Sunday, February 28, 2010

The primary driver of our exploratory urge is our stomachs

So Jon and I started out our Bhutan-exploring yesterday by wandering over to the east side of the city, which is a bit more provincial than other areas. In an attempt to obtain some vittles, we stepped into the doorway of what claimed to be a restaurant. Inside there was a gaggle of old people chewing betel nut (a mild intoxicant and stimulant that you hold in your mouth like chaw) and basically, as Jon put it, "getting tore up." They unfortunately didn't speak much English, so our attempt to purchase food or drink failed, but we had a good time gesticulating w/ an old man decked out in a gho and a sweet fur hat. Basically all that got communicated were our names, the fact that we were shopping, and that Bhutan was better than India (indicated by raising one hand up and saying, "Bhutan" then lowering another and saying, "India." Big crowd pleaser, that.). Somewhere in the middle of that, we made a small toast w/ water, and I think the cause of international unity was served well.

So still hungry, we left and the first restaurant we ran into afterwards, called Bhutan Kitchen, turned out to be a pretty swanky place. The entrance was guarded by a sleeping dog, the ceiling was covered in a stylized cloud motif, and the waitresses for some reason seemed kind of nervous. There wasn't a menu; a whole bunch of different dishes were all brought out instead. We had kawa datshi (potatoes and cheese; the hotel's version was better), what we think was eggs, beef rice noodles, white rice, yellow rice, and Bhutan's red rice (which was excellent. It's usually described as nutty, which is close but not quite accurate, though I can't put my finger on something similar), squash mixed with pieces of pork fat, diced and wilted spinach, a chili sauce to add to the other dishes (which we cleaned out in order to make a good impression), and the sweet, milky, salty traditional Bhutanese tea. We were pretty stuffed.

That afternoon I ended up buying several food items. Jon and I got some fruit. As you can see below, the fruit here hasn't been subject to the incredible evolutionary pressures of the American capitalist system:

From left to right, we have a crunchy, peary pear, a juicy, hand-staining pomegranate, an orange, the peel of a devoured lemony zesty tiny banana, and a non-edible cell phone for comparisons both physical and gustatory.

I also bought some chugo, which is hardened yak cheese. To make it, local farmers skim most of the fat off of their milk. Then they make the cheese. Then they let it dry and harden outside for a long time. You end up with what appear to be necklaces of really chunky beads. The things even click-clack when you hit them together.

I had noticed earlier that some of the small stores and people on the side of the ride selling things off of blankets had been displaying what appeared to be hole-less powdered donuts:

I really wanted to try one, so on the way home I picked up a bag of them as well. The lady selling them seemed surprised that I wanted a whole bag, and when we got home I discovered why: they weren't donuts at all, or even pastries. They felt heavy and dough-like, and when I asked the clerk at the front desk what they were he replied that they were the cheese you use in ema datshi! Once we are able to cook, Jon and I are really pumped about making our own ema datshi. Should be excellent.

By the way, Jon's blog can be found here.

Once night hit Jon and I went out to check out the Thimphu bar scene. The first place we hit we sat down, ordered a beer, and ended up engaging in conversation with a local taxi driver, who was, if I remember correctly, the cousin of the girl serving at the bar. Also his wife was there, rocking a baby to sleep. Very odd situation to have a family gathering, but whatever. We talked it up about Bhutan and how it compared to the US and India and the like until our taxi driver friend had a bit too much whiskey and we all decided to pack up. Very nice guy, spoke English very well as well. He claimed to be 38, despite looking at most 25. Those crazy asian genes.

The beer we had was called HIT. HIT tastes like skunked Milwaukee's Best, only worse. Very malty, no taste of hops whatsoever, and there's a strong warm sensation from the alcohol. The bottle only states that the law prevents them from producing a beer of more than 8% alcohol content, so it's probably just about there. Jon's guidebook describes it and Druk 11000, a locally-produced competitor, as cheap highs, and at 40 nu a bottle, that's a pretty good description.

The next place we visited was another small local bar operated by a woman whose family was also milling around. We picked up some Dragon Cool Red Wine, imported from Goa. It came in beer bottles, and we ordered one bottle each, though neither of us finished either - elevation really drops your tolerance. I wasn't slurring my words or stumbling around or anything, but I did have problems with using the wrong words and phrases and having to repeat myself. While sipping our beer-shaped wine, we chatted it up, watched some Kung Fu Panda when the bar owner popped in a dvd, and ended up convincing her that it would be alright for us westerners to eat some fried chilis. Oh my goodness, so good. Crunchy and spicy and with a soft chewy center. Then we decided to call it a night at like 11:00 and walked back to our hotel, where we both slept very soundly.

For dinner tonight, Jon and I went off to The Seasons Pizzeria to see how the Bhutanese interpret that most perfect of dishes. We ended up ordering a pizza called "The Devil's Pizza" which was topped with onions and lots of hot chilies. The cheese appeared to be a local yak cheese instead of mozzarella, and it was creamy and gooey. The dish was by far the hottest thing we've had in Bhutan, even making my nose run a tiny bit, but we powered through it with ease as per our extensive pre-Bhutan training in the art of chilies and spiciness. There was also a little tray of american chili pepper (the stuff you find next to the parmesan shaker at American pizzerias), minced garlic in oil, bhutanese chilies, and tabasco sauce (!). I tried all of them on the pizza except for the american pepper and they all greatly added to the flavor. I had decided I wanted to go to the place while we were wandering around earlier, but apparently Jon's guidebook recommends it as well and it's supposedly pretty famous. After going there I can say that it is deservedly so.

At any rate, that's the run-down on the cuisine we've gone through lately. I'm also eating less. The portion sizes are much smaller than American sizes (re-check-out the fruit), and the food's actually kind of expensive (compared to India, I mean. It's much cheaper than eating in America, but since we're not on an American salary anymore...), so my intake has lowered dramatically. I'm basically hungry all the time, which is good since a little hunger makes you sharper mentally and physically, but I feel like I'm almost about to hit some kind of point at which I will...I donno. But just noting the fact that I'm of significantly larger dimensions than most people around here, I know that at some near time (probably the point when we move into our apartment and have a stove) I'm gonna crack and make an American-sized meal.

(15 min later)
Um...yeah, actually just cracked. The hotel restaurant called saying they were closing in 30 min, and asked if we wanted anything and I ended up ordering a second dinner of crispy pork and a Red Panda Beer. The crispy pork is a repeat of my lunch here at the hotel restaurant. It's crispy (duh), bacon-like pieces of pork lightly covered in sauce with fried onions and tomatoes.

The beer is vaguely fruity as well as wheaty and smooth, with a very nice floral aroma. I very much approve.

Also, after having just read about the Red Panda on Wikipedia, I have now decided that Bhutan has an entirely unfair monopoly on cute things in the world and needs to share the wealth a little.

And now I'm going to end this entry abruptly.

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