City Life: Thimphu, Bhutan - Kingdom of red-hot spices

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THE ROAD from the airport to Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, climbs and twists, revealing vistas over the high Himalayan valleys that are literally breathtaking. Thimphu is over 8,000ft high and lungs gasp after much exertion in such thin, clean air.

Every roof is spread with drying chillies, the essential vegetable for Bhutanese cuisine. Despite years in the subcontinent, my tastebuds aren't fire-proofed enough for Thimphu. Chilli and cheese stuffed inside yak lung is the national dish. An average family consumes three dozen chillis every day, ideally served over sticky red rice, and even 18-month-old toddlers chew on raw chilli pods dipped in salt.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's favourite quip is that "Gross National Happiness" counts more than "Gross National Product" - and that, for the Bhutanese, includes mouth-searing food prepared over a wood fire. The kingdom is utterly remote, tucked between China and India with no railway and few roads. The 42-year-old monarch lives by choice in a log cabin for respite from his four wives.

Until recently, when Indian produce began to be trucked into Thimphu's market, virtually all the greens came from the local rainforest. These delicacies range from fiddlehead ferns, bamboo shoots, or Cymbidium orchid buds to chantarelle and shitake mushrooms, wild honey, rhododendron tea and fried hornet grubs.

Kinley Dorje, editor of Thimphu's sole newspaper, never misses the Saturday market - the gossip hot-spot for most of Thimphu's 50,000 inhabitants. I tag along to check how much the city has changed since my 1992 visit, when the population was only 30,000.

Grey chunks of dried yak cheese are still strung up and black nests of dried riverweed are piled high beside mounds of apples. But there is also evidence of nouvelle cuisine - fresh carrots and cauliflowers which are considered exotic. Dishes made from chicken and fish, a change from the usual fatty pork or dried yak meat, are becoming popular. But most Bhutanese still balk at mild green peppers from across the border - "Might as well be eating a cucumber," said one disgusted shopper.

All the men at market appeared to be wearing dressing gowns. Mr Dorje explained that Bhutanese men continue to use the goh - a short warrior's robe without pockets and with turned-back sleeves. It is worn by royal decree to preserve the traditions of Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Women wear a longer wrap, cinched in the middle.

In warm autumn sunshine, most men slip out of their sleeves and tie them round their waists, exposing T-shirts with trendy logos. A few wear designer sunglasses.

Everyone chats over the grain and spices, and nobody bargains. Seeking some Mitsutaki mushrooms, the truffle-like fungi so coveted by the Japanese, I get sidetracked by a vendor hawking a stack of bones for beating tantric drums. A peasant woman takes my money and casually deposits it into a bowl fashioned from a human skull.

Mr Dorje sees I'm alarmed and steers me back to his car. "For dinner tonight, how do you feel about fish?" he asks. His friend, Tashi, meets us on a grassy riverbank. Bhutanese traditionally spurn finned creatures in the kitchen. But he's arranged for a couple of spare rods to hook succulent brown trout. As a clutch of Buddhist schoolboys gawk at the spectacle, we pull out a dozen trout in an hour.

"You want to try trout Bhutanese style?" Mr Dorje asks, "All chopped up with chilli?" We insist on grilling the fish whole, with butter and garlic, but Mr Dorje peps up the flavour with his home-made pickle, a tangy but piquant mash of Szechuan pepper, sour green tomatoes and chilli.

"What's the point of eating if you don't sweat?" he says between bites.