the Thunder Dragon:

We learned how the fourth Dragon King expelled most of the country’s Nepalese ethnic group in the 1990s, a human rights disaster and quite the opposite of the Gross National Happiness policy for which that king was better known. To our surprise, however, thousands of Bhutanese refugees have been resettled to New England. A trio of recent reports from Public Radio International, Smithsonian Magazine, and North Carolina Public Radio described how the refugees were adapting to life in Burlington, Vt., Manchester, N.H., and Lynn, Mass., respectively. Through a rich mosaic of written articles, slideshows, and audio interviews, these reports gave us an amazing look at the lives of Bhutanese people quite close to home. In Burlington, the community has even planted a traditional rice paddy!

Wrapping up our weekend, we enjoyed some more of Jess’s ema datshi, red rice, and cucumber salad for dinner. Our globetrot to the kingdom of Bhutan introduced us not only to delicious foods but also to beautiful landscapes, traditions, and people. From the land of the thunder dragon, tashi delek!

–Derek

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