Chilli and Cheese
Food and society in Bhutan 227 pages
Author: Kunzang Choden
Publisher: White Lotus
BOOK REVIEW 5 May, 2008 - It's hard to imagine Bhutan without the ubiquitous chili. But there was a time when Bhutanese cuisine did not have this fiery vegetable cum spice.
Chili is not endemic to the Himalayas; it originated in South America and arrived in Asia 400 to 500 years ago. It's introduction to the Himalayas may have been even more recent.
This is how "Chili in Bhutanese cuisine," a chapter from the book "Chilli and Cheese" begins. While it does not go on to answer when the chili was introduced in Bhutan, it elaborates on the use of the vegetable in Bhutanese food, the types of chili available in the country, its distribution, care, preservation and other aspects, such as burning it to ward off spirits and applying its powder to where it hurt most on adulterous women.
Chilli and Cheese is the latest offering by Kunzang Choden, one of Bhutan's well-known woman writers, and the first by a Bhutanese to document Bhutanese food culture. It is an account of personal experiences and perspectives of food and beverages in Bhutanese society and an attempt to understand Bhutanese culture through its food habits.
Written from a personal point of view in a simple matter of fact style, that sometimes tends to reminisce of 'days gone by', its focus is on documenting traditional food customs that the author fears are disappearing fast.
In the preface the author states, "Socio-economic transformation will continue to alter every aspect of Bhutanese life including food habits and customs. Experiencing the transformations and anticipating the inevitable loss of aspects of Bhutanese food culture, together with my own passion for food has compelled me to write this book. I am a food enthusiast; I love cooking."
The author also argues in the preface that observations by local media and others of traditional Bhutanese food being fatty and unhealthy may be off the mark. "This may be true about contemporary urban Bhutanese food, but traditional food eaten by the rural population is hot but not fatty and it is not unhealthy."
Illustrated with 129 photographs, the book has 20 chapters, each dealing with various aspects of food in Bhutan, that include the Bhutanese kitchen, food in religion and ritual, food for hungry spirits, tea and tea ceremonies, doma, chang, the national dish, rice, lesser known and nearly forgotten foods, cattle wealth, food from the forest and a chapter on foods of Nepali origin.
Chapter two of the book "Our beliefs and realities" sets the tone for what is to follow, as it discusses the Bhutanese world view and the relationship with nature which, according to the author, was one of harmony and humility, where the farmer acknowledged the sanctity as well as the vulnerability of the natural environment.
While the book appears to be intended for an audience beyond Bhutan, (the first chapter introduces Bhutan) it could be of interest to Bhutanese readers who wish to gain a better perspective of Bhutanese customs, traditions and economics when it was a self contained agrarian society. It could also interest food enthusiasts, as simple Bhutanese recipes are included at the end of every chapter.
The underlying message seems to be that indigenous knowledge is precious and that, as Bhutan changes, it could lose its understanding of the natural environment that was once profound.
Some readers might find heavy the author's references and experiences, which come from central Bhutan, while there is not much about food culture from other parts of the country. This aspect is made clear right at the start where the author states that the book does not propose to give a systematic account of Bhutanese food and gastronomic practices, but that it should serve to stimulate further research of food and culture.
*By Phuntsho Wangdi