Bhutan special: Chillies, cheese fire-up Bhutanese cuisine
Fridge magnets and postcards with pictures of red and green chillies of all shapes and sizes - there you go! Picturesque Bhutan's love affair with chillies - and also with cheese - is so profound that it's not just a food seasoning for its people.
It's revered as a vegetable in itself, so much so that the national dish - ema datshi - revolves around it. The tiny Himalayan kingdom, in essence, warms up to the sight and aroma of chillies -roundish, elongated, big, small, red or green.
Be it the small plastic containers of dried beef and flaming red-chilly mix at the local store or the fresh and wholesome ones at the open-air grocer, it is ubiquitous.
Take for example, a curry of ema (green chillies) and datshi (cheese) - the ema datshi. It is packed with fragrances and flavours accorded by the juliennes of chillies poking out from the creamy broth. It looks alarmingly fiery but is intriguingly mild on the taste buds.
"The way chillies are cooked and mixed with other ingredients balances the heat. Chillies are available in dried, powdered and blanched forms as well," a host at the famed Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant in Thimphu said.
Restaurants across the sleepy capital city also serve mushroom datshis and other variants but you can't escape the chillies, though. Slices of green can be seen sticking out through the brown-white stew.
The cheese used for datshis is made from cow's milk and is usually put to use for sauces, stews, soups and the like.
Ema datshi is served with another staple - the slightly sticky, pale pink, fragrant red rice.
Cultivated for thousands of years in the region, the nutty-flavoured rice is boiled and eaten with chilli-based dishes or also with bits of meat and potatoes (sham drey).
There are also red rice pilaf or fried rice versions where the zest of Bhutanese oranges are added in harmony with some finely chopped onions, garlic and caraway seeds to impart hints of a citrusy flavour.
For tourists without a clue about the local food, a dinner/lunch course at the Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant is worth the hike uphill from Thimphu.
Known to have played a key role in reviving traditional Bhutanese cuisine, a small dinner course includes soup, datshi, red rice, buckwheat pancakes, a meat dish (pork, beef or chicken) and a plethora of salads and pickles.
And all these are served in shiny wooden bowls with wooden ladles.
This is how locals normally eat their food - bite-sized portions of everything heaped on wooden saucers and plates atop wooden tables.
Intricately painted with motifs - elephants, dragons, snakes and colourful geometric patterns - the tables and the wooden chests lined with kitchen paraphernalia set the scene for a magnificent meal.
Service starts with arra (a spirit distilled from rice, maize, wheat or barley) and a bowl of mushroom soup infused with butter.
Red rice, spongy buckwheat pancake and a tangy stew (tshoem) with bite-sized chicken pieces follows. One can also opt for other meat stews and dishes such as phaksha paa, (pork cooked with spicy red chillis) and jasha maru (spicy minced chicken with tomatoes and condiments).
For vegetarians, a lot is in store. Dairy lovers can rejoice as well. Food in Bhutan is a green and cheesy affair too.
There is the plateful of crunchy cucumbers, broccoli and onions, wrapped in layers of soft cheese. Have it with a pumpkin stew, with a refreshing dash of turmeric, which acts like a palate cleanser.
Spinach, turnips, radish and carrots are the other popular veggies while spinach cooked with chillies and cheese or a huge saucer of red chillies whipped with cheese is a constant companion to every course.
Watch the sunset or sunrise over the gigantic snow-capped Himalayas with a warm bowl of thukpa - filling mouthfuls of noodles and soup, accentuated with fried eggs or chicken. Rustled up in a jiffy, thupka for some is the ultimate comfort food. However, it also has its critics who find the thukpa bland.
A cup of salty butter tea (shu ja), steamed dumplings (momo) stuffed with cheese or meat and generous sprinkles of fried puffed rice, around up a perfect snack in the laps of the Himalayas.
Well, don't forget the spicy red chilli chutney that comes with the dumplings!
* Meal for two at Heritage Museum Restaurant: Rs.300.
* Street food in Thimphu costs between Rs.50 and Rs.100.