Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Chili

An entire nation of people should not be derailed by their favorite dish.

Much ado has been made about the fact that the Bhutanese love chilies. Now, I can confirm that, yes, they do enjoy them very much, and eat them all the time. There are people who eat ema datshi for every single meal of the day pretty much every day of their lives. There are people who snack on raw chilis, who eat just chilies for breakfast, who serve fried ones free like peanuts at bars.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that a girl fainted at assembly yesterday because she has stomach ulcers, occasional lower-waist paralysis, and, of course, fainting spells all because she eats too many chilies. In large doses they're simply corrosive. Capscaisin is good for you, but also is a potential source of cancer and the destruction of mucus membranes. And of course, there are the intestinal difficulties. Every day my students leave the classroom in droves to use the restroom. It's so common that there's no embarrassment in admitting it. Strassfeld recently told us a story about a mother who came to school assembly and told the principal, very loudly and in front of everyone, that the reason that her son was missing school today was that he had very bad diarrhea. As Feyer noted, for an American teenager this would the kind of life-scarring event that families move to new cities to undo.

The thing is, diarrhea is the low end of the spectrum. The high end of the spectrum is of course cancer, right below that fainting, ulcers and paralysis, and below that and intersecting with the quite-common-and-widespread line, is missing school because your stomach pains from eating too many chilies are so intense that you have to go to the doctor for help. This has happened multiple times to my students.

There are other foods here other than chilies. There are other datshis than ema datshi. For instance, there is kewa datshi, which is made from an ingredient even cheaper than chilis, potatoes. It is quite possible to not make chilies and rice your singular source of calories. I don't get it.

And the other thing is that the cuisine here is not even that exceptional. In terms of heat, I would rank Bhutanese dishes right on the level of Tex-Mex, below that of true Mexican food and far below the dishes of Thailand and certain Indian cultures. Most things here my hot-sauce guzzling friends back home would simply not even realize are a spicy dishes. There are potential edible conflagrations - Jon and I made datshi entirely from the tiny little extra hot chilies the other day and it was nearly inedible, made my nose run and my heart literally pound - but they're not popular in any way. Jon and I made a curry for our landlords using dalla pickles the other day and when we were eating they picked the "pickles" out and said, "Oh no, these are very terrible. Do not eat these. Very terrible."

The strange thing is that heat takes the place of sugar, salt and fat as the gustatory thrills around here, and I am finally getting a visceral understanding of why obesity is not a problem in most of the world, despite the globalization of junk food brands and restaurants like Coca-cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I am losing weight at an alarming rate. Quite a lot of people around here lack items like microwaves and stoves which are essential in making things like hot pockets and frozen pizzas, so "home-made" processed meals are impossible. If there were chain restaurants around here (which there aren't), I still wouldn't frequent them because I have no car. The convenience of McDonalds is lost when it's 7 km away by foot and the cheapness is lost when it's the cost of a meal for a taxi over.

On a side note, Jon and my lack of any cooking equipment other than a wok and a kettle has completely stifled my ability to make a proper cheese sandwich. One time I took a slice of bread (the obtaining of which was an easter egg hunt in itself), fried it as quickly as possible, fried another piece of bread as quickly as possible, then stuck a chunk of cheese between the bread, and fried that whole thing. And it was not even possible to make a grease sandwich - the bread burned before the cheese melted. I am considering making tongs somehow and just roasting a sandwich, but the weird black residue/build-up on the wok makes me very wary of our gas burners. Google has been no help. No one in the entire world has apparently attempted to make a grill cheese using a wok (once I figure this out, I intend to devote an entire post to plugging this hole in humanity's collective knowledge; this is a travesty).

The closest I came to finding something was when I found and its grilled cheese post. I find this site incredibly creepy, and I'm not why. Reading this paragraph alone just makes my hair stand on end:

"Toast is crispy and pleasant to eat while it's warm. However, toasting has to be lightly and do not set too high heat (if using baking oven which heat setting is needed), otherwise, the bread will be harden. Lightly browned toast will be just nice. Toast is simply perfect as breakfast to start your great day. I like to have the toast with soft-boiled eggs and a cup of aromatic hot low-fat coffee or ginger flavoured milk tea! Otherwise, a set of toasted ham & melted cheese sandwich will be as great."

I don't understand why it's creepy, which makes it even creepier. It's just sinister.

Walking affects more than just your access to cheesy gordita value meals. Again, it's simply not a widespread thing for people to have cars, so when you visit the grocery store (i.e., the local farmer's market) you're hauling back everything yourself, reality thereby imposing strict limits on the amount of food you can have around. And there's little opportunity to obtain the calorie-dense foods that a consumer culture enjoys. Bakeries and the pastry/cake/cheesecake triple threat are few and far between. Meat is bonier than American meat, gamier than American meat, twice as expensive as veggies (there are no corn subsidies creating a suitable economic environment for meat-factory conditions), and there is no refrigeration or sanitation, making it questionable regardless. Even fruit prices are exorbitant - a kg of apples is 9 times as expensive as a kg of tomatoes - especially since nothing is in season right now (there is no California and no ice-box truck to give you your strawberry fix in the dead of winter over here).

Simply put, body mass is a luxury both financial and temporal. And not just the gut kind - muscle mass too. Rice is terribly healthy, but it is not a complete source of amino acids, and there's very few alternatives. Cheese is somewhat expensive and bland, eggs are difficult to transport, fairly expensive (and a gamble as well, the only time I bought eggs here 2 of them had blood in them) and quite perishable, nuts cost as much as fruit, and non-green beans are rare. The only consistent source of protein I can manage is buying half-kg bags of soya bari, a type of puffed soybean product which I believe has soy protein in it, from the Indian army canteen, and the puffy nature of the things makes it difficult to consume a substantial number in one sitting.

And these are merely difficulties. Before modernization, obtaining a fattening diet would have been impossible. Another thing: the chili and the potato are American plants. What in the world did the Bhutanese eat before Spain invaded the West? Jon tells me that there are villages in China that eat only rice, but that whole incomplete amino acid set makes me suspicious.

The younger generation is much better fed than the old. Most of the kids at our school look the same size as American kids, except around their waists. But Jon is tall around here, and I am Shaquille O'Neal and a heartless shot-blocker on the court. Monks seem generally larger than the regular populace. This is probably due to the fact that monks are disproportionately male and disproportionately young.

The monks are big into music - if we hear a ringtone on the streets (the Bhutanese equivalent of the ghetto blaster), we'll probably see a monk attached. And the music is probably terrible and would appall the listeners if they could actually figure out the lyrics. As Jon has noted on his blog, what parts of western culture that make it over here are quasi-random and almost always top-40-esque (though I absolutely love it when John Denver's "Country Roads" gets played. The sentiment for the song over here is real and genuine, though, being from the actual part of the world that that song was written about, I feel genuinity pride and superiority at said moments). It's not all bad though. Yesterday during the tutorial period at the end of the school day one of the most disaffected kids in the class was strumming on an immaculate guitar and spontaneously led us all in a choral rendition of Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours".

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