I love this story.
It’s from Chilli and Cheese, a remarkable book on food and culture in Bhutan. It was written in 2008 by Kunzang Choden, an impressive, soft-spoken woman whom we met for tea in Thimpu earlier this month. One of Bhutan’s leading (and most prolific) authors, Choden was born into the old landed aristocracy, a class which lost much of its wealth and power in the 1960’s when serfdom was abolished and ownership of land restricted to 25 acres per family.
As a girl, Choden attended school in India, which required a 12-day trek on foot and horseback from Ogyen Choling, her family’s estate in the upper part of the Tang valley in the Bumthang district of central Bhutan. (The manor house is now a museum.) The best part, it seems, was coming back:
“When we returned home for school holidays, after the long journey before reaching home, I would rejoice on seeing the servant with ngaja [sweet tea]. There was a certain place about 2 km from home which was the usual spot for this welcoming ritual….My tired body would suddenly feel lighter on seeing the familiar thermos-flask in the red cloth case with the yellow piping and a large bangchung [woven basket] of zow [roasted rice] mixed with butter and sugar. We would get off our horses, sit under the shade of a tree on the saddle carpet and relish the tea….”
The notion of greeting weary travelers with a tasty snack before they arrive at your home is a lovely one. As we all know, the experience of getting from one point to another is often fraught with unpleasantness. B, in fact, has been known to meet me at the airport, after a particularly awful trip, with a whiskey sour secreted in a thermos cup.
In Bhutan, however, families keep a store of zow on hand to serve to guests, usually with—or stirred into—a cup of tea with milk or butter….
This addictive snack is made of raw rice that’s been soaked in water, then roasted in a pan, with or without oil, until the grains are crunchy and golden. Aswirl of butter and a sprinkle of sugar make it even more delicious.
One of the most breathtaking sights in Bhutan is that of rice growing in terraces that literally cascade down the mountainsides. There is little flat land, except in a few valleys, so these terraces are an age-old answer to the problem of farming on hillsides so steep that it’s impossible to walk up without bending down.
Although several varieties are grown in Bhutan, the Kingdom is especially famed for its heirloom red rice. In their cookbook, Seductions of Rice, Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford write that it is a “medium-grain, japonica-type rice that has been semi-milled. The red of the outer layers is still on the rice in patches, but because it is somewhat polished, it cooks more quickly than brown rice. The cooked rice is pale pink, soft and tender, and slightly clingy, so it’s easy to eat with chopsticks.”
This is the type of red rice sold in the markets, and that we ate with almost every meal in Bhutan (though never with chopsticks). It is also used for making zow.
But I was surprised by how little the red rice in the Kingdom resembled the Bhutanese red rice I’ve been eating at home. In America it’s possible to find red rice imported from Bhutan—Lotus Foods has been selling it for years—but the raw grains are dark reddish-brown and heavy; when cooked, they are chewy and nutty-tasting. My best guess is that it’s the same rice, but with the husk still intact.
If you want to make zow, I recommend using Bhutanese red rice, even if it is the darker, heavier, unpolished type. When roasted, the grains stay plump and their flavor is rich and toasty. Since I seem to have a lot of white basmati in the pantry, I also tried using it for zow. When sautéed with a little oil, it also turns golden and crunchy but its long grains are thinner and more brittle, and it lacks the full savory taste of red rice.
I’m the first to admit that it takes a special kind of host to offer a guest a handful of zow. Maybe you have to have traveled in the Kingdom, for many hours over rough and rocky roads, lurching over potholes, skirting boulders dislodged by landslides, to appreciate the luxury of stopping for a cup of tea and a spoonful of rice in a high mountain meadow, where the air is crisp and clear and the autumn light a dazzling gold.
Though we were often served zow in Bhutan, no rice was as delicious as that made by Karma, the wife of our guide, Karchung. She met us on a steep hillside, not far from her own rice terraces, carrying thermoses of hot milky tea and baskets of roasted rice and flattened corn, accompanied by a black dog who tore up and down the hill with wild, uninhibited joy.
The Bhutanese are great travelers, of course, so you never know when one or more of them might turn up at your door. And since they are likely to be homesick, it would be nice to have a basket of zow to offer them.
But I confess that since I’ve been back, I too have been enjoying it, especially stirred into a cup of strong tea with milk. Mixing zow with tea allows the grains to soften a bit at the bottom of the cup. With the last swallow, you tip them into your mouth and chew—like a treat you’ve been saving until the very last moment.
I suspect it’s also a way of transporting myself from the here and now to the recent past, recreating a taste memory of rice terraces, chanting monks and dogs leaping with delight that are already becoming a jumbled dream.
Zow, or Roasted Red Rice with Butter and Sugar
I tried making zow, with and without oil, using Bhutanese red rice imported by Lotus Foods, as well as white basmati. I much prefer the red rice, but since it’s easier to find good quality white rice—no precooked Uncle Ben’s, please–I’m giving you directions for both, cooked with and without oil.
Makes 3 to 4 cups of roasted rice
3 cups raw red rice from Bhutan
3 cups raw white rice, such as Indian basmati, or a medium grain Japanese rice
Canola or sunflower oil (optional)
2 to 3 teaspoons unsalted butter, or to taste
2 to 3 teaspoons sugar, or to taste
1. Put the rice of your choice in a large bowl and cover with plenty of cold water. Let it soak for 8 hours or overnight.
2. Pour the rice into a large strainer. When all the water has drained, turn the rice onto a clean dishtowel laid out on the kitchen counter. Spread the grains in a thin, even layer and let air dry for 30 to 40 minutes. Then pour into a large bowl and set aside.
3. Without oil: Heat a large cast iron or other heavy skillet over a medium flame. When the pan is hot, reduce the heat slightly and add half the rice. Stir constantly for 8 to 9 minutes, then begin tasting. The grains should be slightly crunchy on the outside.
Continue stirring and tasting until the grains begin to change color and are crunchy almost all the way through. (White basmati will turn a very pale golden brown, while red rice will turn a darker shade of red-brown). The rice will let off a little steam as the moisture evaporates, but if it begins to smoke and change color too quickly, lower the heat immediately. Do not let it burn. Red rice should be roasted for a total of 16 to 18 minutes; white basmati will take slightly less time.
When done, pour the roasted rice onto a large plate and set aside. Repeat the procedure with the remaining rice.
4. With oil: Heat a large cast iron or other heavy skillet over a medium flame. When hot, add just enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet and reduce the heat. Add half the rice. Stir constantly for 9 to 10 minutes, then begin tasting the rice. Once it has a little crunch, continue stirring and tasting for another 10 minutes or until the grains have begun to change color and are crunchy almost all the way the way through. It will take a little longer to reach this point than when using a dry pan. As above, turn the heat down if the rice begins to smoke or darken too quickly.
When ready, pour the rice onto a large plate and set aside. Continue with the other half.
5. When all the rice is done but still quite warm, stir in 2 to 3 teaspoons of butter. There should be just enough to coat the grains. Sweeten the rice very slightly with 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar.
6. Zow is delicious served warm or at room temperature with, or in, milky tea. If you’re going to store it, let the rice cool completely and wait until the grains have absorbed the butter and no longer look oily, before putting it in an airtight container.