Bhutan: the “world’s worst cuisine”?
My fascination with Bhutan probably began about 5 years ago, while backpacking in the Indian Himalayas. I read or heard something about the fabled ganja trees of Bhutan, which apparently grew wild everywhere. Later I learned that the king of the ancient land-locked Himalayan nation doesn’t gauge the country’s prosperity by GDP like the rest of the word, but instead uses a measurement of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Other interesting things that piqued my interest: that its natural environment and culture are very well-protected, that it is difficult to be allowed entry as a foreign tourist, and that it had a long-time ban on television (the national broadcasting service didn’t begin until 1999). And most recently, I found out that the editor of Gourmet magazine once declared that Bhutan was known to have the “world’s worst cuisine.” Intriguing indeed.
The Bhutanese “national” dish (which they apparently eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is called ema datshi. The descriptions I found of it varied, though there were no glowing reviews. I gathered that it involves yak cheese and chilis. The closest approximation for the North American palette would be chili con queso, only more sour. Sounded harmless enough. And, like their Himalayan neighbors, the Bhutanese really enjoy their suja, or butter tea. Momos (dumplings) are also a staple.
When I started thinking about getting Bhutanese food, I thought back to a few excellent exhibitions on Bhutan that I’d seen at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 W 17th St at 7th Ave), including Bhutan, The Sacred Within, a beautiful series of portraits by Japanese photographer Kenro Izu, accompanied by the artist’s personal deliberations on GNH during various visits to Bhutan. So when researching Bhutanese food in New York, I first turned to the Rubin Café to see if there were any Bhutanese dishes on their menu. In fact, they serve ema datshi.
Our group of 5 that week met at the Rubin late in the afternoon. We found the cafe area crowded with visitors for the “Celebrate Tibet Family Day.” Himalayan rug weavers, clothiers, and a butter sculptor (who let us get our hands dirty in a fruitless attempt to shape a flower petal) demonstrated their traditional crafts.
We sat down and all ordered the ema datshi. Twenty minutes or so later our dishes emerged. Mixed vegetables covered in a light creamy cheese sauce, served with yellow rice. It was enjoyable enough, but we weren’t convinced of its authenticity. This must be a tame version, adapted to suit Western palettes. Certainly not the world’s worst cuisine. So we decided to head out to Queens to see if we couldn’t find the real deal.
I had come across the blog of a Bhutanese man living in Queens, appropriately named “A Taste of Ema Datshi.” In one post he revealed that the Bhutanese people in NYC got their suja and momo fix at a nameless cafe in Jackson Heights at 73-19A 37th Rd (btwn Roosevelt and 74th St), so that’s where we went. The place is behind a paan stand, next to the Eagle Theater (where the Confined Nomad crew goes to get a dose of the latest Bollywood hits).
We walked in and were warmly greeted by a Tibetan man who served us our butter tea and three types of momos (chicken, beef, and mixed vegetables). I turned out to be the only one in the group with a taste for the butter tea — it’s salty and creamy and starts to curdle a little if you don’t drink it fast enough, but I fully enjoyed two full cups. As for the momos, everyone agreed they were delicious. A dash of hot sauce and vinegar made them extra good. We left satisfied, and giddy enough that the boys even decided to get themselves some paan from the man out front.
But I still had a nagging feeling that we hadn’t quite completed our Bhutan adventure. I wanted more ema datshi! I asked the proprietor of the butter tea shop if he knew where I might find some in the area. He nodded yes, and with his limited English and the help of a couple of the restaurant’s patrons, explained that there was a place two blocks away.
The Bhutanese flag on the sign in front of Lali Guras Restaurant (corner 76th st and 37th Rd) told us we had come to the right place. But when we looked at the menu, no ema datshi was listed. So I asked the lady taking orders if they served it. She asked one of the cooks, who went to the basement and asked another cook (or maybe the owner?), and he said yes! How spicy? Chicken, beef, or vegetable? (Apparently the restaurant is new and they are still working out the menu, which is why it wasn’t on there. Maybe our unusual request will prompt them to add it in the future.) We went with the veg option so as to compare it with our dish at the Rubin. We took two orders to go and ate it the next day for lunch. It was cheesy, spicy, and delicious. Even better than what we’d had at the Rubin, and very far from the world’s worst cuisine.