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?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid

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.

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