The pre-trip reading we did was very clear -- to overcome the blandness of the local diet, the Bhutanese have cultivated many varieties of chilis, which they use absolutely unsparingly. They put chilis in everything. If they made chocolate cake (which, disappointingly, they don't seem to), they would add chilis. Even the white rice, which I thought I could use to temper the heat, has chilis! The other point emphasized in our pre-trip reading is the fact that the Bhutanese are aware that most westerners can't handle their fondness for chilis, and so they are kind enough to scale way back when they know they'll be having western guests for a meal. Well, I'm here to report that even when scaled back, the local dishes set my lips a-tingling. Wow -- I've never had anything so spicy!
But I've been adventurous and have tried many things ... and I'm here to tell you that aside from one night when I had pretzels and a York peppermint patty for dinner, I'm doing just fine. I've sampled several local dishes, although I've stayed away from the national favorite, ema datse, which is some sort of potato-cheese-chili combination that I just don't think my Irish ancestors would approve of. We had lunch one day while observing a puja (annual ritual) in a traditional Bhutanese home. I took a swig of arra -- local moonshine -- last night ... and yes, it curled my hair. The red rice is substantial and filling, and the veggies are actually quite good. The meat dishes are sketchier, and sadly, the Bhutanese just don't seem to believe in dessert (although I scored a Snickers bar for pennies in downtown Thimphu yesterday afternoon).
This afternoon, after several workshops at the college, Lee and I and the Wheaton faculty member in residence headed into town for our first taste of western food in a week. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries and Lee and Hyun shared a pizza, and we drank diet cokes and milkshakes while watching schoolchildren in kiras and ghos walking home from school. I chewed thoughtfully and listened to them laugh as they passed, and I found myself thinking about these children who eat a steady diet of chili-infused food soon after they're weaned from their mother's milk. I realized just what a lightweight I am when it comes to fire-inspired food.