The cuisine of Bhutan was once famously given a right kicking by the ex-New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl. She called it the world's worst. So when I recently visited the Land of the Thunder Dragon - the mysterious 'last shangri la' Kingdom hidden in the eastern Himalayas - I was intrigued as to whether the food could actually be as bad as all that. I mean, had Reichl ever eaten Welsh lava bread, Filipino balut eggs (replete with feathery duck embryos) or American plastic cheese by Kraft?
Above is the first restaurant I set foot in - in the town of Paro, not far from Bhutan's only international airport. Colourful, isn't it? It's got everything a cheerful tourist restaurant might need - bright colours, sturdy wooden tables and chairs, nicely folded napkins, some pretty flowers...
... and a load of car steering wheels stuck on the ceiling. Obviously. They might not be big in the west yet, but steering wheel ceilings are all the rage in the Himalayas. Then I had to wonder whether this was some kind of symbol, a private Bhutanese joke, if you like, about the food served up to whiny foreigners (like Ruth Reichl), and the bend that the locals enjoy driving clueless tourists around with their insipid grub.
Then the food arrived. I must confess, it didn't look like the most inspiring spread I'd ever seen. There was loads of it, but my guide, Tshering, refused to join me in a mouthful. "You first," is what I wanted to say, because if I was going down I at least wanted to take him with me. He grimaced a bit and had a spoonful of plain boiled rice. There was a Chinese-style beef dish, which was as tough as a yak's wellingtons, some plain boiled cauliflower, a dahl soup, and some more Chinese style vegetables.
I asked him where the ema datshi was, the famous national dish of cheese and red chilli. He explained that it was too hot and spicy for tourists. Since independent travel is forbidden in Bhutan, my guide had worked out my entire itinerary, including the food I was going to eat. I told him to inform the waiters to get busy with the chillies, and in no time a bowl of the famous ema datshi materialised. "You like it," enquired Tshering, with a smirk? "Yhhessss..." I rasped, as my eyes welled up and I reached for the water. Tshering just grinned, and I sensed a steering wheel gently turning overhead.
Although he seemed pleased that I'd tried to immerse myself in Bhutan's fascinating food culture, I suspected Tshering wanted to punish me in some way for my impudence. I can think of no other reason why, while touring the next day, he asked our driver Jigme to pull over at this roadside stall. Those apples look good, I thought, but Tshering made a beeline for this...
It was dried yak's cheese, merrily hardening in the morning sun. When he handed me a block I thought it was some kind of resilient classroom chalk, or perhaps something used to remove dead skin in the bath.
As this image illustrates, it was indeed hard cheese. The thing had to be bludgeoned heavily with a rock in order to break it up into mouth-sized pieces. "Here, chew it," said Tshering as he lumped a piece into his mouth and began chomping away.
Gah, wouldn't you know it - I'd left my titanium-plated dentures at home. It was like catching a plastic bullet in the mouth. Personally, I didn't know whether to eat it or shoot Maoist insurgents with it. Try as I might, my old fashioned human calcium and enamel teeth could not penetrate the granite-like snack. And since I quite liked having my molars intact (call me soft, but I sometimes like to chew food before I swallow it) I decided to suck the yak's cheese instead, to see if it'd soften up. Half an hour later I spat it out the car window, fully intact, while Tshering wasn't looking. I think it ricocheted off a rock and killed a peasant.
Lunch that day was far more palatable. It began with a spot of tea - butter tea to be exact (po cha to call it by its local name). It was a curiously savoury drink of warm tea mixed with yak's butter and salt. Quite good, in fact, and just the thing on those cold winter nights several thousand metres above sea level in the Himalayas. Apparently the butter provides sufficient calories for working at such high altitudes, and helps prevent chapped lips in the biting wind. Not all cups of butter tea come with a ghostly apparition of a man's face floating above it - that's a reflection of Choki, founder of the Blue Poppy tour company - Tshering's boss.
Today's lunch selection - in a restaurant in the capital city of Thimphu - was much better. As well as a lip-swellingly hot bowl of ema datshi creamy cheese and red chilli, there was white rice with maize, red rice (which grows at high altitudes), fatty pork and boiled radish or phagsha pa, norsha fin or beef with rice noodles, potato with cheese or keaa datshi, and egg with cheese or eggy cheese. I got stuck in.
So did Choki. Some years ago, he married an English woman. He told me that on his first visit to England, he couldn't get out of the London underground station as he'd never even seen an escalator before, let alone used one. Bhutan only recently got its first mobile phones and satellite TVs. The capital city Thimphu has no traffic lights.
A few days later, back in Paro, Tshering (above) took me to a farmer's house for lunch. The owner, also called Tshering, said the place was 3-400 years old. It has been owned by his wife's family all that time, but these days it's open for tourist lunches. They even have a couple of rooms available.
Lunch was a simple but surprisingly tasty affair. There was weapons grade ema datshi, beef, potatoes, white rice and asparagus sauteed in butter.
As I ate with a wooden spoon, Tshering translated the farmer's tales of 'night hunting' when he was a teenage lad. This didn't involve shooting yaks after sundown, but climbing up the runged windows of farm houses to look for young girls. If there was one inside, he would hop in and get saucy - all while the parents 'slept' in the same room.
He even showed me the worn rung on the window, used for over three hundred years of the bizarre and very Bhutanese courting ritual of night hunting.
There he is, now a humble farmer and a capable cook, but once a night hunter. I could tell he was getting nostalgic and starry eyed while he was talking about his teenage exploits. But I never expected this...
He grabbed a handful of leftover boiled rice and began nimbly fashioning a strange object in his hands. He seemed very adept at making his model, squeezing and folding. Looked like he'd had plenty of practice...
And then this. Yep, it is what you think it is. A little on the modest side, I'll grant you that, but still not a bad representation of a Bhutanese John Henry Thomas. Needless to stay at this stage, it looked a little less likely that I'd take the room.
I thought perhaps the above bottle of Jack and the half empty bottle of Chivas Regal might have had something to do with Farmer Tshering's impromptu handicraft session, but no. Apparently the phallus is a good luck symbol offered to travellers. I said I needed a bit of luck, as my football team Aston Villa were playing Chelsea later that night.
We got shafted 7-1.
Like the food in Bhutan, my luck in this fascinating Himalayan Kingdom was hit and miss.