It is the night before we leave for our trip East. As I sit contemplating the unfinished - let’s get real - unstarted packing job I have ahead of me and the laundry left to be done, stress grips me. I procrastinated, I whined. Suddenly, memories of our last trip grips me and the anxiety of readying myself for the trip pales in comparison to what has made my stomach churn thus.
We are embarking on another trip with Dasho Colonel Kado, a man of extreme kindness and in possession of a wicked cool beard, and the trip ahead of us will certainly involve Ara. Ara, a home brewed Bhutanese alcohol made with wheat, maize, rice and millet is part of the “real Bhutanese experience” that Colonel Kado, like the exquisite host that he is, is very intent upon showing us. I might also add that the dzongkhag of Lhuentse which we shall be visiting, is the birthplace of this..ambrosia of the Druk.
Our first interaction with Ara came about half an hour after our group had gotten off of the public bus in Bumthang, the twelve-hour ride just behind us. We sat down to the hotel dinner table wearied, hungry and slightly dehydrated.
“Ara first, dinner after. This is how the Bhutanese do it,” Colonel Kado insisted.
“Colonel Kado, I think we’re a little hungry from the ride-” Professor Kim interjected.
With a matter-of-fact tone, he responded, “It has egg in it.”
Thus, the idea of warm, protein-rich eggs that had a little kick to them settled our protests.
“May I go see how the eggs are made with Ara?” I asked Colonel Kado.
“Of course!” he exclaimed, as he led Ludi and I into the kitchen just off of the dining room.
The Bhutanese kitchen staff glanced up from their prep work to smile at us as Colonel Kado spoke to the woman who would be our Ara chef. Handing her a large bottle that had, at one time, contained a brandy of some sort and now contained a much stronger spirit he insisted to us several times that this Ara was from the Eastern part of Bhutan and was thus, “the best.”
Ludi’s and my stomachs grumbled as the slab of butter began to melt ever so succulently in the pan. Approximately two eggs were then cracked by the cook’s capable hands (I say approximately because my body was nearly keeling over in hunger and numbers were not my forte at the moment) into the butter just as it had begun to brown around its edges, the center bubbling from the heat. The smell of cooking eggs filled my nostrils, the sound of the cook’s wooden spoon scraping against the pan’s bottom filled my ears as she scrambled the lovely little eggs.
“Oh my..” Ludi and I sighed in unison.
The cook, said something I’ll assume went along the lines of “It’s Ara time!” in Dzongkha and uncapped the Ara bottle, splashing the small amount into the pan and mixing.
The idea of scrambled eggs with a small amount of grain alcohol mixed in wasn’t displeasing at all...until the cook picked up the bottle again. Her wrist formed a ninety degree angle as the entire bottle of Ara splashed into the pan with the same sizzle that the sound of my hungry dreams made, disappearing in a sea of hard alcohol.
What progressed next was beyond words.
But I’ll try:
The covered pot containing hot Ara and egg was placed before our hungry eyes on the hotel’s dining room table.
Colonel Kado stood before it.
He ignited a match and dropped it, lit, into the pot.
The flames shot up half a foot into the air, highlighting the silvery shade of the Colonel’s beard.
The liquid, still lit with blue flames flickering across its surface was poured into a small soup bowl in front of me.
As the Ara cooled, I noticed the bits of egg below the thick, milky surface of the alcohol.
Peer pressure ensued.
It is a delicacy, it is a tradition, it tasted, to my untrained tongue, like glorified gasoline.
Our training with bottles of Black Mountain whiskey (which at the local Eight Eleven costs the equivalent of about four U.S. dollars) had clearly not been strenuous enough.
Long story short – the next night we had egg and Ara again. And Bumthang will probably on red alert for the Wheaton group’s second visit..