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Bhutan: A cultural symbol in Nepal

Bhutan is a labor of love, demanding meticulous preparation. The process begins with boiling these offal parts to perfection, along with a blend of whole garam masala. Another secret to mitigating that infamous smell is to add a few sprigs of rosemary

Bhutan: A cultural symbol in Nepal

“Oh, what a strange smell,” said a friend’s son when he entered the kitchen as we were cooking a Nepali delicacy called ‘bhutan’. This is a ‘weird food’ for the new generation. That is perhaps why he told us that it smelled horrible.

I wanted to shout back and say that of course, it should stink like shit because these intestines were carrying shit a few hours ago when the goat was alive. But I have to be nice, given that he is years younger than I am, and so I just tell him that it was one of our many traditional food items.

I intended to bridge the gap between him and our traditional culinary heritage. I’ve often pondered why many Nepalis have developed a preference for junk food over our traditional dishes.

Cultures across the globe have long recognized the nutritional value of organ meats as a source of protein. They feature prominently in traditional cuisines across Asia, Africa, Europe, and various parts of the Americas. Recipes are abundant for preparing tripe, spanning the world’s culinary diversity. It’s typically found in dishes like soups, stews, sauced foods, and sausages. Due to its distinct aroma and mild flavor, tripe is usually paired with bold spices and flavorful ingredients.

Before delving into the specifics of this Nepali delicacy, it’s essential to issue a fair warning about bhutan’s smell, taste, and texture. It can be off-putting to some, especially if it’s not prepared correctly. Additionally, bhutan is high in cholesterol, so it might not be the best choice for individuals with a sensitivity to high-cholesterol foods.

Each family in Nepal has its unique recipe and name for bhutan. In the far-west part of the country, people call it ‘bhutuwa’, and some refer to it as ‘bhitryas’. Some use the thymus gland, pancreas, tripe, and intestines, while others incorporate the liver, tongue, heart, kidneys, lungs, and even brain. Some even include blood.

However, bhutan traditionally consists of the blanket or flat tripe from the first stomach chamber of the animal, honeycomb tripe, which originates from the second stomach chamber and resembles a honeycomb, omasum or book tripe from the third stomach chamber, and abomasum or reed tripe from the fourth stomach chamber.

Bhutan is a labor of love, demanding meticulous preparation. The process begins with boiling these offal parts to perfection, along with a blend of whole garam masala. Another secret to mitigating that infamous smell is to add a few sprigs of rosemary. This initial step tenderizes the ingredients and lays the foundation for the mouthwatering flavors that follow.

The next stage involves stir-frying the boiled offal in a traditional Nepali kadhai, or wok, using mustard oil. This method infuses a delightful nutty aroma and a touch of heat and spiciness into the dish. Onions and red chili powder are added to intensify the flavors, creating a tantalizing mix of aromas that waft through the air.

What sets bhutan apart is its unique combination of ingredients and spices. Besides the offal and goat tripe, a host of elements contribute to the dish's rich and savory taste. There is the garam masala, a blend of spices that imparts warmth and depth. Cumin offers earthy and slightly nutty notes. Turmeric adds a vibrant color and mild, bitter undertones. Cinnamon brings a sweet and warm essence. Mustard oil infuses a distinct, pungent flavor.

There’s more. Fenugreek contributes a hint of bitterness and complexity. Cloves provide a sweet and aromatic touch. Scallions offer a fresh and mild onion-y flavor. Garlic and ginger enhance the overall taste with their pungency. Chili peppers introduce a touch of heat and texture—a feature I’ve enjoyed in my tried and tested recipes at my restaurant, Momo & Roti. And then there are salt and black pepper which are used to season the dish to perfection.

Bhutan serves as a cultural symbol in Nepal, holding a special place in the hearts and palates of Nepali people. This delicacy is especially cherished during the Dashain festival, a 15-day autumn celebration that pays homage to the goddess Durga and involves numerous animal sacrifices. It’s during this festive period that bhutan graces the tables of Nepali households, symbolizing the abundance and joy of the season.

Furthermore, bhutan is a preferred accompaniment for alcoholic beverages and soft drinks. Its spicy and savory notes complement the flavors of these drinks, making it a quintessential Nepali drinking snack. We often enjoy bhutan with chiura, beaten rice.

So, if you ever have the chance to savor this flavorful delicacy, don’t miss out on the opportunity to delve into the vibrant and aromatic world of bhutan. Besides being a valuable source of protein, bhutan is also loaded with essential nutrients. Scientists have found that it may be a beneficial addition to a healthy diet, as long as it’s consumed in moderation. 

The author is a UK-based R&D chef

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