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Winter Breakfast: Warm Red Rice Porridge with Ginger & Sichuan Peppercorns

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In Bhutan, indigenous medium grain red rice is the gold standard. The natural husk is dark reddish-brown, but the rice is usually semi-milled before it is sold. The softer pinkish grain, shown here, cooks quickly and has a deliciously nutty flavor. Broken grains  make an excellent porridge known as thupka.

I first tasted thupkaa savory porridge made of Bhutanese red rice—at 10,223 feet with the jagged snowcaps of the eastern Himalayas looming before me.

Was it any wonder I fell in love—with both the view and the taste?

Misty clouds drifted through the white chortens at Dochula, the first high mountain pass we crossed after leaving Thimphu. There are 108 of these sacred monuments built to commemorate the victory of  the Fourth Dragon King—or K-4, as he’s more casually known—over Assamese guerillas based in the jungles near Bhutan’s border with India. It wasn’t hard to imagine clouds mingling with the spirits of the fallen in this ghostly tableau.

In the café I heard hearty male laughter coming from a curtained room.  When the curtain flapped aside, I saw 10 or 11 guides in their plaid ghos, the traditional Bhutanese male dress, seated around a low table with a big pot in the center. They were ladling something that smelled amazing into small tea bowls.

“Do you want to try it?” asked Karchung, who had materialized at my elbow.  “It” was thupka, a rich, nutty-tasting porridge made of red rice, simmered with small chunks of meat and bits of bone, topped with grated ginger and an especially pungent variety of Sichuan peppercorn that grows wild in Bhutan.  As I tasted the warm porridge, there was a burst of hot, citrusy flavor.

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Thingney, or Sichuan peppercorns, pictured here, are native to Bhutan and can be found in the Sunday market in Thimphu. Often the spice is still attached to twigs from the Zanthoxylum piperitum bushes on which it grows.

It was the taste of  thingney, one of the oldest spices used in Bhutanese cooking.  Like the Sichuan peppercorn, the fizzy, tongue-numbing “fruit” comes from a tree in the Zanthoxylum family.  In Chilli and Cheese, author Kunzang Choden describes its characteristics: “These miniature acorn-like berries have a distinctive taste and smell, neither sharp, bitter nor sour, but with a dull woodsy taste with slight lemony overtones. It makes the mouth tingle…and when consumed in large quantities gives the sensation of the tongue being pulled into the throat.…In a such a condition, the afflicted person is made to eat fresh cheese or inhale smoke.”

Always good to know what to do when your tongue’s in your throat.

Still, it was the best breakfast I’d eaten in weeks of traveling through Bhutan. I asked for a second bowl of thupka.  And a third.

That was two years ago.  Back in Bhutan last fall, I went on a thupka spree, eating the delicious porridge almost every morning.  It was on the Bhutanese breakfast menu at all five of the Amankora lodges—and if the view was not as dramatic as at Dochula, there were gentle hills, temples and farms to see while sitting outside in the crisp fall air.

In Tshomo’s farmhouse in the Bumthang region, Nawang told me that thupka is “our first taste of the New Year”—and after my hopeless attempt to milk the cow, the homemade porridge we ate for breakfast was certainly balm to my injured pride.

Cut to the present:  Ever since this winter’s cold snap, I’ve been craving a warm, comforting bowl of thupka.  Bhutanese cooking is simple, but the ingredients do matter–quite a lot, actually.  In this case, the ingredient in question is the rice.

In Bhutan, the indigenous medium grain red rice—once known as “country rice,” or yul chum—has  long been considered the gold standard.  When threshed, it has a hard reddish-brown husk; typically it is semi-milled before being sold.  The softer pinkish grain, which may have traces of the original husk, retains a deliciously nutty taste when steamed.  Broken grains make the best thupka since they cook quickly and break down into a porridge-like consistency.

I’ve never been able to find milled Bhutanese rice in the U.S., although you can buy whole grain red rice from Bhutan as well as Thailand. The secret to making whole grain thupka is to simmer pre-cooked rice in water or broth for an hour or more, until the grains are very soft and swollen. (This is an economical use of leftover steamed rice, incidentally.)  To finish, briefly pulse the rice and remaining cooking liquid in a blender to combine them.  You can use the same method for making brown rice porridge.

