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A taste of Bhutan Can food be the reason why Bhutan is the happiest nation in the world?

My journey into the world of Bhutanese cuisine began almost immediately upon my arrival at Paro International Airport, when I was whisked away for a traditional meal with Fin Norbu, co-owner of social enterprise, Bridge to Bhutan (www.bridgetobhutan.com).

My journey into the world of Bhutanese cuisine began almost immediately upon my arrival at Paro International Airport, when I was whisked away for a traditional meal with Fin Norbu, co-owner of social enterprise, Bridge to Bhutan (www.bridgetobhutan.com).

Dressed in traditional gho (a knee-length judo-style robe), Fin blended in with the Bhutanese crowd, yet beneath his exterior was a new-age, socially conscious entrepreneur. Having studied in the United States, Fin returned to Bhutan six years ago to set up Bridge to Bhutan with his brother, in the hopes of promoting sustainable tourism.

According to Fin, the Bhutanese people have a deep reverence for nature and culture because of their Buddhist culture. I asked him if that was also the reason why this tiny Himalayan kingdom was named the happiest nation in the world.

He shrugged his shoulders, and said: “I don’t know, maybe it’s because we’re Buddhists, maybe it’s the food!”

Lunch arrived soon enough and endless platters of vibrantly colourful dishes were spread across the table, like a Chinese New Year feast — from the piquant phaksha paa, chunky pork fillets fried with spicy red chillies, to the heavy jasha maru chicken curry. A mountain of red nutty rice was piled onto my plate, along with a dozen of aromatic hoentoe, buckwheat dumplings stuffed with turnip greens.

The last plate that was dished out caught my eye: Large green chillies soaked in melted cheese. Finn explained with much enthusiasm: “This is ema datshi. You’ll find it at every meal.”

A Love Affair with Spices

The next morning, I headed to Thimphu, the largest city and capital of Bhutan, accompanied by my guide Sangay. We were just in time for the weekend-only Centenary Farmer’s Market, the largest domestic market for farmers in Bhutan.

Not surprisingly, the most common product found in the market was chilli. The variety of chillies was mind-boggling: Red, green, fleshy, slender, round, dried, blanched, powdered, and pickled. In various forms and species, they hailed from different parts of central and western Bhutan. According to Sangay, chillies probably came to Bhutan through India and became an integral part of their lives because it was a natural way to stay warm in winter.

Chillies also hold importance in Bhutanese rituals outside the kitchen. “From time to time, every house burns some chillies to keep the bad spirits or the demons away,” he said.

That evening, Sangay and I drank a round of local rice wine, ara. And guess what was floating in the transparent firewater? A trio of red chillies.

Local Culinary Traditions

Back in Paro, Sangay brought me to a farmhouse just a few kilometres outside of town to join Ama Om in her kitchen. When we arrived, she was frying up tender chunks of beef with a handful of dried chillies and melting down blocks of yak cheese. The aroma of fresh, steamed rice and pungent chilli permeated through the air.

The gregarious 60-year-old Ama Om told me that the meal she was preparing today was classic Bhutanese grub she’d eaten since childhood. She had learned the recipes from her mother who had in turn inherited them from her own mother. All the vegetables that they cooked in the kitchen were still grown in their garden, and meat from animals they reared.

As we sat down at the table with Ama Om and her family, a round of salted butter tea or sura was served. This ubiquitous drink is extremely popular in the high-altitude Himalayan region (including Tibet and Nepal), and is often drunk with every meal.

Preparing to tuck in, Ama Om showed me the way they usually ate at home: With their hands. Eager to fit in, I carefully scooped up a ball of rice with my fingers and kneaded some beef and a big slice of red chilli in before swallowing it all in one gulp.

The explosive heat caught me by surprise and spice-provoked tears streamed down my face; but just like the Bhutanese, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. As my journey in Bhutan came to an end, I never found out the reason why the Bhutanese are such a happy bunch, but one thing for sure, food definitely had a part to play.

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