Pema and Chimi were nervous. Not only had their start-up been selected for the Mekong Challenge, a competition for young entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia, but the two finance students had been paired by their college lecturer with handsome Sangay.
Sangay, a self-described "party boy" also studying finance at Royal Thimphu College in Bhutan, wondered how he would get on with his bookish buddies.
"We worked on our entry for six months," says Chimi. "And the last three months, we spent every day and evening together. It was difficult but our shared dream helped us to stick together."
It's thanks to this shared dream that the three students now find themselves at the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They're here for the final of the Mekong Challenge, a chance for teams to present their business plans to a _Dragon's Den_-style panel of business experts.
Pema, Chimi, and Sangay's entry is a pasta made from traditional Bhutanese ingredients: wild yam, red rice, wheat flour, and turmeric.
"These are the foods of our ancestors," explains Pema.
To be fair, wheat flour isn't technically a traditional ingredient. It's imported from India.
"We use wheat flour because we wanted to keep the pasta vegetarian and not use eggs," says Chimi, explaining that in Bhutanese culture eggs are not considered vegetarian food. She also tells me that they will use locally sourced wheat in future, and sell the pasta with a "Bhutanese flavoured" seasoning sachet.
"The gluten property of wheat binds the pasta together," adds Sangay.
The trio are aware that, in the Western world, gluten is currently is about as popular as a rum ham at Eid, but say there's no record of wheat allergies in Bhutan, despite the country importing processed cakes and pasta since the 1970s.
"We're not sure why that is," says Sangay. "But it might be because we don't have the facilities to find out if such allergies exist or not."
They are concerned, however, that some of the judges who sampled their pasta earlier might be intolerant.
"We should probably update the packaging to say it contains wheat," says Pema.
Gluten aside, the rest of the Bhutanese pasta recipe is super healthy. Take wild yam, for example. Indigenous to Bhutan, the species they picked has a long history of medicinal use. In a recent study, scientists praised the yams having found "vitamins [and] phytonutrients that help to fight against most diseases of man." The team also added turmeric which, unless you've been stuck in an internet porn loop since 2002, you'll know is the wonder spice said to cure everything from depression to toothache.
Creating a healthy alternative to the bales of dried noodles and pasta that are imported to Bhutan from India and Thailand every day was important to the team.
"It's a problem that is related to young adults and bachelors," says Chimi. "They're so busy, they can only focus on eating bad foods that have a lot of Monosodium Glutamate [or "MSG," the flavour enhancer with a checkered past]."
Indeed, last year Bhutan banned Maggi Noodles—made by Nestlé India—when it was revealed they contained dangerously high levels of MSG and lead, according to a local media report.
The students' pasta is certainly healthy in comparison. Tasting a bit like the Walkers' health snack Sunbites, it's the kind of thing you would find in a vegan cafe in any major city. A sauce has also been prepared specially for the competition by the hotel chef: a rich Tuscan lava sludged over the crisscross-patterned pasta.
The pattern is one of the eight lucky signs that represent different aspects of the Bhutanese Buddhist tradition. The team chose the "endless knot" sign because it's "somewhat related to health," according to Sangey. The endless shape of the knot represents long life and wisdom and eating it can be a good omen, according to the team.
The other seven signs, which include a conch and a white lotus flower, would have been too difficult to render in pasta form.
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"Some of the signs represent the teachings of the Buddha," explains Pema. "And superstitious people might not be happy eating those signs."
Despite six months of effort, the team finished fourth in the competition. But they still got a free trip to Angkor Wat—the first time all three had left Bhutan. As for their pasta, it could be set for the mass market in Bhutan, which has a chronic lack of homegrown businesses and food products.
"We have to finish our education first," says Chimi. "But after that we might start a business of our own."
Sangay smiles: "We can apply for a low interest loan from the government."