Too much trouble?   You could try an even easier recipe for thupka from Kewa Laphu, a small book of Bhutanese recipes compiled by the Amankora cooks:  First sauté the seasonings—finely chopped green chili, garlic and ginger—in a little oil, then add the cooked rice and water or broth, and whirr in a blender for two or three minutes. As the Aman cooks suggest, you could top the porridge with bacon and fresh coriander.

But I’m a slow cook, and on a frosty morning, love the way the toasty fragrance of the rice wafts through the kitchen as it simmers on the back burner, especially when I’ve added a couple of chopped chicken thighs, bone in, for extra flavor.

I’m giving you two recipes, one for porridge made from whole grain red or brown rice, and another for the Bhutanese version—just in case you’ve returned from a sojourn in the Kingdom with a half kilo of that beautiful rice.

It was 12 degrees this morning.  Can you guess what I ate for breakfast?

 

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The porridge in the foreground is made from semi-milled Bhutanese rice. In the other bowl, the thupka is made of whole grain red rice. Recipes for both versions follow.

Bhutanese Red Rice Porridge with Ginger and Sichuan Peppercorns

To make 4 to 6 servings of thupka from whole grain red or brown rice:

Ingredients:

2 cups cooked rice

4  to 5 cups water or broth

2 skinless chicken thighs, bone in, coarsely chopped (optional)

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into fine slivers

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, finely ground, or to taste

Method:

In a large pot, combine the cooked rice with 4 cups of water or broth, salt and chicken thighs, if using.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and cover with a lid.  Simmer for 1 hour, or until the cooked grains are very soft and swollen, but still separate from the cooking liquid.  Remove the cooked chicken thighs and discard.

Pour the rice and cooking liquid into a blender.  Add the butter.  Pulse briefly, for 10 to 15 seconds, or until the rice and liquid are blended.  The mixture should be thick but pourable, so add a little more water or broth if necessary.  Do not blend until totally smooth, as the mixture may become gluey—it’s pleasant to have some texture to the porridge.

To serve, reheat if necessary. Ladle the porridge into small bowls and top with slivered ginger and a pinch of ground Sichuan peppercorns.

 

To make 4 to 6 small servings of thupka  from milled red Bhutanese rice:

Ingredients:

1 cup soft, milled red rice from Bhutan, uncooked

6 to 8 cups water or broth

2 chicken thighs, bone in, coarsely chopped (optional)

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into fine slivers

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, finely ground, or to taste

Method:

Combine the uncooked red rice, 6 cups of water or broth, and salt in a large pot.  Bring to boil over a high flame, then reduce heat and add the chicken thighs if using.  Adjust the flame to a cheerful simmer and cook for 40 minutes, or until the rice and liquid combine to create a thick but pourable porridge.  Add more water or broth if necessary. Remove the chicken thighs and discard.  Stir in the butter.

The porridge will be soft, but some grains will remain whole.  If a smoother texture is desired, pour the porridge into a blender and pulse briefly to puree.  However, do not over blend as the mixture may become gluey.

To serve, reheat the porridge if necessary.  Garnish with slivered ginger and finely ground Sichuan peppercorns

 

 

 

 

3 Responses to “Winter Breakfast: Warm Red Rice Porridge with Ginger & Sichuan Peppercorns”

  1. Lynn says:

    Your description is tantalizing. This goes on my “to cook” list this winter!

  2. Nancy says:

    Yum. This sounds delicious. I love the unique flavor of Sichuan peppercorns and know I would enjoy this dish for breakfast. It was still near freezing this morning, so a hot bowl of porridge will be welcome for a few weeks more until it really warms up.

    In a quick search online, I see that semi-milled red Bhutanese rice is available. Would that be the type you used in the second recipe?

  3. It is a wonderful breakfast, especially with the Sichuan peppercorns. The ones that grow in Bhutan are especially fizzy and citrusy. I made the mistake of eating one off the bush and nearly choked–but when they are toasted and crushed, they are quite delicious. I have not seen the semi-milled red rice here. Could you send a link?

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