Let’s not talk about milking the cow.
The black and white one who was bellowing impatiently when we arrived long after sun up and who had to submit to the indignity of my inexperienced fingers.
Rinzing, the dairyman, tall and a bit tense, anxiously muttered something in Dzongka. “Not so hard,” said Nawang, with an impassive expression which told me he was not fully translating. I squeezed more gently and was rewarded with a dribble of milk. It was exactly the right moment to relinquish my place to the real milkman.
We were in Dorjibi village, outside a pretty farmhouse in the Bumthang region, not far from the town of Jakar. We—that is, our guide Nawang, our driver Tashi, and myself, but not B who was relaxing back at the lodge—had arrived at Aum Tshomo’s farmhouse a little after 9. Tshomo is a farmer’s wife and top notch cook whose family has prepared favorite dishes for Bhutan’s royal family for generations. She also opens her kitchen to clueless foreigners who want to get a taste of authentic Bhutanese cooking.
That would be me.
Contrary to popular belief, Bhutanese food is neither boring nor, as Ruth Reichl once wrote, “the world’s worst cuisine.” It is peasant food, based largely on grains and vegetables, both cultivated and foraged, as well as homemade butter and cheese. Although as Buddhists, the Bhutanese do not condone the slaughter of animals, lots of imported chicken, beef, and locally raised yak find their way onto the table. The cooking is simple, but flavors are calibrated for maximum impact. The food is filling, often rich with butter and cheese–and in the hands of a skilled cook, delicious.
I couldn’t wait to get started.
But first there was the cow to milk, and butter to churn with a long wooden pole. Pounding vigorously, I managed to splash the precious milk on the ground—now Rinzing had a look on his face that easily translated as “hopeless idiot”—but soon tiny white flecks appeared in the milk and shortly after, yellow globules of sweet butter.
Rinzing scooped out the big pieces with his hand, and shaped them into a large ball. A little more churning, and smaller pieces floated to the top, where they were swept into a woven straw basket.
In the upstairs kitchen Tshomo, a handsome woman with a chic shag haircut and a languid air, and her mother, Kokchung, were already preparing breakfast. Command central was a bright blue gas cooktop, but next to it was a much older wood-fired stove. Two electric rice cookers stood on the counter next to a dark red refrigerator. All the cooking took place at one end of the spacious room; meals were eaten at the opposite end, sitting on the smooth wooden floor or on colorful woven carpets.
The centerpiece of the room was a bukhari, a traditional wood-fired cast iron stove used for heating and some cooking in the Himalayas. It was this stove that Tashi lit, immediately sending warmth radiating through the room.
Rinzing, now in his role as cheesemaker, poured what was left of the milk into a big aluminum pot sitting on the bukhari, and slowly stirred it with a spoon until the white curds separated from the warm milk.
The solids were scooped out with a perforated spoon and lowered into a plastic bucket of cold water, then shaped into flat discs of cheese to be used later that morning. On its own, datsi is tangy, almost astringent tasting, but it melts nicely when heated. It is an essential ingredient in emadatsi, Bhutan’s ubiquitous national dish of green or red chilies, fresh or dried, in melted cheese.
We even had green chili emadatsi for breakfast, which we ate sitting on the floor. Tashi poured butter tea (strong black tea mixed with homemade butter)…
…while we served ourselves from bowls of red and white rice, and eggs so loosely scrambled that the yellow yolks and whites were distinctly visible.
Nawang showed me the Bhutanese way of eating with your fingers: Press cooked rice into an oblong with the fingers of one hand, make a hollow with your thumb, and use it as a scoop for emadatsi or any other food you like. (It’s absolutely true that eating with your hands makes everything so much tastier.)
We also ate thupka, one of my all time favorite breakfast dishes. It’s a warm, nutty tasting porridge, made of broken red rice cooked in water or broth until it is soft and runny, almost like a Chinese congee. At the farmhouse, it was jazzed up with shredded ginger and crushed thingney, a variety of the fizzy, numbing Sichuan peppercorn that grows wild in Bhutan.
“For us, this is the first taste of the New Year, said Nawang. It’s not hard to imagine how delicious it would be eaten on a snowy morning, a dish both warmly comforting and vibrant with zingy spices.
After breakfast, Tshomo began taking dried spices and other ingredients from her “pantry” above the gas cooktop. Although the Bhutanese use relatively few seasonings, they coax a great deal of flavor from the ones they do have: dried red chilies (coarsely ground), thingney (wild Sichuan peppercorns), and salt, as well as sugar and black tea. Fresh seasonings include coriander, mint, garlic and onions.
Tshomo stored her traditional earthenware pots, blackened with fire and age, now used on feast days, on a shelf above her spices. To one side, however, was her daily batterie de cuisine: an assortment of aluminum pots and pans. (A cluster of grape tomatoes, picked late in the season, hung over the stove where it could ripen in the heat.)
