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Chef K.N. Vinod is standing in the middle of a giant tent dubbed the Druk Yul Kitchen for this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He’s wearing a traditional Bhutanese hat, and I offhandedly ask the official name of the flat lid. Vinod politely says he doesn’t know. With every subsequent inquiry, the chef is forced to make more confessions. Has he ever been to Bhutan? No. Has he ever tasted Bhutanese cooking before? No. Has he ever cooked Bhutanese food before now? No.
The questions, perhaps, are not fair. K.N. Vinod, after all, is Indian; he’s the chef and co-owner of a number of Subcontinental restaurants in the area, including Indique in Cleveland Park. So why is Vinod leading the Bhutanese kitchen at the Folklife Festival when he has zero experience with the cuisine?
I’ll answer that in a minute. But let me air the rest of my questions and annoyances from this year’s fest, which drew more than a million visitors, each no doubt perplexed about whether the geeked-out NASA exhibits qualified as “living culture” or government propaganda. OK, that’s one beef off my list. But, you know, at least the NASA Food Lab had the good sense not to peddle its lifeless, vacuum-sealed chow. (By the way, astronaut ice cream, that freeze-dried “space” treat sold in bags at the Air and Space Museum and the festival’s marketplace? “It’s never been flown” on a space mission, says NASA food scientist Michele Perchonok. “It’s not real.”)
I felt much the same way about the food that purported to be representative of Texas, one of the two non-NASA cultures that you can actually experience without a spacesuit and a bigass rocket ship. The Taqueria Tejas peddled precisely three plates—steak fajitas, cheese quesadillas, and taquitos, none of which were, hmmm, tacos. Nor were they necessarily Tex-Mex, which champions soft flour tortillas. Both the fajitas and taquitos were served with corn tortillas, placing the dishes more in the Mexican tradition. You know, that country south of Texas.
The barbecue tent at least had the courtesy not to call itself a smokehouse. It preferred the handle Texas Rib Joint, which would place it squarely on the Kansas City-
Memphis barbecue axis. Now I understand that, unlike its gerrymandering politics, Texas has a fairly democratic take on barbecue. The state’s ’cue features pork ribs, spicy sausage, and tough cuts of beef, but most agree that the big daddy of Texas barbecue is brisket slow-smoked in wood-fired pits. Real Lone Star ’cue rarely comes from commercial, gas-powered smokers, which were used on the Mall.
Nor does Texas barbecue always use a mop sauce—those vinegary solutions brushed onto slow-cooking meats to moisten and tenderize them—which is what pitmaster Louis McMillan argued during a festival demonstration at the Lone Star Kitchen. Now, it’s hard to debate a man whose smokehouse, McMillan’s in Fannin, just earned a nod on Texas Monthly’s list of the Top 50 barbecue joints in the state, but that’s exactly what I did. After all, I know that some of the best Texas smokehouses—Kreuz Market in Lockhart and City Market in Luling leap to mind—don’t need a mop sauce. But McMillan wasn’t budging from his position, which I found misleading. Some pitmasters, in fact, consider a mop sauce a cheat, not a tip worth passing along as Texas gospel.
And what was up with the Texas Noodle House? Yes, a ton of Vietnamese live in Houston, but the last time I checked, their food originated in—you guessed it!—
Vietnam. You could make a better argument for hawking NASA’s dehydrated dreck. At least much of the stuff is developed at Texas’ Johnson Space Center.
As you can tell, I’m getting slightly worked up here, which is why I decided to contact the festival curators in charge of both Bhutan and Texas programs. I wanted to know if they viewed the food sold on the Mall as an earnest attempt to replicate an authentic cuisine or merely concessions loosely tied to the festival’s chosen theme. I never heard back from Dawn Orsak, curator in charge of the Texas program (maybe because I recently trashed the festival’s Texas food in a Houston publication?), but Bhutan program curator Preston Scott was more than happy to explain his thinking on the Bhutanese dishes.
From the beginning, Scott says, authenticity was the goal. “I could not have made a greater effort to make it authentic,” he says.
The challenges to Scott’s mission were many. Bhutan, for instance, doesn’t have a strong recipe and cookbook tradition, so Scott had to track down a young chef from Thimphu who agreed to e-mail some of her family recipes. Bhutan also has a tiny immigrant population in the United States, which means there are exactly zero Bhutanese restaurants in this country (a fact confirmed by the Bhutanese embassy). This explains why Scott had to turn to Vinod for help; the curator needed a licensed food operator to run the Druk Yul (“Land of the Thunder Dragon”) Kitchen.
Vinod came highly recommended because of the chef’s previous work at 2002’s “Silk Road” Folklife Festival, but his experience didn’t help much when it came time to learn Bhutanese cuisine. Recipes were scarce, ingredients were not always easy to obtain, and, perhaps most unnerving, there were no Bhutanese chefs around to guide him through the process. But Vinod’s biggest obstacle would come as a complete shock: About two weeks before the opening of the festival, the National Park Service informed organizers that, for safety reasons, each food tent must limit its offerings to five dishes. Director Diana Parker told me it was the first time in her 34 years with the festival that such an order had been issued.
The five-dish limit sent Scott and Vinod into a tailspin, in part because the ceiling also included such “dishes” as rice and mango lassi. “It was terrible and it was awful,” Scott said, trying to appease a million different appetites with, essentially, three dishes. It forced compromises: Scott had hoped to serve red Bhutanese rice as a separate side dish but was forced to combine it with white rice, which is not how it’s usually served in Bhutan. Scott and Vinod also had to ax a spinach-and-seaweed dish and rely on a non-meat version of ema datsi, Bhutan’s national dish, to serve as the vegetarian plate.
But Scott and Vinod admit that some of the compromises came from within their ranks. They, for example, had to seriously dial down the heat on the ema datsi, which Bhutanese enjoy blazingly hot. Of course, I wouldn’t know how to identify authentic ema datsi—or any other Bhutanese dish—even if a Thunder Dragon were breathing down my neck. That’s why I asked Karma Phuntsho over at the Bhutanese demonstration kitchen what he thought of Vinod’s efforts. With each day, “he has improved,” Phuntsho told the gathered audience. “By the end of the festival, maybe it’s like real Bhutanese food.”
That’s when the woman next to me turned and whispered in my ear, “That was very diplomatic.”
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