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For Folk Fest, Red-Hot Chilies, Hold the Yak

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The Washington Post's Emily Wax goes to a market in Thimpu, Bhutan's capital, to sample yak cheese and other local cuisine. Washingtonians can sample Bhutan's flavors for themselves at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, beginning June 25. Video by Raymond Thibodeaux for The Washington Post

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By Emily Wax
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ah . . . steaming plates of chilies swimming in yak cheese. Tea churned with butter and salt. Gooey boiled ferns.

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These are some highlights of the traditional diet of Bhutan -- a tiny Himalayan nation nestled between the two culinary and geographic giants of China and India. It's a gastronomy that is little known but often disparaged: Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl has been quoted as calling Bhutan's "the world's worst cuisine."

And you can try it for yourself next week, when Bhutan will be the featured nation at the 42nd annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, beginning Wednesday on the Mall. Dorjee Tshering, director of Bhutan's department of culture, can hardly wait for you to have the experience.

"Forget, how do you say, hot dogs? And let's have America tasting ema datsi," beamed Tshering, referring to Bhutan's national dish of chilies and cheese. "Oh, we are so proud, especially of our food. You know, most Americans have never tasted our famous red chilies -- or even our butter tea!"

As a foreign correspondent, I visited Bhutan -- and met Tshering, and tasted Bhutanese cuisine -- when the small nation held its first parliamentary elections in March, becoming the world's newest democracy.

For weeks before the trip, I had heard from friends about the country's rugged and serene beauty, its otherworldly Buddhist culture, its gentle resistance to crass modernity. (The country's only traffic light was taken down days after it was installed, when people complained that it was ugly and ineffective; the white-gloved traffic cop got his job back. Even the transition to democracy was uniquely Bhutanese -- the beloved monarchy had to abolish itself by royal decree.)

But even diehard fans of Bhutan warned me about two things: the hundreds of howling and wandering stray dogs -- Buddhists apparently don't think it's kind to put animals in a pound -- and the utter strangeness, not to mention the intense kick, of the wildly spicy food.

Raised on bland bagels and slices of New York street pizza, I must say that the cultural calories in Bhutan were among the most "interesting" experiences I've had as a correspondent. (Well, there was that hairy camel meat in South Sudan . . . long story.)

In Bhutan, I soon realized that blistering-hot chilies are the essential ingredient, probably because they raise body temperatures in the cold Himalayan climate. It's not uncommon to see whole families sweating enthusiastically over their ema datsi. And that's just breakfast.

Actually, breakfast, lunch and dinner are pretty much the same in Bhutanese homes. Heaping plates of chilies, cheese and potatoes. The signature ema datsi, made with chilies cut as thin as string beans, smells and tastes like jalapenos and Velveeta, and you eat it with your fingers. Butter tea, made with yak butter, has a sweet, heavy feel, kind of a hot milkshake. As for the ferns, they're green, stringy fiddleheads, curled like tiny sea horses. Boiled to slimy doneness, they tasted like spinach crossed with asparagus. But they felt healthy and weren't too bad over Bhutanese red rice.

When we foreign journalists went out to Bhutanese restaurants, those blisteringly hot chilies meant we drank a lot of water. Only my husband, Ray, could actually take his ema datsi without a chaser -- but then, he's a Cajun Texan. "These chilies could get a bowl of plain rice up on its feet," he said appreciatively. All of us were thrilled to find a cafe in the capital city of Thimphu filled with young locals and expats and serving Bhutanese fusion -- yak burgers and yak pizza. Salty, flavorful and familiar, the food would have been right at home on a trendy menu in Brooklyn.

But everyday Bhutanese cuisine is the ultimate in locally produced organic. Many families grow their own ferns and mushrooms, and dry home-raised pork in the clean mountain air. When Bhutan was invited to the Smithsonian festival, Tshering said he knew it would be a challenge to reproduce the tastes 8,000 miles away on the Mall.


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