The dragon thundered at our last dinner, and it was loud!
Days of lunches and dinners had passed the same way; Indian food firmly hogging centrestage, local dishes waiting meekly in the shadows. Worse, the Bhutanese choices on the buffet were invariably vegetarian; beef, pork of the local eateries banished in deference to Indian sensibilities. Luckily, for the last dinner - our final gasp of the thunder dragon before we were back across the border - the kitchens of the Taj Tashi proved more adventurous. Significantly more; Bhutanese food may be all water-butter-boil, but much can obviously be done with just that.
The last night was only about local food. Ngou ngou and datshi pranced happily about, nary a korma in sight. Beef, pork made a grand appearance alongside chicken. Even the soup dug up local roots. Only the dessert counter was left in Indian and Western hands, the Bhutanese unable to conjure much of a sweet tooth.
Here's a the roster of dishes that were on offer:
- Cheese Momos with fish sauce and a delicious chilli-cheese dip .
- Gongdo Churu Jaju; a rather unusual soup of riverweed and egg-drop. The riverweed imparts a milder-than-seaweed seafood and umami punch, while the egg drop adds body to the soup. Delicious
- Hoentse Jaju; a soup of mustard greens that was far tastier than it sounded
- Gongo Datshi; a cheese-n-egg stew sounded nicer than it tasted, but it was nevertheless quite good with rice. Bright red, unlike the other datshi dishes.
- Kewa Datshi; this was the best rendering yet of the staple potato-chilli-cheese stew. Quite delicious, and though neither origin nor technique is the same it bears a strong resemblance – in taste and appearance - to potatoes au gratin with chillies thrown in.
- Jasha Broccoli Tshoem; a bright red stew of diced chicken and broccoli was colourful but not particularly memorable. Broccoli is a recent visitor to Bhutan, but plenty is grown locally
- Dolom Ngou Ngou; aubergines and garlic stir fried in butter was simple but delicious.
- Jeli Namcho Ngou Ngou; local mushrooms stir fried in butter. Resembled oyster mushrooms but a bit bland, not quite as interesting as the aubergine.
- Bhutanese Saag Fry; a fry of some spinach-like local green and chillies – about as exciting as that sounds.
- Norsha Paa; dried beef with glass noodles in a red, chilli-laden sauce. An interesting combination of soft noodles and chewy beef
- Shikam Paa; a combination of local dried pork and radishes was easily the star of the night. The fatty chunks of dried pork resembled bacon, and the radishes did a wonderful job of soaking up all kinds of juices.
I'm not quite done with the Datshi yet. Lunch, earlier in the day (as is often the case), had yielded a couple of new dishes including the much awaited Emma Datshi, or chilli-cheese stew. It's Kewa Datshi without the kewa or potato, a bunch of medium-spicy chillies vying with the cheese for attention; I must say do indeed like Emma Datshibetter - the lack of potato concentrates focus on those tasty chillies and cheese. They're spicy, these chillies, but not quite as murderous as the worst Indian ones and plump and meaty to boot.
Then there was Shamu Datshi, local mushrooms in the same cheese stew. Pumpkins made their appearance in Kakur Sege, not much more than boiled (people may harshly judge it as tasteless, I choose to carefully describe as 'interesting'). Lunch also yielded the only Bhutanese dessert in sight – a saffron-tinged rice called Dresi, mildly sweet and laced with fruits and nuts and served traditionally with a butter tea called Sudja before lunch. While the Sudja butter tea was a rather nice soup (it won't go far down your throat if you think of it as tea) the Dresi - well, I would tag it a similarly careful 'interesting'. Its hard to think of it as anything more than coloured steamed rice.
All in all, Bhutanese food showed far more promise than the previous few meals had led me to believe. The cheese stews are quite satisfying, the shikam paa definitely worth repeats and the ezzay (chilli paste dips of various kinds) – some were simply wonderful.