Nearly 400 years ago, the ammunition stores in a small fortress-monastery (dzong) overlooking a valley in what is now Bhutan exploded, killing most of the Tibetan invaders who had captured the dzong. The explosion was a turning point in the Battle of the Five Lamas, and in the greater history of Bhutan. Had the Tibetan invaders successfully held the dzong, Ngawang Namgyal, a charismatic and popular lama who had fled from the king and rival lamas in Tibet, would have been forced to retreat into India. But the explosion routed the Tibetan invaders. The country that had been known as Monyul (from Tibetan mun; “Dark Land”) became and remains Drukyul (“Land of the Thunder Dragon”—Bhutan is the British name for Drukyul). From that point, Bhutan increasingly became politically unified under Ngawang Namgyal’s Kagyu school of Buddhism. 1
But the country’s culture is more complicated than it appears at a glance. While many people regard Bhutan as something like a replica of Tibet before the 1950s, Bhutan is ethnically and linguistically diverse. While ethnic Tibetans are politically dominant in Bhutan, the Sharchops, who—like the Newars of Nepal—might be regarded as a relict population, are actually the majority. Many of them speak Tshangla, a Tibeto-Burmese language of murky lineage, rather than the official state language, Dzongkha. There are, in fact, at least 17 languages spoken in Bhutan.2 (English, it must be noted, may in fact be the most widespread of them, being the language used in public classrooms.)
Bhutanese cuisine also largely avoids the shadow of Tibet. In Tibet, the staple crop is barley, forming the major ingredient in tsampa, which is eaten daily by most Tibetans. In Bhutan red rice—a variety of rice that can be grown at high altitudes—is a staple. While the Tibetans like their food spicy, the Bhutanese are famed for taking their food fiery hot, chilies often being regarded as a suitable main dish–seemingly a fitting cuisine for the land of the Thunder Dragon.
It may be that the world is not yet ready for the heat of Bhutanese cooking, or it may simply be that the Bhutanese are too happy where they are to bring us their cooking; in any case, it is not easy to find Bhutanese food in the United States.
Except in Queens.
Walk ten minutes westward on Roosevelt Avenue—away from the clamor of Jackson Heights—and then a few blocks south, and you will find yourself in seemingly remote Woodside. A few hundred years ago, in Ngawang Namgyal’s time, Woodside was known as a snake-infested swamp (referred to as “suicide’s paradise”). Today . . . well, in my view Woodside has not really met its potential yet. But I have not encountered any snakes here, nor can it be called a swamp except perhaps on especially humid days.
In a row of neighborhood storefronts facing a freeway, you will find Ema Datsi. The restaurant is named for a popular dish in Bhutan (often called the national dish). The dish consists entirely of fried chilies smothered in cheese.
The restaurant is a little dark. The eastern wall is covered in posters celebrating Bhutan. There is a small shrine on the north wall, with a picture of the Dalai Lama and another lama who I did not recognize.
I ordered ema datsi and a Tibetan dish, gyuma—sausages stuffed with tsampa. The owner of the shop brought me a formidably large dish of ema datsi along with a soup—very similar to miso—that he said would help me to cool my tongue when the chilies got to be too much. With the sausages he brought chili sauce.
Ema datsi is really a simple dish, and if you like chilies, you will like ema datsi. An entire dish of ema datsi becomes a little hard on the stomach, however. The owner, perhaps unpatriotically, suggested that a meat dish would be a better choice for a meal.
If you have ever tried tsampa, you might be surprised by the gyuma. I could not identify a tsampa taste—instead gyuma was just a very mellow, soft sausage.
The Tibetan butter tea was some of the best I’ve had in Queens I do not think there was any milk in it—just butter, and maybe even real brick tea.
The owner of the shop is from Arunachal Pradesh, a state in India that borders Bhutan and shares much of its culture. “Same languages, same lamas,” he said. (Wikipedia claims that Arunachal Pradesh has more than 30 languages, and indeed, many of the languages listed are in the Tibeto-Burmese group.)
What about the customers? Tibetans, Bhutanese, and Nepalese, he said. He estimates that there are two or three thousand Bhutanese in New York.
He pointed to the opportunity to earn money as a reason many Tibetan refugees choose to come to the United States rather than India. But he framed it in an interesting way. “I send money to a monastery in my hometown regularly. They give free education to kids, and sometimes there is not enough money. You only have so long before you’re too old to do something for other people, so that’s why you have to work and save.”
Then our conversation turned to rent, a subject on which he had much to say—and I knew that he had become a real New Yorker.