Before leaving for Bhutan, one of the most common questions I encounter regarding my future home was, “What is the food like there?” At the time I really didn’t have that great of an idea how to answer – my knowledge of Bhutan in general was incredibly limited. I had spoken to Jamie Zeppa about what to expect in terms of food, and she bluntly replied, “Rice and chilies.” This was a tad bit intimidating, as I was not exactly known as a spice man among my friends, but I figured that Jamie was exaggerating slightly and that I would adapt to whatever situation I found myself in.
Well, Jamie was exaggerating slightly. It is unfair to say that the diet here is limited to just chilies and rice. There are potatoes too.
When I first arrived in Khaling (or maybe even just before I arrived, when I was talking to people about Khaling) I was asked numerous times whether I like potatoes. The answer was easy: I love potatoes. I was honestly relieved to learn that potatoes would be readily available here. When I describe a North American diet to my friends here, it is hard to avoid the “meat and potatoes” cliché. The fact of the matter is that in Canada potatoes were a fairly regular part of my diet. So was meat. My friends find it hard to believe – and recently so do I – but in Canada I would most likely eat meat at least two times a day. How quickly things change.
My first dietary surprise upon arriving here was that meat would no longer be a regular part of my diet. In fact, I don’t think I ate meat more than three times in the first month I was here, and even then it would be only a sliver or two; nothing substantial. There is no meat shop here, which essentially means that it is impossible for one to cook meat oneself. There are two restaurants in town (they call them hotels even though they offer neither beds nor rooms to guests), both of which have meat from time to time, but eating at restaurants is expensive (relatively speaking of course), and I only realized that they could satisfy my carnivorous needs a little less than a month ago. So for my first month and a half of living here I essentially became a vegetarian.
I missed meat a great deal for the first week. The second week it became more normal. The third week I wasn’t really thinking about it. And finally, after about a month, I began to notice that my stomach actually didn’t react well to meat when I did eat it. I never would have imagined that my body would adjust so quickly and reject something it once loved so dearly, but I assure you my toilet paper allowance would suggest otherwise.
Now I’m sure many people are rolling their eyes at me as they read this. Fair enough. Being a vegetarian isn’t that big a deal. Really it isn’t…when you have access to vegetables. It actually became a fairly serious problem that I had absolutely no source of protein. I was actually starting to notice that I had very little energy and was lacking strength. What was even more obvious to me was that I was losing a lot of weight. I admit that I did have a lot of weight to lose (since I was expecting to lose weight I let myself eat pretty much anything I wanted to in the month leading up to my departure for Bhutan), but still, my pants were literally falling off of me. I think I have stopped losing weight now, but I would estimate that I have lost at least twenty pounds since arriving in Bhutan. I suppose that this is somewhat of a blessing (I definitely needed to lose weight), but it would also be nice if I wasn’t forced to lose it due to a lack of food.
Sadly, Khaling is notorious for having extremely lazy farmers. I’m still trying to understand what exactly this means, as it seems to me that “lazy farmer” is somewhat of an oxymoron, but I think I have figured it out. It is not that they are lazy, but rather that they are extremely cautious. For the most part they grow only potatoes and maize (and I mean 99.9% of them), as they are failsafe crops. I still haven’t seen any actual fresh corn in the market (only beaten maize), but I’m told it is one of their cash crops.
So we have a constant supply of potatoes from our local farmers, but everything else is imported from other parts of the country and often from India. As a result, our supply of fresh vegetables is fairly limited and frustratingly sporadic.
When I first arrived there was cauliflower and green beans, as well as the standard potato, chili and onion, but after less than two weeks the cauliflower went bad and then ceased to exist, and the beans came and went faster than Grant and Inthu (sorry for the cheap shot guys, just teasing). Then there was a period when we were getting cabbage, but cabbage does not last that long, and after a week they were not particularly appetizing.
Then there was a long period when nothing was arriving in the market. I would go to town every day, searching for anything edible (other than potatoes) that I could throw into a frying pan or pot of boiling water to no avail. So it was kewa datsi (potato and cheese curry) and rice for dinner on Monday night…and Tuesday…and Wednesday…and so on for more than a week. I’m sure to many people the idea of a meal consisting of two carbohydrates and a slab of cheese sounds completely absurd, but it is incredibly filling and when you don’t have any other options, you don’t have any other options.
At this point in time I should point out that I am in no position to complain. The students are fed kewa datsi and rice literally twice a day, every single day of the year. There is absolutely no variety in their diet, and the result is that many of the girls (who are far less active than the boys) are quite tubby. The only other dish they are sometimes given is ema datsi.
Ema datsi is chili and cheese curry. I was warned about it before even arriving in Bhutan, and it is entirely worthy of its notoriety. The best way to describe it is as a bowl of fire. I eat it from time to time when it is offered to me, but usually only in fairly small quantities. At the very most I am usually capable of swallowing four or five bites of this delicacy before my stomach (not my mouth, though it is obviously ablaze) completely shuts down. It is like someone is grabbing your intestines, stretching them to their limits, and tying them into knots so tight they can’t come undone.
Sometimes it actually isn’t that bad, but the cruel thing about ema datsi is that you never know how hot it is going to be until you take a bite, at which point in time, if it is a hot one, you find out in a hurry. Even my Bhutanese friends will often acknowledge to me that this or that batch of ema datsi is too hot for them. This speaks wonders about just how hot this dish can sometimes be.
The Bhutanese eat chili with everything. If there isn’t chili in it, it’s not complete. Most of my friends and colleagues have explained to me that for the Bhutanese, chilies are a vegetable, not a spice. Meals usually consist of a hilarious cacophony of sniffs, grunts and groans, and a people’s faces are usually glistening and dripping with beads of sweat by the time they take their last bites.
I remember Jamie telling me that when she first arrived in Bhutan she could eat two chilies in a meal, and by the time she left could eat twenty-two. I have been trying my hardest to embrace chilies whenever I’m given them, and I have to say that I’m getting there, Jamie. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there.
So to answer people’s questions about the food, it has been a challenge, but at the same time, above all other challenges that I have faced, the situation with the food has taught me that I am capable of adapting to whatever situation I am thrown into. Do I enjoy chilies? Yes, I’m actually starting to miss them when they aren’t in my meals. Do I miss meat? Yeah, I miss it, but I don’t feel like I need it as much anymore. And do I still love potatoes? Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be upset if I didn’t have to eat a potato for a little while, but for the time being that doesn’t seem too likely.