Monday, November 19, 2012

Time for tea: Suja Desi

We drink a lot of tea in Bhutan. A lot. Its both an everyday beverage and a drink that has an important place on special occasions. If you show up at some one's house, you will be offered a cup of tea. When we have Bhutanese guests for dinner my mother makes sure that we have tea ready for them BEFORE the meal. One of my all time favorite, old time-y customs is bed tea. What an indulgence to be brought your first cup of tea when you are still in bed, only half awake! 

So its perhaps no surprise that tea is also featured in our religious events. Recently my family hosted a blessing ceremony for a new business venture. It was just a small ceremony held on a weekday morning in my parents' living room. At some point during the proceedings tea and desi must be served to the monks who are performing the blessing ceremony.  It was also a great opportunity for me to document the preparation and serving of suja desi or butter tea and savory buttered rice. A combination which is served at all kinds of special and religious events from weddings to blessing ceremonies like this to high level official events.  I think the common element here is lots and lots of butter! Here is the massive block of Bhutanese butter that we chipped away at all morning as we prepared the tea and rice for the ceremony!

Suja or butter tea is a distinctive Himalayan drink.  Its basically made by churning brewed tea with butter and salt. If you are new to it and expecting sweet tea, it can be a bit of a rude shock. The saltiness! The oil!  I always tell people its best to think of it as a soup. And on a cold, cold day there is nothing more wonderful then a steaming hot cup of butter tea.

To make the tea,  loose black tea leaves are mixed with cold water and brought to a boil. A tiny amount of bicarbonate soda is added (to enhance both the taste and color) , then the hot mixture has salt and butter added to it and is churned and churned and churned ( the churn looks a lot like an old fashion butter churn) until its a consistently creamy brown shade . Of course the oil of the butter has a tendency to rise to the top, so with each refill the kettle is gently shaken up to redistribute the butter.

These days we use an electrical mixer rather then a churn and my mother, with an eye on the family's cholesterol in-take sometimes mixes in milk so that she can cut back on amount of  butter we are drinking. However on the day  of the blessing we went all butter !

Desi or the butter rice can be made sweet or savory. The base ingredients are rice, saffron and butter.  Then you can either add chopped green chilli or to make it sweet, raisins, nuts and a little sugar. We went savory. Personally I am not such a fan of sweet desi so I was happy with that choice.

The saffron, butter and chilli are added once the rice is cooked and just mixed in. As you can see we went  ahead and added them to the cooked rice in the rice cooker. That has the additional benefit of keeping the desi warm.

Here is the  suja and desi being served out for the monk who officiated the blessing. My mother even managed to find a fancy tray to serve him on. Of course the best part of the ceremony is when we get our share of suja and desi.

 Its not strictly food related, but I really thought the altar that was set up in the living room with offerings of water, flowers and fruits was rather beautiful. Perhaps you can guess the business venture that the blessing ceremony was conducted for?


  1. I'm a big fan of your tea related post. :) ps, are those marigolds on the altar?

  2. Yes, marigolds from my mother's garden.

  3. Kuzoozangpo Zowa Sho,

    Thank you for sharing this information about butter tea and your family ritual!

    I was in your country in 2012 for 9 days and fell in love with the beauty of the land and the kindness and gentleness of your people. Wandering the markets in Thimphu and small communities allowed me to visit briefly with and enjoy meeting the vendors, and learn about their wares.

    I bought some black tea and brought it home to make butter tea. It tastes like no other tea I have ever had. It is beautiful with its magenta color and distinctive flavor! How I wish I had purchased more. : o ). I will have to make a return trip someday to see more of your wonderful country, and drink more black tea!
    Warm Regards, and keep posting!! ~Nancy

    1. Nancy, I am so glad you enjoyed your time in Bhutan and the tea that you brought here! Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing your Bhutan experience :-)