Bourdain, Bhutan, and the Hidden World of “Peppers”

Bhutanese Chilli Sha Ema

In what has become the last finished episode of the CNN series Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain, he joined up with film director Darren Aronofsky to travel – and eat – in Bhutan.

The Shock

It is just the kind of episode that made Anthony Bourdain’s suicide come as a shock also to me.

I am not one for admiration for any sort of public figure, but it is just the kind of journey of discovery I would like to go on myself.
Not the suicide, but Bhutan.

This same episode also, to me, showed just how the focus I place on hot spices and (other) strong flavors is so missing. If you watch, you will notice that hotness is often mentioned.

From the first meal of momo that Bourdain and Aronofsky have, “It’s spicy” is often the comment.

Chile peppers are a constant feature.
Sichuan pepper is mentioned.

Our presenters are clearly getting a bit of a spicy shock for their taste buds.

Bhutanese Chilli Ema Mapa
Bhutanese Chilli Ema Mapa

The Hidden Obvious

All of those strong aromatics are only mentioned in the background, however.

They shape the character of the dishes, if not of the whole cuisine, but they are so obvious and common, they fail to gain attention and receive a closer look.

Certainly over the phalli so often seen in Bhutan, that lend themselves to easy jokes and are uncommon enough in ‘the West’ to warrant a longer back-and-forth of banter.

Bhutan and its chilli-cuisine, plus the role of Sichuan pepper there, have been interests of mine for years.

Enough so that I found and grew Bhutanese chile peppers before; enough that I would very much want to travel, research and tell more about the strong aromatics there, if only I could find the finances to do so.
(“But then, I am no Anthony Bourdain,” was the usual thought. Until that one day when it suddenly looked like his life was less good, he even more troubled in some very final way, than anyone saw…)

At the very least, in a bit of a #microexploration spirit, I can try to see if any more of my seeds of Bhutanese peppers are still viable. (At least one ‘variety’ of Bhutanese chilli is growing in my garden this year already.)

And I can report from my ‘research’ into the role of the hot spices in Bhutan, the hidden world of “peppers” there, book-based as it had to have been to date.

Bhutanese Chili Bangala
Bhutanese Chili Bangala

Bhutan, Kingdom of Peppers

It is slightly absurd, actually, that the role of the chile peppers in Bhutan should be such a surprise.

We just associate chilli with tropical countries too much and forget about their mountains, have too many famous examples of ‘hot’ cuisines, to ever think of a country as small and ‘hidden’ as Bhutan when it comes to chilli.

Bhutan is a, if not the, country with the highest per-capita consumption of chilli, though. A, if not the, national dish is Ema Datshi, which is nothing but green chilli and cheese, cooked as a kind of stew.

There are several varieties/variants being grown and used, at least partly stemming from different parts of the country, and “chilli is omnipresent in the Bhutanese kitchen.”

Just among those I had (and have, though if viable?) seeds for and grew before are:

  • Begup Ema
  • Ema Mapa
  • Urka Bangla
  • Bangala
  • Ema
  • Sha Ema

Here, too, though, one can see the (other) usual problem.

Some of those names can be found in explanations of what sorts of chile peppers are being grown and used in Bhutan. With others, it is not so clear what they are really supposed to say. And actually, ema is just the Bhutanese word for chilli, so the “Ema” above is really not a distinct name, it just labels that chilli as chilli…

Bhutanese Chilli Solo
Bhutanese Chilli Solo

Uses of Peppers in Bhutan

In fact, “Bhutanese cooks give equal importance to salt and chilli in any dish”… “Irrespective of what food is being eaten the most important question is: ‘Tsa da ema bjonoga?’ (Is there enough salt and chilli?)” *

Fascinatingly, Bhutan is also a place reported to use burning chile pepper to drive away evil spirits.
It is a place where “white chilli” is also being produced.

And, finally, there is not only the chilli to be found here, but also Sichuan pepper (thingnay in Bhutanese/Dzongkha).
In fact, there are said to be (at least) two different species growing here and being used as usual, to perk up some dishes with their typical tingling-numbing effect and lemony flavor.
Interestingly, though, it is described as essential with turnips and pumpkins, liver and sausage, but “generally not used with meat dishes.

The Ascent of Chilli

Bhutan being culturally and geographically close to Tibet, this is all not just fascinating for the modern cultural and culinary importance of the chilli, but also for its historic spread:

One of my great fascinations is the chilli’s appearance in the Tibetan pharmacopoeia circa 1750, some 250 years after it first got outside of the Americas.

For a plant not only to have traveled but also integrated (ingratiated?) itself into traditional medicine, that is incredibly fast – and on the way, it was so fast that the early European botanists thought that it was (also) native to India and China.

