One of the most remote and picturesque corners of the globe, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has long captured the imagination of intrepid travellers. With its astonishing natural beauty, peaceful Buddhist culture and enigmatic traditional society, it is often called ‘the last Shangri-La’.
There are many reasons to visit Bhutan, which has only been open to foreigners since 1979. It is ideal for trekking, spiritual retreats or just to observe a place that through isolation has remained remarkably untouched and authentic. Though idyllic, one thing the country is not known for is its food. Bhutan’s foodie offerings earned it the unfortunate moniker ‘The World’s Worst Cuisine’, a title ascribed to it by Ruth Reichl, former food critic at The New York Times.
I was recently one of the lucky few to visit this enchanting nation, and I’m pleased to report that the cuisine’s reputation is undeserved. Most meals were humbly prepared and delicious. Food is not just about how something tastes, it’s a key component in understanding and experiencing a culture. Here are some of Bhutan’s more notable dishes…
1. Ema Datshi
The national dish is composed of fiery chillies smothered in yak cheese. It tastes like a very spicy nacho dip.
2. Butter Tea
With the inhospitable climate of the Himalayas, butter tea keeps people warm, provides energy and also helps prevent chapped lips. The tea’s brewed and mixed with yak butter and salt. The resulting liquid is similar to a warm broth or stew.
3. Fiddlehead Fern Soup
Much of Bhutan’s population lives on subsistence farming and fresh mushrooms, ferns and asparagus are abundant. The fiddlehead ferns are commonly made into a soup that tastes of puréed asparagus with a hint of pine.
Bhutan shares credit for creating this popular dumpling with its neighbours, Nepal and Tibet. They are often filled with meat, cheese and cabbage and are commonly eaten with a chilli paste.
If beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, taste’s on the palate of the partaker. A delicacy in one culture can be deemed vile in another. One such example is the famous French cheese, Époisses. A fave of Napoleon, it’s been banned from the Paris subway for its strong aroma (think dirty socks!). Brave enough to try? Époisses is available at Jones the Grocer, www.jonesthegrocer.com.
July is packed with festivals in Italy and one of the biggest, The Feast of Saint Rosalia, takes place on the island of Sicily. The streets of Palermo are decorated for the big event that includes a procession with music and a 50-foot high float with a statue of Saint Rosalia. There is, of course, plenty of feasting and a chance to try splendid treats such as “tradizione Palermitana” [traditional Palermo dishes], including pasta con le sarde [pasta with sardines], and the braver option of babbaluci [boiled snails flavoured with garlic and parsley].
Nausheen Noor contributes to several food publications and is the author of the foodie website www.dubai-bites.com.