In the belly of the beast

The Indian Express, May 1, 2016

When it comes to Bhutan I have to stop myself from getting all mushy and soppily emotional. Till 2010, it was an unknown territory; Trip Advisor and Zomato hadn’t happened to me. Floating down the valley to land at Paro airport with only nuggets of information about Bhutanese food and culture, I entered this quaint, ethereally beautiful country, unsuspecting of the magical spells (of various kinds) it was to cast on me — subtly, swathing me into its folds of everything gossamer. Underneath lay a toughened core, of worth, dignity and mountain spirit — each trip to Thimphu is a learning, like a story without an end.

Mushrooms, ferns, asparagus, yak cheese, chillies — that’s what you’ll eat. Check. Cheese is fried in butter and there’s butter in the tea. Check. The tryst with taste began at Taj Tashi’s Bhutanese restaurant, Chig Ja Gye, in Thimphu. Start with egg rice and ezzy (red chilli chutney), wild mushrooms and chicken momos. Ezzy is easy to fall in love with, the fiery red chillies arrest the taste buds and six years down the line, I still carry a bottle back. For me it’s carrying something from one home to another now. I can still recall the churu (river) weed soup and norsha paa (red rice with sliced beef) served with ema datshi (chillies in cheese), jasha maru (subtly flavoured chicken curry). The meal left me curious and a series of experiments, some planned, and some left to the unknown, have been the general direction of this journey of continuous discovery.

That was the first trip to start laying down the bricks for the first edition of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. Choices for the venue, hotels, caterers, most importantly, authors had to be searched, met with. By the time we zeroed down on Tarayana Centre as our first and main venue, it was Sunday and everything was shut. Muttering, I had comforted myself over a cup of coffee and jam bun at the Swiss Bakery, a cosy, yester-world haunt, warmly wooded. Later, I enjoyed a pizza and a fresh salad at The Seasons — they are served with a burnt garlic paste and ezzy, a sinful dark hot chocolate and perfect cheesecake.

Tshering, a qualified guide and driver on my following trips to Thimphu, took me to Changankha Lhakhang to pray. “You are starting something new, everyone seeks blessings here, all new born babies are brought here by their parents,” he said. The festival was the new baby. We also went to the Dechen Phodrang monastery, the original 12th century Dzong. “We pray here if we want no rain to stall an important function,” he said and pray I did.

The best part about working in Thimphu is that there are no lifts in any of the office buildings; so all the stuffing-my-face-with-food-because-I-need-the-energy-to-run-around gets taken care of while traipsing up and down the staircase, sometimes four or five floors. Good excuse to eat more.

If work allows an hour for lunch, I rush to the Folk Heritage Museum’s restaurant for Bhutanese food. The mushroom soup, and the curries with red rice are a great source of comfort for me. At night, it’s either Gakey House with the best hot pot meals which warm the soul, fortify your spirit for the next tough day, or Zasa for a banquet that only Yankee, the owner, can lay out on the table. I’ve had matsutake mushrooms and chanterelles that are delicately flavoured, a hearty pumpkin soup, hogey, beef and radish salad, chicken curry and pork dishes with buckwheat pancakes or noodles and red rice.

These restaurants became an integral part of all the work around the festival. One of the other favourites is Zombala for momos. There’s a Zombala 2 that has opened up and serves spicy Chinese food as well. Le Meridean’s pan Asian restaurant is a quiet retreat. Among the new additions that has climbed the popularity charts is Cloud 9. Their burgers are world-class, healthy juices and soups, crunchy salads, killer milk shakes, even more lethal cakes, brownies and homemade ice creams. Not good for the girth. Along with The Zone’s apple strudel that travels back home to Jaipur are the rosewater almond cakes, almond blueberry cakes, brownies from Cloud 9.

The last trip to Thimphu this April added two new must-go-to places for me — San Maru, a Korean barbeque restaurant — that dinner still sits in my mind and on my tongue. Live cooking on the table with pork and beef, salad and piquant sauces as accompaniments, starting with buckwheat tea, following with Korean Soju, we ooh-ed and aah-ed our way through the meal. The owner comes to the table and helps grill and serve — what an experience!

Mid-week, the normal thing to do for Thimphu-ites and converts like us is to trudge down to Mojo Park. It’s a pub-cum-music stage where live bands playing every night. A bottle of the Red Panda beer or a K5 whisky is the way to go. This is where we unwind after long hours at work, meet up with friends, holler at each other and take in the music.

A trip down to the vegetable market is a ritual. Season allowing, mushrooms, asparagus, fresh Bhutanese red chillies, red chilli powder, dried red chillies, red rice are stuffed into my suitcase. My first few memories are of having khabse (a fried biscuit-like snack). I can never forget how Yangchen of the Hotel Riverview would pack me some to take back home. All authors meetings for Mountain Echoes happen in the evening at Druk Hotel’s coffee shop and bar. Sessions are discussed, views and suggestions are exchanged over coffee, tea or hot ginger, lemon water laced with honey which is my favourite. Druk’s pork momos are superlative. For me, palak paneer and dal with rice is my best bet here. The festival has given us memories that we take back each time. It has made us journey into a land which envelopes us in its warmth. When I carry back food, vegetables, cakes from there to Jaipur, it’s like carrying back a slice of that home to this one.

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