Bhutanese Chilli Urka Bangla
Bhutanese Chilli Urka Bangla

Mountains of Heat

There is also another cultural relationship of the chilli that is a fascination of mine hidden in that story: Bhutan sure does have its (sub)tropical areas where the chilli is commonly suspected. There are also higher and colder parts, however – and people there still like chilli.

I have come across such a relationship of mountain areas and hot peppers time and again.

In fact, one can trace reports of it back all the way to the very first encounter of Europeans – Christopher Columbus’ first journey – with the chilli. In East Asia (and the Himalayas), especially, that association is apparently strong.

It is also, however, almost completely unexplored…

Research into the use of chile pepper keeps finding it mainly in the tropics, mainly in meat dishes, making it easy to argue that it must be popular because it helps against (meat-borne) microbes more prevalent in the tropics due to their heat.

Well, looking at the Himalayas and mountainous China, listening to what people there say, there is another story of mountains, cold winters, hot and humid summers, and the power of chilli to help with that. There is also a sort of “pre-adaptation” to the chilli from Sichuan pepper use.

Stories to Tell

These stories are still untold. They are not even being recognized as stories to tell. As mountain runner, ‘microexplorer’ and gardener-cook, though, I recognize them.

In honor of Anthony Bourdain and the ways he brought the special in the everyday and the everyday in the “strange” places to so many people, I want to create chances of telling these stories, all the more.

Let’s see, if or how I will succeed in that. And if you have a story to tell, try and tell it.


If Anthony Bourdain touched so many people, it was because of that: Because he connected. Told stories and listened, no matter who and where.


* If you want to learn more, the best book on food culture in Bhutan by far (and the book from which the above quotes are taken) is: “Chilli and Cheese. Food and Society in Bhutan” [Amazon affiliate link] by Kunzang Choden, published by White Lotus Press, Bangkok Thailand in 2008

4 responses

  1. George Krasle

    I was replying to a relative’s posting on Bhutan, and a quick search brought me to this article, though I’m late.

    Here’s what i posted there:

    It’s a funny story:

    Back In The Day, before every Orchid Society meeting I would take daughter Natasha to our favorite restaurant “Himalaya Sherpa.” (The Sherpa people are an ethnic minority in Nepal and Tibet, and Very. Nice. People.)

    We progressively worked-through their entire menu (“Kathmandu Sizzler” was great!), and I finally decided a favourite, a dish of chicken in a creamy (cheese? Egg?) sauce with lots of fresh ferocious hot peppers (or was it peppers in a sauce with a bit of chicken?) By this time, we were “regulars” and familiar with the staff, but my choice made one chef very happy indeed: he came-out and greeted us, explaining that he was himself actually Bhutanese, and that what I was ordering was the only Bhutanese dish on the menu; he apologized that it wasn’t as authentic as he would have preferred, as he couldn’t get the proper kind of peppers!
    NATURALLY, I asked him to describe the mysterious peppers, and then I went right to looking for them: apparently “Urka Bangla” which I found (at Kitazawa Seeds maybe?), ordered, and later brought a basket of them to the restaurant. He was ecstatic! It was just a couple of pounds, but I think he gave me $20 or something.

    THAT’S what I want to do as a retirement job: Boutique Farming!

    Sadly, as usual, my favourite restaurants are not very popular, and this Great Place eventually closed, reopened with the same family/staff elsewhere, moved again, and I’ve lost touch with them.

    Next year, I hope to reconnect at the Losar celebration to ascertain if they’re still serving food somewhere.

  2. Gerald

    Oooops, and I’m only now seeing this again, in time to answer… Fascinating! I’m trying to see if I can get the old seeds of Bhutanese peppers I still have going again this year – and I’m still wondering about the differences or lack thereof between them. Chilli names are a very peculiar thing, especially the way they appear in ostensibly scientific collections (where one would expect greater detail, but would be wrong, usually)!

  3. Dawn

    In 2013 my husband and I traveled with some friends to Bhutan. We had a wonderful trip, but food was mostly pretty bland and terrible as we were not allowed to travel independently and the cuisine was dumbed down for presumably a tourist palate and served in rectangular metal heated dishes, always the same. It was chopped chicken, creamy chili cheese dishes and some bland greens. We once convinced our guide to take us to a local restaurant in the mountains in Pokjiba Valley. The turnip greens were spiced with peppers and everything tasted way better. While walking through the valley we noted the turnip greens drying on fences and the red chilies drying everywhere. I picked up a dry chili off the ground and pocketed it. It made it through customs in my jacket pocket and I’ve been growing it every year since then. I’ve been sharing my pepper starts since then, so the Mendocino Coast community will continue this variety for some time to come.

  4. Gerald

    Biopiracy ;-) … and that’s so typical, that foods would be dumbed down for visitors who surely wouldn’t be able to handle the heat otherwise!

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