A Himalayan Country's Curious Love Affair With Chilies
Sarah Cahlan | Photography by Michael Marquand
"Can I have another?" Sonam asks as she takes the final bite of a dried pinky-length red chili. In a traditional Bhutanese kira, a knee-length woven dress covered by a clasped rectangular jacket, she swallows the last of the pod and holds out her hand. I give her another and film her eating the now green dried chili -- in one bite. My #chilifacechallenge hasn't been much of a challenge in Bhutan.
For marketing purposes, countries usually fit into a boxed stereotype: romantic, adventurous, spiritual, delicious or luxurious. Bhutan is usually placed in the spiritual and adventurous bucket. Ads for Bhutan won't say "Taste the country!" like an ad for Italy or Paris would. For one, traditional Bhutanese dishes aren't served outside of the country, one of the largest communities of Bhtuanese outside of Bhutan is in Queens and there are only a handful of Bhutanese restaurants. Other than a few original recipes, the food can be confused for traditional Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese cuisines.
However, the Bhutanese are unique amongst their Himalayan neighbors in one aspect -- they love chilies. Sandra Garson, a Himalayan food expert, describes Himalayan food as, "Nepalese food: tasty, tasty! Tibetan food: tasty, tasty! Bhutanese food: chili, tasty!"
Whereas other Himalayan countries use chilies in some dishes, it is a mere fraction of the quantity and regulatory that Bhutanese do. The national dish of Bhutan is ema datshi, Dzongkha (the national language of Bhutan) for chili cheese and Sonam's friend, Chechay Nidup says, "For Bhutanese, chilies are vegetables instead of a spice. We like our food spicy hot."
Sandra conjectures that the heat in the chili is why Bhutanese originally started eating them in the first place. Most Bhutanese, even today, do not have heaters in their homes. Other than wood burning stoves that double as a cooking utensil and a furnace, Bhutanese have had to pile on textiles and yak fur to keep them warm in the frigid mountain climate. Sandra believes that the Bhutanese started eating chilies to raise their internal body temperature. However, most countries that eat chilies to regulate their body temperature are in hotter climates. Known as the "eat to sweat" hypothesis, some researchers believe that the reason people in warmer climates ate chilies was to raise their body temperature so they would sweat and cool down.
However, in the March 1998 issue of Cornell's journal Quarterly Review of Biology researchers dismiss the "eat-to-sweat" hypothesis because not all spices make people sweat and there are other, more obvious, ways to cool down; for instance, moving to the shade. They conjecture that there is "significant latitude-related correlation" to countries that eat chilies and those that don't. Bhutan is on the same latitude as most tropical climates that like their dishes piping hot. Further, the researchers point to spices "powerful antimcrobial (i.e., antibacterial and antifungal) agents" and how when "mean annual temperatures (an indicator of relative spoilage rates of unrefrigerated foods) increased, the proportion of recipes containing spices, number of spices per recipe, total number of spices used, and use of the most potent antibacterial spices all increased."
"In a land [Bhutan] that had few sanitary precautions or refrigeration, I imagine people noticed how people who ate the chilies didn't get stomach sick as much as others," says Sandra. Food was prone to going bad quickly in Bhutan and those who survived food-borne illness by eating chilies might have passed on a sort of spice gene to their offspring.
Bhutanese might have also noticed another effect from the chilies - a stimulated appetite. A feeling they knew well because of their habit of chewing betel leaf and areca nut. Unlike Tibetans and Nepalese but like tropical climates in Southeast Asia, the Bhutanese obsessively wrap the areca nut in a betel leaf to chew and spit. In The Tradition Of Betel And Areca In Bhutan , Françoise POMMARET lists the many examples highlighting the frequency and importance of betel leaf and areca nut in Bhutanese culture. "Customers buy the betel leaf at the weekly Sunday market, their dress's pocket bulging with silver boxes, or just simply with plastic bags filled with betel leafs; petty sellers at bus terminals selling ready made quid, called kamto, in coneshaped papers; monks returning to the monastery with their bags filled with quantity enough to last for a week’s consumption; betel leaf with a small piece of areca nut that the host offers with his two hands to the guests at the time of a ceremony; betel leafs and nuts put in a plate along with those filled with chocolates during archery games or official ceremonies ; betel leafs and nuts passed round after dinner ; red stains in the street; men and women with red stained teeth sweating profusely."
The chewer experiences similar effects to tobacco or caffeine: increased energy and a stimulated appetite. Perhaps when the Bhutanese first tried chilies from India traders who were introduced to the spice by Portuguese merchants in the 1500s, they felt a familiar feeling that they did while chewing areca nut. They might have seamlessly included the new spice into their diet and built up a tolerance to the heat over the years. And to protect their gastric linings from the chilies, they (knowingly or intuitively) added cheese or yogurt to every chili dish.
While Sandra makes it clear that her hypothesis about why Bhutanese eat chilies are only suspicions, what is certain is that Bhutanese aren't giving up their favorite 'vegetable' anytime soon.