Saturday, September 29, 2012

Reading notes: creme de menthe

From: " Memoirs of a Political Officer's Wife in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan" by Margaret D. Williamson, an account of her life and travels in the Himalayas during the early 1930's.

" ... we went on with the formalities of our visit to Shigatse. On 6 and 7 July we hosted two luncheon parties for local officials. About sixteen monk officials turned up for the first and the whole affair turned out to be rather hilarious. At one point in the proceedings, perhaps to liven things up a little, Derrick produced a bottle of creme de menthe, a drink for which the Tibetan had a particular liking. Afterwards the tempo of the evening changed, peels of laughter were heard and there was much joking."

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dinner by Sonny

My brother, who I am going to call Sonny, is a wonderful cook and more importantly he really loves being in the kitchen. He works professionally in a creative field and once told me that he sees cooking as a extension of being creative. And his cooking is inventive, he doesn't use a cookbook, he doesn't plan his meal in advance or shop with a menu in mind. He usually just takes a look to see what we have in the fridge and pantry and then starts cooking. So below is a typical meal that Sonny might make for the family. 
He starts by chopping up some beef that he found in the freezer....

an activity that my mother's cat, Kitty clearly finds fascinating.

Once the chopping is complete, Sonny marinates the meat and puts it in the fridge for a while. He refused to tell me what was in the marinade but based on the taste and colors I would guess that mustard and curry powder were featured.

 Sonny fries up some chopped onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes

 Later he will add the meat and some potatoes. 

In the meantime our cousin, PT who is living with our family at the moment, washes the rice and prepares to get it going in the rice cooker.

Here is my brother in the pantry selecting vegetables for a second dish, eggplants and green chilies.

Once the eggplant and chillies are chopped up, he will add some diced onions and salt, some water and let it cook for a while. When things start to bubble he adds butter and two kinds of cheese: first a Swiss style cheese that is made in Bumthang (which everyone calls Bumthang Cheese) and then some datshi or Bhutanese cheese.

 While the eggplant dish is cooking,  Sonny take a moment to sample his beef dish, checking to see that it has everything it needs.

Sonny also prepares two side dishes for the meal; steamed zucchini (from our garden) and a Bhutanese style salad, called hogai with finely diced fresh tomatoes, chilies, onions, datshi and thingnay (sichuan peppers).

What a feast!  Here is a plate of food ready to eat. Dinner is served!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Breakfast on Blessed Rainy Day

Blessed Rainy Day ( Thrue-Bap) is  a holiday that marks the end of the monsoon season. Our family doesn't usually celebrate in a big way but it is a particularly important holiday for Eastern Bhutanese which is why it was recently reinstated as a public holiday. Apart from the karma cleansing bath that everyone is encouraged to take, it is a holiday with a lot of food traditions. One of them is to eat a bowl of thup or rice porridge for breakfast.  Thup is the kind of wonderful rice porridge where the rice is cooked and cooked and cooked until it almost disintegrates.  P-'s mother very kindly sent a yummy batch of it for us to share. Below is picture of the thup being spooned out. It was seasoned with meaty bones, ginger and thingnay ( Sichuan peppers).

We even decided to forgo our usual breakfast coffee  and make sweet, milk tea to go with our special meal. You can learn more about Blessed Rainy Day and all the other eating associated with the day from this wonderful illustrated explanation by a 12 year old Bhutanese boy.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Reading notes : rice from relatives

From " Dasho Keiji Nishioka : A Japanese who lived for Bhutan " by Tshering Cigay Dorji and Dorji Penjore. A biography of Keiji Nishioka ( 1933- 1992), a Japanese agricultural expert who lived and worked in Bhutan for almost 30 years. 

" Another Japanese faced the same problem some 20 years later: Japan-born and France- based scholar of the history of Buddhism, Yoshiro Imadeda arrived in Bhutan in the beginning of 1981 to work as an advisor to the National Library of Bhutan. In his account of life in Bhutan he wrote that the only vegetables sold in Thimphu were small potatoes, onions and spices such as garlic and ginger in the winter. In spring, limited kinds and quantiy of leafy vegetables, carrots and cabbages were avaliable but not fresh. Later he learnt that most Thimphu residents got their rice from relatives who were farmers, and some resident grew their own food or obtained from thie relatives living nearby. Foods were not purchased in the markets with money, but obtained through connection with people."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Garden Fresh

Earlier this year the Opposition Leader,  Lyonpo  Tshering Tobgay posted a review of a new restaurant in Thimphu and while he raved about their ribs, he also bemoaned that fact that everything on the table from the rice to the beef to the onions to the cooking oil had been imported from India . He writes, “We don’t grow our own food. We don’t build our own houses. And, besides hydropower, we don’t produce much else.” Lyonpo ( perhaps ironically?)  titled the blog post, “Bhutanese Food.”

My first instinct is to agree—when I lived in the east for a year, if the big trucks didn’t wind their way up from the border there were no onions, no mangos, no chilies, no butter, no tea. But that is less our experience here in Thimphu where my parents’ garden provides a decent chunk of what makes it way to our table.   Of course by no means does that mean we aren’t dependant on Indian imports for some of what we eat.  But here are some of what is currently growing in our garden:   



Cherry tomatoes

Salad green and beet root




and basil, which my mother makes into pesto using walnut or cashew nuts instead of pine nuts which are not as far as I know locally available


And here is a picture of our garden, since it slopes upwards it hard to convey it’s full scale. I do however love that my parents like many other Bhutanese kitchen gardener, also grow flowers among their veggies.


But I know we are lucky, as Thimphu continues to grow, both outward and upwards, space is becoming more and more of a luxury. How many other people can even have a kitchen garden in a Thimphu that looks more like this?


These are part of complex reserved for government servants, just below our own house and my sister’ s boyfriend – P---’s  family live in one of the apartments.  We often cut through the complex on our way down to town which is how I know that some of the green spaces have been used by residents to grow their own vegetables. Here are two photos of these gardens.


I asked P--- a little bit about the gardens and he says that use of these green spaces is mostly through informal mutual agreements rather than a formal mechanism. His family has lived in the complex for years and always maintained a kitchen garden but he has noticed that in recent years as food prices  rise, more families who live in the complex have taken up gardening.  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Come eat!"

“To Zowa Sho” means “Come eat!” in Dzongkha the official language of Bhutan.  “To” is both the word for food as well as the word for rice because for us, rice is a very important component of most meals. Sometimes it’s eaten for all three meals of the day.  I think this simple invitation encapsulates what I hope to do with this blog because it implies that you are not eating alone, that eating is a communal act.  After several years of living as a graduate student in the US where I frequently cooked and  ate alone, even when I lived with other people, one of the greatest pleasures  of moving back to live in Thimphu with my family is that I don’t have to  eat alone or even  cook alone.  So in this blog I will write a lot about what my family is cooking and eating but I also want to use it as a space to think out loud about what Bhutanese, particularly urban Bhutanese are cooking and eating.  I hope you will join me!