For Folk Fest, Red-Hot Chilies, Hold the Yak
An Eye-Watering Taste Of Bhutan's Unique Cuisine

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.

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.

First, he said, there was the quality of the yak cheese.

Tshering originally considered bringing a yak to the festival to make fresh dairy products. But he learned that the animal would have to stay in isolation for two months upon arrival in the United States. Turning the yak into a detainee didn't seem like the Buddhist thing to do. "Washington is so hot that time of year and the yak is a highland animal," said Tshering, who thought of calling Washington's National Zoo for a yak rental or importing a yak from a farm he had heard about in Oregon.

In the end, the Bhutanese scrapped the yak idea and enlisted the help of Bhutan's first food sociologist. Kunzang Choden is the author of "Chilli and Cheese: Food and Society in Bhutan," which attempts to capture Bhutanese traditional and religious culinary culture before it is overwhelmed by the burgers and double cappuccinos of globalization. "In the bowls of chili is the country's identity," she has written, and that's what she'll be cooking for demonstrations on the Mall.

The Bhutanese food sold at the festival's concession stands, meanwhile, will be provided by Indique Heights, an Indian restaurant in Chevy Chase that has studied Bhutan's cuisine for the occasion. Three dishes will be highlighted: ema datsi, of course; nakey tshoem, which is shredded chicken mixed with fiddlehead ferns, cheese, chilies, garlic and ginger; and momos, dumplings filled with pork and cheese that are favored by the ethnic Nepalis who live in Bhutan.

"The food, for a lot of people, is their favorite part of the festival. The live demonstrations really give you a chance to try and watch folks prepare it. And maybe try it at home," said Becky Haberacker, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution. "In the case of Bhutan, it's a country not a lot of people have visited, let alone tasted the food."

Bhutan isn't the only place featured at this year's festival: The Smithsonian usually examines the culture of an American state as well, and this year, it's Texas. My husband, the one with the asbestos palate, was inspired to imagine crossover cuisine. How about spicy yak chili Frito pie with a longneck Red Panda, Bhutan's wheat beer?

Tshering thought it was a great idea. He said Bhutan sees the festival as a giant coming-out party for the country, which has a population that is roughly the same as the District's. "We thought there's no better place to show off our new democracy and our preserved culture than America," said Tshering. "We just hope everyone loves our cooking."

What about the food's "world's worst" reputation? Personally, I would disagree -- and give that title to the aforementioned Sudanese camel meat. But Washingtonians with a fear of spice might go easy on the chilies. And have a tall glass of cold water at the ready.

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