Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Coffee in Bhutan

My only complaint about Bhutan is that the coffee is bad. It's all instant, and tastes both weak and insipid to me. In past visits I'd ask the restaurant staff to bring me the jar of instant granules and add some more to the barely brown liquid. This helped some, but still left me, a die hard coffee and caffeine lover feeling unsatisfied. The Bhutanese are not to blame. They are a nation of tea drinker, either black tea brewed with hot water or with milk and spices (what we'd call masala tea), or butter tea, an herbal concoction of foraged herbs brewed with milk, butter and salt. Most foreigners blanch at the idea, but it's pretty good, though best to think of it as broth, not tea. But whether you like or hate butter tea, it has no caffeine, so does nothing to satisfy coffee craving.

Several visits ago I made this lament in public, probably not the first time, but this time a Bhutanese woman advised me to visit the Ambient Cafe, where so she said, they have great coffee. I will admit to scepticism, but the next day I was sitting in the Ambient Cafe and ordered a cappuccino. Not only did the menu have coffee, but it had a list of coffee drinks. Nothing so fancy (or vulgar) as a frapuccino, but all the standard real adult coffee drinks. Ambient Cafe certainly had a look to it, one that I'd not seen before in Bhutan. Comfortable tables and seating, poetry on the walls, good music, lots of books, magazines, and newspapers to browse, snacks, sandwiches and light meals that one might find in  California (the first and only lasagna I've seen in Bhutan, and vegetarian at that). And when my cappuccino arrived, it was pure caffeine bliss, seldom this good in the USA. Whoa, did I stumble into one of those Beyuls, the secret portals that supposedly exist all over Bhutan, that take one to another reality, this the Beyul to New Age California.

I met the owners, this perfect Bhutanese couple, Lehto and Juno. Young, hip, attractive, gracious, not unlike so many of their countrymen. I would have thought they had lived in the USA to get the vibe of this place so right. But no, they'd not been beyond India. They conjured this place up on their own. And it feels  great. Almost as exciting as discovering an actual Beyul.

My new discovery so wonderful I now bring all my clients here. They swoon over the coffee, feeling coffee deprived as they do (though some now bring their own coffee and filters and ask for water, but there's not substitute for having someone make you the perfect cup of coffee). I've learned that Juno makes or oversees the making of the pastries and food. Lehto mans the espresso machine and plays host. Their young son, Jigme has the run of the place and unlike some bratty American kids, he's funny and polite and cute, another asset to the place.

The clientele? A mix of Bhutanese, tourists and some of the very few expats in Bhutan.  I've brought some of my Bhutanese friends here, to introduce them to real coffee. And almost all of them find the real stuff too strong for their tastes. These are the people that can eat the world's hottest chilis all day long, yet quail at the taste of strong good coffee. Odd, but there you have it. They douse the coffee with sugar and milk, and then pronounce it palatable. To each his own. Bring me a double cappuccino, please.

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