Happiness is a Chilli
The chilli is a part of the staple diet in Bhutan despite the stomach ulcers it creates. Is there a food that can alternate for the chilli fever?
In the picturesque Himalayan country of Bhutan known for championing its concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), chilli is a way of life. Most Bhutanese start consuming it early in their lives – some when they are toddlers. The country's national dish, ema datshi (which translates to cheese chilli) relies heavily on the "vegetable" as most Bhutanese call it, and can be found in every restaurant across the kingdom. And it’s not just ema datshi; the Bhutanese people use chillies in every cuisine because the winter months are long and cold and
the fiery, red spice is a good way to keep warm on those cold nights. In fact, the Nepalese people don’t even think of chilli as a spice; for them it’s like any other vegetable that is a dietary staple.
Even more interesting is the fact that chillies are not native to Bhutan. They made their way to the country through India, say historians. But much before chillies were used in traditional Bhutanese cuisine, a local herb called
namda was used in the food. The herb, explain culinary experts, give a very hot flavor when boiled with food. “The chillies keep you energized," says Kesang Choedon, a chef and expert in traditional Bhutanese cuisine. He heads the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu that showcases the country's culinary culture. "It makes you sweat! In the old days, when we didn't have any proper heating systems for houses, spicy meals were a natural option."
Choedon says 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," she explains. "Similarly, when we're brewing the local liquor aara, we add three chillies in it - not to add flavour or spice - but for good luck, so that the aura isn't affected by any negative energy it comes in contact with."
The variety of chillies available in the country is astounding – red, green, fleshy, slender, round, dried, blanched, powdered, and pickled. An average Bhutanese family consumes one kilo of chilli a week, a significant amount. Time and again, health experts in the country have warned people against the use of too much chilli in their food. Reports indicate that peptic ulcers, commonly known as stomach ulcers, are a growing cause for concern among the Bhutanese people. In many cases, these ulcers have resulted in death. The overuse of chilli also causes stomach cancers – detailed and credible scientific research has shown a direct correlation between chillies and a host of lifestyle diseases. Choedon, however, dismisses these claims. “I am 50 and I have been eating chillies all my life. I am fit and fine," she says. "I think it really depends on the constitution of one's body. Some people may be prone to risks and others can handle it well."
Choedon’s claim may have some truth but it is also important to remember in the past most households consumed less amounts of meat and cheese even if they consumed a lot of chilies. Also, in the past these food items were a necessity given the tough physical life endured by villagers unlike the sedentary lifestyle seen in Bhutan today.
While health experts have spoken about preventive measures time and again, the Ministry of Health and Education has yet to take the issue seriously. “The Ministry in partnership with other relevant organizations should actively promote healthy diet and exercise that will not only benefit the national health but also our society and economy,” says Dr Dorji Ohm, who treats patients for chili-related ulcers and hypertension. “As a physician, I recommend a mix of cardio (walking, jogging) and strength training. Strength training, which can either be done using weights or even free hand like pushups, is important especially for people who are crossing their mid thirties to maintain their bones and muscles in good shape. And if you have been consuming chillies all your life the way most Bhutanese people do, then all the more reason to start early,” she adds.
The problem is the use of chilli is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to avoid. “Every meal consists of chilli in some form or the other and most people will eat it just like that as a snack. The junk food available in Bhutan today, which is particularly attractive to the younger generation, also contains copious amounts of chilli and salt because of which the onset of lifestyle diseases begins early on,” explains Dr Ohm, adding that along with fellow doctors, she is educating parents about the use of less chilli in their food so that their children can grow up ulcer and cancer-free. More fruits and vegetables must also be incorporated in the diet to help with digestion and prevent acidic build-up in the stomach, points out Dr Ohm.
Today, more and more youngsters in Bhutan are exposed to western cuisine including junk food such as pizza and burgers. The future Bhutanese generation will have to contend with higher health risks given that they consume fast food in addition to chilli. Therefore, government health officials and policy makers must take measures to discourage the use of too much chilli in food. Otherwise, Bhutan may be poised to top the list of countries where peptic ulcers are a major cause of death.
The writer is a freelance journalist who contributes regularly to various leading publications.
The variety of chillies available in the country is astounding – red, green, fleshy, slender, round, dried, blanched, powdered, and pickled. An average Bhutanese family consumes one kilo of chilli a week.