If you were asked to describe a typical Bhutanese meal what would you include? Definitely chili. Probably rice. Maybe Kewa Datshi ( potato and cheese with lots of chili). But those are lazy assumptions, sort of like assuming all Americans eat hamburgers all the time. The truth is that like many other places there is a lot regional diversity. In Bhutan some of that had to do with climate and topography. Its not possible to grow rice everywhere ( thought there are reports that global warming is changing that) in Bhutan and for a long time, specially before the improved road connections and the complete monetization of local economies, staples were what was grown locally. In my home district of Bumthang for example it was buckwheat, further east it was maize. Of course these food practices are quickly changing in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.
Recently the institute where I work had a conference that sought to demonstrate and celebrate "non-mainstream Bhutanese cultures." Of course that meant a lot of academic-y, formal presentations about things like ritual and kinship BUT the organizer also invited members of the communities that were discussed at the conference. They were there both to demonstrate aspects of their "local cultures" and to interact with conference attendees. The highlight for me was that on the final day these special invitees set up a small, edible food display in which they shared some local foods including wild foods that they gathered in the forests near their homes and brought to the conference to share.
A group from Samtse in Southern Bhutan prepared a shelroti, a well known regional food among ethnic Nepalis across the Himalayas. The twist is that instead of using a mixture of mostly just ground rice to make the deep fried dough, they also added some ground local potato. Additionally instead of using the refined white sugar that makes the bread sweet ( as is increasing the case-- at least in Bhutan) they used jaggery ( a kind of local sugar produce made from sugar cane) to sweeten the dough. The result was both a little more soft and less sweet then the shelroti familiar to most Bhutanese.
Here is a picture of the batter, mixed and shaped by hand.
This is a picture of the shelroti being deep fried.
And here is a box of the final product. This was definitely one of the hits of the food display. We saw a lot of nicely dressed women filling their handbags with shelroti to take home and share with their families.
Below are pictures of some of the wild foods that were on offer.
This pinkish mixture (don't worry that is food coloring NOT chili!) is a banana flower soup.
This is a wild mushroom that I have written about before, jilli namchu.
I look like I am holding some kind of a nut but this is a actually a kind of wild tuber or potato from Zhemgang, Central Bhutan. This particular potato had to be cooked overnight to get rid of its natural poison!
Below are two other kinds of wild potato also from Zhemgang.
And below that are two kinds of millet that were grown and eaten by a group in Southern Bhutan called the Lhop. In both cases the millet is cooked into a sticky, dough-y consistency. It was a pre-rice staple.
Above is foxtail millet.
And this dark brown mixture was made of finger millet.
Below is a picture of the food display and the crowd hearing about the each of the dishes before they got to sample them.
And finally here is my plate of goodies. The liquid is actually home brewed alcohol which also proved to be very popular! My favorites were actually the banana flower dishes and the wild potato.
I think the nicest thing about the event is that for many of the Bhutanese attendees this was an important opportunity to hear about and taste unfamiliar local foods from different parts of Bhutan. It definitely expanded our definition of what counts as Bhutanese food!
* For those of you who are interested the conference was called "Leveraging Cultural Diversity" and it was hosted at Royal Thimphu College, where I currently teach, in collaboration with the Swiss development organization Helvetas. You can read more about the conference here , here and here.