Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Tears of Joy: Bhutanese Food Festival at The Park Kolkata

I think I have an invisible genie at my service these days. All I need to do is obsess over a kind of cuisine for a couple of days and I receive an invite for a food festival showcasing that very cuisine in my inbox. First it was Chettinad, now Bhutanese.

I had never tasted Bhutanese food before but I was smitten nonetheless. Chilies, cheese, rice, potatoes, dried meat, what else do you want? Beside, I love how each dish is simple yet delicious and has only few, mostly fresh,  ingredients. Bhutan is still on my list of places yet to see, but luckily I got a chance to sample the beautiful mountain country’s fiery cuisine at The Park Kolkata’s Oriental restaurant Zen a few days ago. Chef Dorjee, a native of Bhutan, and Chef Sharad Dewan, Area Director(F&B), have together crafted an elaborate menu showcasing some of Bhutan;s treasured recipes for the ongoing Bhutanese Food Festival and they promised authenticity and superlative taste. Chef Dorjee had  some of the ingredients imported all the way from his homeland and that evening he cooked up a storm for us. Or should I say a firestorm…

The meal started on a rather innocuous note, innocuous yes, but not insipid. A warm, filling bowl of comforting goodness, the Thhup, a thick soup (it has a more porridge-like consistency) made with Bhutan’s heirloom red rice, the country’s most cherished staple, and slivers of tender chicken, mildly spiced and garnished with finely chopped coriander leaves. Of course, you could add a dash of chili flakes to crank up the spice quotient, but I found it just as good without the chili flakes served alongside. Other than the beautiful soft russet hue, the red rice gives the thhup a distinct nuttiness and these heartening earthy notes I particularly enjoyed. I think I would best enjoy the dish on a cold winter night, in bed, under my favourite quilt, listening to my grandmother recount tales from her distant childhood. 

A typical Bhutanese cucumber salad, Chompa, and whole Poblano chilies, stuffed with butter and char-grilled, came up next. The Chompa is basically a salad made with diced cucumber and onions dressed with a moderately hot cheese and chili dressing. The dish is one of contrasts, while the cucumber is cooling on the palate; the chili cheese dressing has a distinct peppery kick. But it was the grilled, butter-stuffed Poblano chilies that made me take my first hasty glugs of water and order a can of coca cola.  Let me tell you one thing, the Poblano is quite the trickster. So, at the first bite, I rolled my eyes and I declared this is a cake walk, “Gimme some heat,” I said. I took a bigger bite the second time, and this time I could feel my eyes beginning to well up. By the time I took the third bite, my mouth was on fire. I bit my tongue for being flippant, took a few glugs of chilled water and hand gestured the good man waiting on us for a can of coke. I let the rest of the Poblano be.  Apparently the Poblano chili gets hotter as your proceed from the tip upwards. 

My tongue had only begun to recover from the Poblano blitz and I could feel the tear stains on my cheeks when the next dish, Juma, arrived. The name of the dish hardly betrays its rudiments. Well, Juma is nothing but blood sausages, stir-fried in a chili-laden, piquant dressing made with select Bhutanese spices. And while I loved the smoky, fiery notes of the sauce, I was not particularly fond of the sausage. It is a matter of personal choice that is, the sausages were gooey and pasty, and lacked texture, while I like mine with texture. But like I said, it’s just me. Otherwise this dish could kick start your party on a red hot note. By the time I was done with Juma, my can of coke was empty too. And my tongue was begging me to stop.

I must have done something right in this lifetime, because soon came untainted respite in a bowl – Thukpa. After the Juma, the Thukpa seemed rather plain, but that was exactly what I needed at that point. The piping hot noodle soup, I let it cool a bit though, loaded with finely sliced vegetables like carrots and French beans and shredded chicken, felt like a gentle caress and the sumptuous soup also fortified me for the subsequent chili onslaught.  The ambush happened alright, but not immediately.

The following dish made me very happy. It was like meeting an old acquaintance in a foreign land. The dish was Jasha Maroo. You see a few weeks ago I had made this dish at home, of course I shared it here on the blog as well, and it was a huge hit. It is one of the simplest dishes I have cooked, and also one of the most delicious ones.  I made the dish guided by rough skeletons of recipes shared by friends from Bhutan, and I have wondered ever since what the real deal would be like. Jasha Maroo is simply diced chicken cooked with onions, ginger, garlic, tomato and loads of green and/or red chilies, and no other spices. Chef Dorjee, however, has added a whole new dimension to the dish by adding glass noodles to it, (glass noodles, also referred to as cellophane noodles, is so called since the noodles turn translucent when cooked in water). The dish was deliciously flavourful in a relatively subtle manner, and I couldn’t resist a second helping. The dish also confirmed that my blind shot had hit bull’s eye.

I quite liked the Bhutanese Fried Rice too. Bright yellow coloured rice studded with bits a colourful vegetables and morsels of chicken. The dish is fairly simple, but the flavours distinctly different.  However, though both the Jasha Maroo and the fried rice made me happy, what they also did was make me drop my guards. For the next dish that came up was no less dangerous than deadly ammunition.

Ema Datshi literally translates to chili and cheese and is popularly deemed as the National dish of Bhutan. And I have always wanted to try it. It’s basically chilies and Bhutanese farmer’s cheese cooked together, a chili cheese curry. Chef Dorjee had recreated the dish for the Indian palate, toning it down, going easy on the heat quotient. And yet the dish is quite a fireball. Still it came with a statutory warning. But I quite liked it. By now my tastebuds had had a breather. But for those who had it in them to dare, Chef Dorjee had also prepared a portion of the real deal. I am not someone to shy away from a dare, so I smirked and said “Bring it on”.

Let me tell, no word of warning would have primed me for this dish. I took a spoonful in my started mouth, started out to say delicious, the tart cheese laced the insides of my mouth at that point, but in moments the chilies struck and before I could say cious my mouth was on fire, I could feel the heat coming out of my ear in bursts and it seems like my head would explode. Beside me a former colleague and a friend was saying how too much heat gave him hiccups and all the while he was digging into his share of Ema Datshi, and across the table P was savouring hers with panache. I on the other hand was struggling to breathe, my eyes had welled up and I was making impolite hissing sounds too. To add to my misery just then the Deputy Consul General of Bhutan, Phuntsho Dukpa, a jolly man with a sense of humour, joined our table. I managed to mutter a few polite words but even my lips hurt. The next few minutes went by in a blur. Dukpa was talking about his homeland, about the Calcuttan’s love for Bhutan, the best time to visit the beautiful mountain country, dried meat and chilies, but for me it was all a jumble of words I would make sense of much later.

I love a good dessert but I am not much of a dessert person. But I have never been happier to see desserts arrive, than I was that evening. Dessert was a rustic red rice pudding served with a drizzle of sweet cream and fresh fruits. For me it was redemption on a platter. The dessert was another comforting dish, a soft mush of red rice with a distinct “roasted” flavour.  In four bug mouthfuls it was over and finally I sighed a sigh of relief.

This was a unique dinner, I laughed as much as I cried. And though I struggled with the heat, I didn’t miss the essence of Bhutanese food. Each dish was well executed and despite my tears and tribulations I thoroughly enjoyed the repast. Only, I had the next morning to worry about. 

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