Travel: The Bhutan Experience – Hindustan Times

Travel: The Bhutan Experience – Hindustan Times

The less than two hour flight took us from Delhi to Paro, Bhutan, and I spent most of the trip dumbfounded as the peaks of Everest and Kanchenjunga seemed to be getting closer outside my window .

The views don’t stop there: upon landing, we enjoyed incredible views of the mountains at the airport before taking a 5-minute drive to the hotel, our home for the next two days.

Paro Perspective

When you think of Bhutan, mountains naturally come to mind. National food? Not that much. Chances are you know Bhutanese cuisine as the cheese and chilli dish ema datshi, but Bhutanese cooking is much more exciting than that.

Taktsang Temple, the famous Tiger’s Nest Temple is a must visit (Randal Whelpdale)

Nevertheless, I was introduced to ema datshi during one of my trips to Kolkata and absolutely loved it. So when we settle down, I’ll be looking for the authentic version. But first I need a cup of suja chai, the tea leaves are pale pink and the butter is savory. I learned that this tea, which cannot be boiled to prevent the butter from curdling, not only provides an energy boost but also helps prevent chapped lips. I am a convert!

Paro is a big tourist attraction; it’s a pretty town built along a river, with a charming city center and quaint handicraft shops that are best explored on foot.

We were in the car, however, in awe: We were all stunned by the passionately lush scenery. Windows are my new best friends: they keep the cold out and make the scenery picturesque. But the stomach was working, so we stumbled to the market for a meal.

Our first stop is the bustling Momojiao. I took a bite of the minced beef and the juice spurted out. It’s moist, full of flavor, and decadent. The cabbage cheese momo was equally delicious, and six plates of assorted dishes were gone in no time.

Paro also has quaint shops selling handicrafts, best explored on foot (Rupali Dean)

The market is delightful and a great place to bargain for souvenirs. My daughter Akanksha bought a Kira (traditional dress) and I chose a prayer wheel. Meanwhile, my husband Bakshish discovered that his Cordyceps sinensis, also known as Cordyceps or Platinum, is the most expensive mushroom in the world.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the driver of our rental car was munching on something that looked a lot like saada paan and demanding to know what was in it. The man said it was betel nut, called “doma” in Bhutanese, mixed with lime and other spices to help keep it warm. After taking a bite of doma, I can see why it is so popular. Sure, it releases heat, but it also has a slightly intoxicating effect, which I’d rather not have right now, thanks!

Early the next morning, we set out to explore Paro, starting at the famous Tiger’s Nest, before stopping for some Wai Wai, thukpa, and a drink called singchang, which is basically a liquid oozing from large amounts of fermented grains. One of the earliest forms of alcohol – ah, life’s simple pleasures!

To my left, red peppers were drying on a roof, which gave a splash of color; to my right, a temple, with flags adding more color. I wanted to stop here and do some hiking in the mountains around us, but I was hungry and we planned to have lunch after visiting the National Museum (where I was attracted by the scenery rather than the artefacts on display), and Rinpung Dzong, this monastery is probably the most stunning building in Bhutan.

Bhutanese cuisine is more exciting than its chilli and cheese dish ema datshi (Rupali Dean)

As the sun goes down, the Sonam Trophel comes alive, with foreign tourists holding dog-eared guidebooks. This quaint restaurant has a basic setting and delicious local meals. We were all hungry after all the walking, started with momos – huge and juicy, the best I’ve ever had, then phaksha paa, a classic slow-cooked boneless pork with radishes, ginger, Local spinach and red peppers, and ema datshi which was made with yak milk cheese and was many spoonfuls better than any I’ve had before.

Alluring Thimphu

We left Paro early the next morning and took a 4WD to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, passing rice fields cascading down majestic peaks and clear rivers flowing through Paro and Thimphu. We’re almost there, and I can finally see the sun as I sip the region’s lovely white peach wine.

There are several monasteries and monks make up a large part of the population (Rupali Dean)

Sitting down to a traditional meal is one of the essential experiences here: food is so important that most people take a long lunch break. Sunil Jajoria, executive chef at Le Meridien Thimpu, recommends Babesa Village, where food is meant to be shared and therefore served family-style.

In a delightful traditional setting, the restaurant opens onto a three-storey house with a certain renaissance influence on the doors and a relaxing balcony. There was a lot of datshi (cheese as we all know it now) on the menu so we ordered the kewa datshi which was delicious with potatoes, chilli, cheese and onions. The rest of the meal included sikam paa (air-dried pork), nakedy paa (boiled bracken), mengay (first-harvest rice mixed with eggs, butter, perilla seeds, and garlic), and gondu fried (a savory, crispy food) fried eggs with local vegetables.

Bhutanese food is dominated by cheese, but no meal is complete without vegetables and thingnay (a type of dried chili). These elements combined and played off each other to create a harmonious and unique dining experience that kept us lingering as we ate; our server didn’t seem too eager to kick us out. After filling our stomachs, we wandered around Norzin Lam, the commercial district of Thimphu, visited the farmers market and Memorial Chorten, and then ended the day.

Paro offers some breathtaking scenes due to the lush surrounding landscape (Rupali Dean)

Chef Jajoria prepared us a local breakfast of datshi buckwheat pancakes, fresh bananas and honeycomb butter, which sounded delicious, light and fluffy, and the yak cheese worked really well in the hot pancakes. He also offered us a warm bath, a cheesy soup with some veggies, butter and noodles, and suga tea to wash it down. We are now ready to visit the famous Dochula pass, where we can enjoy a magnificent panoramic view of the mountains, which form a majestic backdrop to the 108 serene stupas perched on the hillside. It was beautiful: we hiked to take pictures, watched movies being filmed, and had suja and chips, sprinkled with paprika, from a street tea stand.

Suja chai with butter that refreshes and prevents chapped lips (Rupali Dean)

Of course we looked up at the golden Vajra seated Buddha on the way back. Lunch is momos and thukpa, en route to Tashichodzong, a monastery and fort. I took a bite of the dry yak cheese my guide gave me and I must say it has to be one of the best cheeses I’ve ever tasted; it melted in my mouth, not too soft, slightly milky, almost perfect. I made a note to buy it on my way abroad and then turned my attention back to the monastery.

excellent. amazing. Awesome. Every word is too small, too few, for this landscape. I need new words to describe the things around me. I was thrilled by the beauty of Bhutan, its food and culture.

From HT Brunch, Jan 19, 2020

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