CHEW ON THIS

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you are a tourist who, after getting bored of taking your millionth picture of fluffy, white clouds to post on your various social media platforms, decided to peruse through the in-flight magazine. Firstly, thank you for paying the daily Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) and enriching our country’s economy. Secondly, kindly allow all the Bhutanese to deboard first once you touch down at Paro airport. Most people visiting Bhutan for the first time tend to linger at the top of the steps as they disembark the aircraft, marveling at our green mountains and crisp air. However, it bears reminding that while you came here for vacation, there are several Bhutanese who are coming back from vacation and we all know how it feels to come back to reality after a few days off. So please, let the Bhutanese passengers exit first then you may marvel at your own leisure. Nobody likes having to wait while people stand in the way, taking pictures and being all giddy with excitement. Yes, we may be smiling but most of us are inwardly fighting the urge to push you down the stairs… or maybe that’s just me. With that out of the way, I hope you enjoy your stay.

As you travel around our country you are bound to see some popular sights, such as Taktsang Monastery also known as Tiger’s Nest. I was under the impression that Tigers had dens but I digress or I TIGRESS. Huh? Just picture me winking at you while you read that part again. Some of you might visit Chimi Lhakhang and get blessings from phalluses, and as you lose yourselves in our cultures and people, you are going to notice a stain. Red stains on walls and other surfaces, then you will notice the same stain on Bhutanese lips as they smile and converse with you. Fear not, the red-stained lips are not the aftermath of some poor, devoured victim, at least I hope not, but the remnants of a spirited session of chewing Doma. Doma or betel nut is the favorite pass time of many a Bhutanese. We spend a good chunk of our day chewing it and some of us even start young. As a child, I remember my mother ‘mamabirding’ some pre-chewed doma straight into my mouth. Our elderly, despite losing all their teeth, will continue to partake in doma. Every Bhutanese child knows the ‘doma box’ or doma chaga. A small metal box that either their parents or grandparents own which contains all the ingredients needed to make a fine khamtoh (mouthful) of doma. I am convinced that if paan shops all over the country collectively decided to stop selling doma, the entire nation would devolve into a Mad Max-esque apocalyptic hell scape. That is how much Bhutanese folks love doma irrespective of the harm it causes.

When I was in school, a teacher told us the story of how doma came to be. Mind you, this was many years ago so I am a little fuzzy on some of the details. According to legend, one of the Great Buddhist Saints created doma as a way to satiate the ravenous hunger of the demons that plagued humans.

On a sidenote: how we got anything done back then is a wonder. You go out to the field, you could get attacked by demons. You’re herding cattle, could get attacked by demons. You’re being robbed then get attacked by demons, demons eat the robber, saving you. You breathe a sigh of relief until you realize the demons are now looking at you, you get attacked by demons.

Anyway, in order to satisfy the demons’ taste for human flesh, the Buddhist Saint created the various parts that make up a doma to represent parts of the human body. The betel nut to represent the brain, the betel leaf for the skin, the tsuney (lime) as the bone and the red spittle for the blood. Thus, the Saint saved humanity while also creating a suitable food source for the demons and let’s not forget that this was also when veganism was born. Hmm, considering that outcome, maybe the Saint should have just let the demons eat us.

Sticking to the theme of Bhutanese liking hard things in their mouth – yes, I realize the innuendo there so stop giggling and let’s move on! Another favored Bhutanese comestible is chogo. Chogo is a piece of hardened cheese which, much like doma, can be chewed although a chogo is bound to last much longer. Think of it as Bhutanese bubble gum! No, you can’t blow bubbles with it and it does not come in different flavors unless you try the roasted ones. It’s more so that like bubblegum you can keep it on your night stand when you sleep and then continue chewing it the next day. I’ve even gone so far as to put it in my pockets after a few hours of chewing, the lint adds extra flavor which is sorely needed when you realize you are basically digging into petrified cheese.

If you google the phrase ‘glutton for punishment’ you will find chogo right beside it. Many a Bhutanese has bitten their inner cheek in an attempt to conquer this piece of dried, demonic dairy not to mention the horrible ache in your jaws afterwards but we still go at it, day in and day out. If you are one of those heathens who goes for the softer chogo then you must ask yourself, are you really aiming for an authentic Bhutanese experience?

Though I did say that doma is mostly to pass the time, it is also so much more. Doma, despite all its harmful effects, is a uniter. You can go anywhere in Bhutan and somebody will offer you doma. It could be the shopkeepers, the taxi drivers or your own tour guide who is probably hoping you will tip them well. Even office work gets done quicker if you offer doma. It is a comfort, it is something to bond over.

I had some of the best conversations with my late grandmother while making doma for her. Go to any Bhutanese event and you will find a bangchung (bamboo basket) with doma in it and around it you will find red-lipped men and women laughing and chatting about everything and nothing at all. Yes, it smells bad and doesn’t taste any better but it is one of the things that brings our community closer. It brings us closer especially at the hospitals because doma will cause a lot of health issues.

So, what are you going to break your teeth on first?

Kinley Phyntso

He is a freelance writer who enjoys comedy, music and comedic music. Currently racked with existential dread, he also likes long walks and talking people’s ears off.