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.
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.
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.
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
- 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…
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?)” *
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.
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