Travel: The Bhutan experience
A less than two-hour flight whisks us from Delhi to Paro, Bhutan, and I spend most of the journey with my mouth agape, because on the other side of my window, the peaks of Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga seem to get ever closer.
The scenic beauty doesn’t end there: when we land, we are treated to unbelievable views of mountains at the airport, and then the river on the five-minute ride to our hotel, our home for the next two days.
The Paro perspective
Mountains will naturally fill your mind when you think of Bhutan. The country’s food? Not so much. Chances are all you know of Bhutanese cuisine is the cheese and chilli dish ema datshi, but Bhutan cooks up more exciting food than that.
Still, I’d been introduced to ema datshi on one of my trips to Kolkata, and had become quite fond of it. So the moment we settle in, I look for the authentic version. But first I need a cup of suja chai, light pink in colour from the tea leaves and salty owing to the butter. I learn that this tea, which is not allowed to boil to prevent the butter from curdling, not only boosts energy, but helps guard against chapped lips. I am a convert!
Paro is a big tourist attraction; it is a pretty town built around a river, and it has a charming centre complete with quaint handicraft shops best discovered on foot.
However, we are in the car, and there is an awed hush: this passionately lush landscape has stunned us all. Windows are my new best friends: they keep the nippy weather out and the view picture-perfect. But the stomach then gets in the act, so we tumble out at the market for a meal.
Our first stop is the bustling Momo Corner. I have one bite of a beef momo and the juice squirts out. It’s moist, full of flavour, and decadent. The cabbage and cheese momo is equally delicious, and six plates of all varieties disappear in no time.
The market is delightful and a great place to haggle over keepsakes. Akanksha, my daughter, buys a Kira (traditional dress), and I choose a prayer wheel. Meanwhile, my husband Bakshish finds his cordyceps, otherwise known as caterpillar fungus or white gold, the most expensive mushrooms in the world.
Meanwhile, I notice how raptly the driver of our hired car is chewing something that looks a lot like saada paan, and demand to know what’s in it. It’s betel, the man says, called ‘doma’ in Bhutanese, and mixed with lime and other spices, it helps keep them warm. A bite of a doma later, I figure out why it’s so popular. Sure, it releases heat, but it also has a mildly intoxicating effect that I’d rather do without now, thank you!
Early next morning, we are off to explore Paro, starting at the famed Tigers Nest, after which we stop for some Wai Wai, thukpa, and a drink called singchang, which is basically the liquid that seeps from a mass of fermented grains. One of the earliest forms of alcohol – ah, life’s simple pleasures!
There is a splash of colour to my left where red chillies are drying on rooftops; on my right is a temple where flags add more colour. I want to stop here for a bit and go on a trek in the mountains around us, but I am hungry and we intend to lunch only after visiting the National Museum (where I am more enthralled by the views than by the artefacts on display), and the Rinpung Dzong, the monastery with perhaps the most stunning architecture in Bhutan.
As the sun lowers, Sonam Trophel comes alive with foreign tourists clutching dog-eared copies of guidebooks. This quaint restaurant has a basic set up and meals that are local and delicious. We are ravenous after all that walking and start with momos – big, juicy and the best I have ever had, followed by phaksha paa, a classic stew of slow simmered boneless pork with radish, ginger, local spinach and red chillies, and ema datshi which is made with yak milk cheese and is many scoops better than the ones I have had before.
It is still early when we leave Paro the next morning and head for Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital, on a four wheel drive, passing by rice paddies flowing down glorious mountains and the pristine river that flows through Paro and Thimpu. We are almost at our destination, and as I sip the lovely white peach wine from this region, I can finally spot the sun.
Sitting through a traditional meal is one of the essential experiences here: food is so important that most people take a long lunch break. Executive chef Sunil Jajoria of Le Meridien Thimpu suggests Babesa Village, where the food on offer is intended to be shared and therefore has family style service.
In a delightful traditional setting, the restaurant opens out onto a sort of three-storied house with a definite Renaissance influence in the doors, and a casual veranda. On the menu there are many varieties of datshi (cheese as we all know by now), so we order kewa datshi, which has potatoes, chillies, cheese and onions and is yummy. The rest of the meal comprises sikam paa, which is air-dried pork, nakey paa, which are boiled fiddlehead ferns, mengay, the first harvest rice mixed with egg, butter, perilla seeds and garlic, and gondu fried, a tasty, crispy fried egg with local greens.
Bhutanese food is heavily cheese-oriented but a meal is never complete without vegetables and thingnay – a kind of dried pepper – on the side. The components come together and play with one another to create a harmonious and unique dining experience that makes us linger longer over the meal; our server seems in no hurry to whisk us out. Stomachs happy, we stroll around the Norzin Lam, Thimpu’s commercial district, and visit the farmers’ market and Memorial Chorten before calling it a day.
Chef Jajoria fixes us a local breakfast of datshi buckwheat pancakes with fresh banana and honeycomb butter, which are as delicious as they sound, beautifully light and fluffy, and the yak cheese really works well in the hot pancake. He also serves us a warm bathup, a cheesy soup with some vegetables, butter and noodles thrown in, and suja tea to wash it all down. We are ready now to visit the famous Dochula pass, where we catch spectacular panoramic views of the mountain range that forms a grandiose backdrop to the calmness of the 108 chortens perched on the slopes. It’s beautiful: we hike up for pictures, spot a movie being shot and have suja and chips sprinkled with chilli powder from a street side tea stall.
Of course we head up to see the golden Buddha Dordenma statue on our way back. Lunch is momos and thukpa en route to Tashichodzong, a monastery and fortress. I bite into the dried yak cheese which my guide gives me to try, and I must say it has to be one of the best cheeses I have ever tasted; it melts in my mouth, not too soft, mildly milky, almost perfect. I make a mental note to buy it on my way out of the country and turn my attention back to the monastery.
Incredible. Stunning. Awe-inspiring. Every word is too small, too scant for this landscape. I need new words to describe what is around me. The beauty of Bhutan, its cuisine and culture has completely thrilled me.
From HT Brunch, January 19, 2020
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