A lot of food prep takes place on the floor. For a curry with green beans, Tshomo sat cross-legged, cutting strips of dried beef, likely imported from India, into small pieces. She then washed the meat with almost boiling water to cleanse it of impurities and drained it before putting it in a pressure cooker. Later she would add green beans, onion, garlic, green chilies and ginger to the pot.
In the meantime her mother, Kokchung, also sitting on the floor, was kneading buckwheat flour and water in a bowl until it came together in a heavy ball. Buckwheat has long been a nutritious staple of the mountainous Bumthang region, and during the fall, you can see the grain being threshed by hand just as it has been for centuries. Two specialities made from buckwheat flour are especially popular: hefty pancakes, or khuli, often served for breakast with local honey, and puta or noodles.
Kokchung, who, like so many older Bhutanese women wears her hair in a short bob with bangs, made the noodles using a traditional wooden press. The dough is placed in a compartment attached to a long, “weight-activated” handle: Sitting on the handle, she pressed the dough through the holes, extruding noodles into a bowl.
Just then the electricity failed. The room darkened, but the cooking continued–easy with gas and wood-fired stoves. Tshomo cooked the puta in boiling water, just until they rose to the surface, then shocked them with cold water. After they were drained, her mother seasoned the plump, chewy noodles with salt and ground red chilies, hot cooking oil and fresh chopped coriander, and put them on the bukhari in a covered pot to keep them warm.
At last the ladies made emadatsi, the dish I’d been hungering for. I watched Kokchung pare the fresh green chilies, first cutting off the stems, then cutting slits down the sides, discarding the seeds and inner core. Dried red chiles for a “curry” with datsi, tomato, salt and garlic, were prepared in the same way.
Chilies are perhaps the most characteristic ingredient in Bhutanese cooking. In Chilli and Cheese, author Kunzung Choden writes that almost no dish, save for baby food, is cooked without chilies, and the fiery peppers are considered as important as salt. “Irrespective of what food is being eaten the most important questions is: “Tsa da ma bjonoga?” (“Is there enough chilli and salt?”) If the two ingredients are well blended, any food is fit to eat.” As well, chilies have supernatural virtues: Choden remarks that they are sometimes burned to chase away evil spirits who fear “the aggressive smell.”
Every cook, from the Prime Minister to our guide Nawang, seems to have a special way of making emadatsi. Tshomo simply put the green chili strips, chopped garlic, cooking oil and sliced datsi, along with a little water and butter, together in a pan with a glass lid—and simmered the ingredients until the cheese melted and was “like a sauce.” At the end, some cooks stir in a spoonful of milk.
Last but certainly not least, there was rice, perhaps the single most “coveted” food in Bhutan. As Kunzung Choden points out, to, the word for rice, is also the word for food, and before the great estates were divided and given to the farmers, much of the aristocratic families’ wealth was based on rice production. You can see hillocks of red and white rice, both indigenous and grown from imported stock, seven or eight varieties in all, for sale on the ground floor of the Thimphu weekend market.
Red rice, milled to remove some of the hard bran, has a lovely nutty flavor, and it accompanies every meal in Bhutan. In the farmhouse, Nawang helped Tshomo cook the rice on the stove until it was soft and fluffy, draining it in the sink when it was done. Just before serving, he threw a few grains out of the window “to feed the gods.”
Naturally B strolled up just in time for lunch. We sat on the floor, where Tshomo waved sticks of incense and poured us tiny glasses of homemade ara, a potent liquor made from fermented rice or buckwheat. In 1800, one western visitor described it as a “fiery and powerfully inebriating” drink—a good reason to drink many fewer cups than you will be offered. This particular ara was infused with cordyceps, a type of medicinal fungus, which was floating in the bottle. “It’s good for men,” said Nawang, referring to its presumed aphrodisiac properties. “Also for fighting cancer. When a woman is pregnant the family makes ara and keeps it for nine months.” (The price of cordyceps, which grow wild in Bhutan, has skyrocketed due to demand from China.)
Here are some of the dishes we ate for lunch:
There was red rice, two kinds of noodles, including Kokchung’s spicy puta, red chili curry with garlic and green onion, and beef curry with green beans and green chilies. But there was also white rice, khuli or buckwheat pancakes, an especially rich and addictive version of emadatsi with green chilies, and a delicious potato curry, also cooked with datsi and green chilies.
Oh, I’m almost forgetting the snacks that are always offered to visitors along with milk tea: Kabzey, or twisted biscuits (sometimes they are shaped into hearts, flowers or the Bhutanese eight lucky signs), sep, or dried, flattened corn kernels, and zow, roasted rice sweetened with butter and sugar.
Do you wonder that we slept the rest of the afternoon?