Friday, October 23, 2009

Bhutan - The Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan, a landlocked nation nestled in the Eastern Himalayas, is called the “land of the thunder dragon.” It sounds militaristic and malevolent but, in fact, it’s predominately Buddhist and embraces the concept of gross national happiness as opposed to gross national product. In 2006, Business Week magazine rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia.

It is said to be the last Shangri-la, virtually isolated from the rest of the world until the early 1960s. It prides itself on preserving its culture, identity and the environment. For example, Bhutanese law requires all its citizens to wear the national dress in public areas and as formal wear. They have banned the sale of tobacco, Thimpu, the capital, has no traffic lights, and they are passionate about their food, and their chilies. They love spicy hot dishes. Their favorite, and considered the national dish, is the ema datshi – it’s all chili and cheese. This is what I made, only, not the real spicy version (or my kids wouldn’t have been able to eat it). The real version, if you will, is hot, hot, hot – just the way they like it. And in Bhutan, they use yak cheese (sorry folks, I couldn’t find that. I had to substitute it with Danish feta cheese). I hope that someday I can go to Bhutan myself and try it the authentic way.

I can picture myself breathing in the fresh Himalayan air and praying in a Bhutanese Buddhist temple teetering on the side of a mountain. I am not a religious person, but if I had to choose a religion it would be Buddhism. It’s a peaceful religion, I admire the Dali Lama, and I believe in past lives.

I once went to a Lives Between Lives hypnotist who put me under hypnosis for six hours in a two-day period. I saw visions of myself in different lives, but I can’t tell you it was real. It could have been my imagination. I just don’t know. That’s what’s so frustrating about it.

Recently I had a troubling experience. When I went to Chicago for my cousin’s wedding I spent the last day there with my friend, Jen, who lives in a town outside the city. For fun we made an appointment with a psychic. When we met with the psychic, we were all in the same room so I could listen in on Jen’s reading and she could listen in on mine. The psychic said to Jen that she saw her in a past life as a little girl in a bonnet skipping across a meadow towards a man on a horse. Jen and the psychic spent some time trying to figure out who this man was, perhaps a father.

Then the psychic turned to me. She said that in my past lives I had been a warrior and a bird of prey. “I can even taste the blood,” she said. Okay. This was getting a bit much, even for me. Feeling insulted and wondering why she didn’t see me skipping through a meadow in a bonnet, I let her know that I was a very peaceful person.

“I wear a peace sign necklace,” I said to her as I pulled my necklace out from under my shirt to show her. “I hate war and killing anything. When I see a bug in my house, I capture it and set it free.” This is true and I would become a vegetarian if I didn’t love food so darn much! Whatever impression she got of me I was sure she had gotten it all wrong. I may have pranced into her office wearing a Banana Republic scarf and shirt with knee-high fashion boots, but I’m a New Age hippie at heart.

The more I thought about it the angrier I got and wondered what the hell was the matter with this woman! But then I calmed down and realized that sometimes what we interpret and what is real are two different things. Either the psychic was full of crap and she didn’t know what the hell she was doing, or I could look at this whole warrior/bird of prey thing differently. Perhaps the psychic saw in me strength, bravery and a determination to succeed.

And, perhaps, that’s how we must see Bhutan. Not as a fire-breathing dragon country closed off from the rest of the world, but as a country who takes great measure in preserving its culture so that it can remain a sort of Shangri-la.

Ema Dashi

1/2 lb hot green chilis (can substitute poblanos)
1 medium sweet onion, diced
3/4 cup water
1/2 lb Danish feta cheese (normally made with Yak cheese)
2 tsp vegetable oil
2 tomatoes, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp fresh cilantro, chopped

Remove seeds and ribs from chilis and cut chilis lenthwise into 4 pieces each. Place chilis and onion in water with vegetable oil. Boil 10 minutes. Add tomato and garlic and simmer for 2 more minutes. Add cheese and simmer on low for another 2 minutes - enough to blend the cheese without completely melting it. Add cilantro and stir. Serve with rice (Bhutanese red rice if you can.

Kewa Datshi

4 potatoes
1/3 cup cheese (swiss, farmers or any white cheese)
1/4 cup chopped red onions
1 TBSP oil
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp chili powder

Cut potatoes into small pieces. Put the potatoes, oil and salt in a saucepan. Add 1 and 1/2 cups water. Cut the cheese into small pieces and when the potatoes are almost done, add the cheese. Then add chopped onions and tomatoes to taste, and chili powder.

Don't put too much water in this dish, and don't let it dry up. Add a little bit of water everytime it gets low.

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