I am at Zen, the Asian restaurant inside the beautiful Park Hotel, where a dear friend awaits my presence eagerly. It is a sit-down event tonight, and the cuisine is one of my favorites – the food from Bhutan.

Phungsho Dupka (Left) and Chef Dorjee Gyeltshen (right)

The people of Bhutan survive on a diet which consists mostly of whatever can be foraged, killed, harvested or imported. There is an excess of milk products, both fresh and dried, in the food, and the lack of vegetables is notable. The main “vegetable” is chillies both long and short, which keeps the body warm and add a boost of Vitamin C. Unfortunately, ulcer is apparently a prevalent disease in the country, according to a friend who recently visited it. But still, the food in Bhutan is interesting, to say the very least. “Sausages, mushrooms, potatoes, chillies, dried meat and red rice would be used in many ways to cook delicacies quickly and easily,” said Phuntsho Dukpa, the Deputy Consul General of Bhutan. He talked about the developing scope of tourism in Kolkata, and how Bengali people love going to Bhutan, and Bhutanese people adore Kolkata.

Butter Grilled Poblano and Chompa

I arrive pretty late, thanks to a taxi strike in the city, and am greeted by the others sitting on the table. SS, PC and SD are sitting on my side, and I seat myself quickly, realizing that the meal is already in progress.

Thup
A covered bowl is placed immediately, and the server politely and discreetly takes my drink order. I relax, and open the black cover and find myself looking at Thup, a version of the congee made with red rice and chicken cooked together in chicken stock. It is topped with a bit of fresh cilantro which adds to the flavors, and the soup is comforting and makes me feel welcome. 

With the soup, there’s a pretty plate stacked with a single butter-grilled poblano, which is nicely hot, but I am more attracted towards the Chompa – a mix of cheese, fresh cucumber and Sichuan pepper, which releases a latent heat which leaves PC in tears.

Juma

I am more attracted towards the Juma, made with sausages flown down from Bhutan, cooked in a spicy dry red chilli sauce. This is considerably hotter, the sausages rustic, and the sauce a symphony in heat and spice.

Chef Dorjee

Before the main course comes in, our Chef of the evening, Chef Dorjee, explains to us the way he has brought in the mushrooms, the cheese, the sausages, and the chillies from Bhutan to maintain the authentic flavors. He emphasizes on the use of original ingredients to maintain the flavor, and tells us that he has prepared different versions of the same dish to make sure everyone can consume it.

Thukpa

A bowl of the house’s special Thukpa is placed before me. The broth is light and flavorful, the vegetables crunchy, but not raw, and pieces of poached chicken nicely cooked, if a little bland for my taste buds. I slurp down copious amounts of the Thukpa after adding some of the chillies soaked in vinegar, and teaspoons of the dry red chilli flakes from Bhutan which is kept on the table.

Bhutanese Fried Rice

A plate of Bhutanese Fried Rice is making rounds around the table. The rice is perfectly cooked, with bits of dried chicken tossed with it, and plenty of vegetables. It’s nice, but nothing to write home about, and I refuse a second helping, waiting for the main course to come in.

Jashamaroo

Jashamaroo is a Tibetan dish of chicken, which is dead simple, but in Chef Dorjee’s hands, the dish takes on a new dimension with the addition of glass noodles which soak up the rich stock of the chicken thoroughly, and creates a clingy layer of sauce which makes me return to this dish over and over again.

Bhutanese Fried Rice (front) and Jashamaroo (back)

I finish my portion of rice and noodles, but now I am starting to grow impatient – where is the main thing? I was raised on the belief that Bhutan’s national food is Ema Datshi, or chillies with cheese, and in anticipation of making it someday with only chillies, I have made a few recipes like Kewa Datshi and so on, but I would much rather someone cook for me, especially a dish which makes sure your fingers are not anywhere near your eye for the next 23 hours.

Ema Datshi

There are two versions of the Ema Datshi, one with the Tibetan chillies, and one with the local chillies. The local chilly version is strictly okay, but then, it completely pales against the real thing. I asked for third helpings for the one made with the spicy Bhutanese chillies, and enjoyed the heat thoroughly.

To cool our palates down, Chef Dorjee Gyeltshen produced a dense, not-too-sweet red rice pudding with a smear of mildly sweet cream on top. It brought down the heat quotient significantly, and provided a light relief. 

The Bhutanese Food Festival is currently a dinner-only menu at Zen, The Park Hotel, with the menu we sampled from and more available as a-la-carte items. A meal for two will roughly cost INR 2000/- taxes extra.

Disclaimer: Poorna Banerjee was invited for a special preview of the Bhutanese Festival at Zen, The Park by the management of the Park Hotels. 

Written by Poorna Banerjee

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