Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ema, Shamu and Kewa Datshi = one nice family

Most Bhutanese love spicy food with sun-dried green and red chillies. The favorite dishes among others are Ema Datshi (chilli with local cottage cheese), Shamu Datshi (mushroom with cheese and chilli), and Kewa Datshi (potatoes with cheese and chilli). I have tasted them all, they are good. They use a sort of semi-dry local cottage  cheese (cow), except when served for tourists with imported Indian cheese.
Popular beverages include simple hot water, suja (salted butter tea), ara (home made spirit), and beer. I have tried them, they are good, too. The hard one is the butter tea for the first time, because your brain expects a tea and then you drink a salted soup. Once one got used to it, it is an excellent drink in a cold day.
Some readers asked for the recipe of Kewa Datshi which I also made some days ago. It is, in fact, quite simple:
Kewa Datshi recipe
  • potatoes
  • Bhutanese cheese (semi-dry cottage cheese or any white cheese that melts easily)
  • chopped red onions  and, if you want, tomato
  • red or green chilli (quantity according to your tolerance)
  • rice, if you want to eat more than the potato
Cut potatoes into smaller pieces. Put the potatoes along with the chilli, some oil and salt in a saucepan or pot. Add some water and boil it. You don't want too much water in this dish, but don't let it dry up completely neither. You can add some chopped onions and tomatoes to taste. Cut the cheese into small pieces and when the potato is almost cooked, add the cheese to well melt and mix. Soon it is ready. You can serve it with rice if you wish.
A big bottle of beer or hot water is a must to compensate the chilli feeling.

You can make a box office movie for $35,000

I went to see my first Bhutanese movie. A few years ago, Indian and American movies attracted most people to the country’s few movie theatres. Today, only local films are screened and local producers are queuing for airtime with their completed movies. Making a movie requires the investment of around $35,000.

Thimphu has two cinemas that screen films once in each weekday and twice in weekends in local language, Dzongkha. Popular movies tend to last longer than 2.5 hours with lots of music and a 15-minute popcorn and bio break in the middle. Art movies, like in other countries, often deal with issues like drug abuse, gender inequalities, environment or unemployment.
This time I saw a pop movie that was shot in London and Bhutan with two young actors in the story who return to Bhutan from a long stay in London under the influence of Western culture to discover the traditional Bhutanese life in the countryside. It was not the best ever, but great fun for me.
Based on this movie and what I read about mainstream Bhutanese movies, here are a few general rules for them:
1.   There is always a love story in the film.
2.   A moment of happiness or sadness is immediately followed by a song and dance sequence. These songs are shot either at mountain tops, river banks or  tea gardens and as the music plays on, at some moment, the actor and actress running towards each other in slow motion.
3.   If the story is set in rural Bhutan, there is a ‘night hunting” scene. Don’t you know what it is? I will tell you later, but it is something between men and women …
4.   There must be a dwarf in the film whether it is necessary or not.

5.   In every film, there is Phurba Thinlay as the funny man. He is Bhutan’s most popular comedian. He’s really funny.

The nation's funny man

As I said: Thimphu is small. One of the actresses in the film, Kezang D Wangmo, happened to be my local colleague’s wife and I was invited to their home after the show. I was served excellent chili food, hot water which is very common here, and a bit of local spirit: ara.

The day after, I just entered a DVD rental place (50 Ngultrum for a DVD per day, $1.25) and I bumped into one of the leading characters of last night. I couldn’t resist to contributing to the emerging celebrity culture and asked him for a picture.

Movie stars

Thimphu's two cinemas. I went to the new one.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Small country with many interesting people

In Bhutan, there are 670,000 inhabitants, around 100,000 of whom live in Thimphu, the capital, where I'm based. During my four days walking around I realized how small the town is. Here is a list of few interesting people I accidentally met, got introduced and had a chat with:

  • John Collett, Water Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist working for the Ministry of Health. John gave a few valuable advices about hygiene and invited me to an upcoming event at a center supporting drug abusers.
  • Alain Duhaut, advisor to the General Manager of Drukair, the national airlines. He introduced me to the restaurant scheme in the city. He's French, so one would expect such advise from him :)
  • Tashi Dorji, General Manager of the National TV Department who was buying local tomato before me and then kindly explained how to prepare them.
  • Sangay Tshering who has recently started his business, Mops&Condoms. I met with him in Ambient Cafe and he turned out to be one of the young entrepreneurs who has received loan and support from the Loden Foundation where I am volunteering. You will read more about what his Mops&Condoms is all about in my future posts.
  • Khenpo Tashi, an international Buddhist teacher, curator of Bhutan’s national museum, and friend of the royal family. We were sitting at the same table at a small restaurant that has pizza and goulash on the menu. He and his friends were kind enough to speak English with one another so that I could follow the conversation.
  • Sofie de Roos from Gent, Belgium working for RENEW, a local nonprofit that supports battered women.
  • Andre Brantz from Canada consulting for the United Nations and spending a few days here.
  • Kunzang Norbu from the Tourism Council of Bhutan who briefly spoke about key ethical principles followed by the government when strategically and gradually developing tourism.
What a fascinating group of people! I have decided to get back to most of them and learn more about their life in Bhutan. Of course, I will post what they have to share with us.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

DAY 2-4: Super strong chilli and super strong beer

One has to eat to survive. So over the weekend I started discovering what Bhutan has to offer food-wise. First, I went to a safe place: a nearby store where almost every product seemed to be a well-known brand made in neighboring India. I got my cornflakes, rice, milk, tea, instant coffee, and lots of local bottled water. One of the Bhutanese mineral waters is called Kurje Drupchu and its label celebrates the SAARC Summit (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) which was last year held, for the first time, in Bhutan. Imagine your favorite Evian bottle promoting the last G8 meeting held in your country and you immediately feel why Bhutan is a unique place.

Currently, I drink, cook, and wash my teeth only with this bottled water. It may be an exaggerated measure to avoid bacteria, but I can't afford becoming ill. I still have a lot to do.

On Saturday, I went to the weekend food market which is in a two-storey building in Thimphu center. Downstairs, again, every vegetable and fruit is imported from India and they are far from being organic. Upstairs, you find more or less the same products - except most fruits - from local farms with no chemicals in them.

In the evening, I had dinner at the Druk Hotel where I was the only guest due to off-season and renovation. I paid 400 Ngultrum ($10) for two great vegetarian dishes with Indian garlic nan bread and a bottle of 8% local beer labelled as Super Strong Beer. And I had an excellent conversation with two very friendly waiters, one of whom used to play football at school as a right winger and earns 5000 Ngultrum ($25) a month without tips.

If you wish, you can buy the original Druk 11000 label on Ebay for $4.

On Sunday, I stayed at home and tried to cook what I ate at the hotel: Kewa Datsi, the traditional Bhutanese potato, cheese and chilli meal.  Deviating from the hotel recipe designed for Western tourists, I decided to use local cheese, not Indian, and put a bit more chilli in it to make it HOT. I'm not sure if I followed the original recipe, but it was REALLY hot and I didn't have any super strong beer at home to kill the fire...