De­cod­ing Bhutan’s Love Af­fair With Chili Pep­pers

In the small moun­tain coun­try, spicy pep­pers dom­i­nate break­fast, lunch, and din­ner.

Bhutan Times - - Editorial -

TUCKED AWAY IN THE FOLDS of the Hi­malayas, Bhutan gen­er­ally man­ages to stay un­der the radar. In the larger world, knowl­edge about this small Bud­dhist king­dom-turned-democ­racy is lim­ited. Bhutan may be best known for its unique Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness met­ric, which is used to mea­sure the wel­fare of its cit­i­zens in lieu of tra­di­tional eco­nomic mea­sures.

For for­eign­ers who visit, the coun­try’s moun­tain land­scapes prove mem­o­rable. But an­other unique as­pect of Bhutan stands out: the Bhutanese’s ex­trav­a­gant love of chili pep­pers.

Bhutan’s sum­mer mar­kets are a feast for the senses. Young women in col­or­ful kira dresses sell Bud­dhist masks, Ti­betan prayer bowls, and good luck charms. Older women hawk bun­dles of hard chhurpi cheese, while housewives sift through dozens of va­ri­eties of red rice. And at ev­ery stall, there are huge piles of green and red chili pep­pers, with the oc­ca­sional yel­low pep­per peep­ing through.

This abun­dance of chili pep­pers isn’t just found at mar­kets. Shops in Bhutan fea­ture heaps of spicy pep­pers, and along Bhutan’s hilly roads, you’ll see red chilies laid out to dry on rooftops like scar­let car­pets or hung out on bal­conies like mis­shapen cur­tains. And in the val­leys of ru­ral Bhutan, dur­ing fes­ti­vals and prayer rit­u­als, the pun­gent odor of burn­ing chilies floats in the air, along with the sounds of prayer bells and hyp­notic chants.

The re­sult is a food cul­ture de­fined by chili pep­pers, which are used more like a veg­etable than a spice or condi­ment. Given Bhutan’s prox­im­ity to In­dia and China, in­flu­ences from both coun­tries’ cuisines (espe­cially Ti­betan) are strong. Yet Bhutan’s na­tional dish is unique: ema dat­shi, a stew of equal parts chili pep­pers and soft cheese, along with onions and toma­toes. Ema dat­shi is present at ev­ery main meal of the day, with the chili pep­pers—usu­ally green and sliced length­wise—car­ry­ing a spice hit that even the cheese can­not soften.

Ema dat­shi is the star of Bhutanese cui­sine, and while many vari­a­tions fea­ture pota­toes (kewa dat­shi), beans (sem­chung dat­shi), or mush­room (shamu dat­shi), there is al­ways a gen­er­ous sprin­kling of chilies. Chef Sonam Tsh­er­ing, culi­nary in­struc­tor at the Royal In­sti­tute for Tourism and Hos­pi­tal­ity, says that all Bhutanese cur­ries con­tain chilies in co­pi­ous quan­ti­ties. An­other dish eas­ily found in Bhutanese homes is ezay, a coarse chili dip eaten at break­fast.

Culi­nary ex­perts say that the most likely rea­son for chili pep­pers’ pre­dom­i­nance in the Bhutanese diet is the sen­sa­tion of heat they pro­vide dur­ing cold win­ters. Be­cause when peo­ple say that spicy food is painful, they’re be­ing ac­cu­rate. Chili pep­pers trick our pain fibers to re­act the same way they do to ex­treme tem­per­a­tures, lead­ing to a warm feel­ing that is of­ten un­com­fort­able.

For this rea­son, hu­mans are the only mam­mals to eat—and ac­tu­ally en­joy—the plea­sure-pain of chili pep­pers. As one science re­porter put it, it takes “a com­pli­cated brain and weird self-aware­ness to en­joy some­thing that is in­her­ently not en­joy­able,” and re­searchers have sug­gested that a love for spicy foods is sim­i­lar to thrill-seek­ing be­hav­ior that pushes peo­ple onto roller coast­ers and into high-stakes gam­bling.

Spicy food causes pain. But for any­one with Bhutanese lev­els of spice tol­er­ance, af­ter the ini­tial shock of wa­tery eyes and burn­ing sub­sides, a feel­ing of warmth and well-be­ing re­mains.

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