Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reading notes: "seasons by rice"

There is something magical about staying in one place long enough to watch the seasons change, getting that chance to notice the gradual changes as they happen, day by day.  Since I read it almost a month ago, I have been wanted to share this particularly beautiful account of watching the rice fields around Gaselo  a village in Wangduephodrang come to life over the course of a year. It comes from  Brick in Bhutan a blog by an expat teacher. The post includes some wonderful pictures of the rice fields in different season as well as some very evocative descriptions of the changes. Here is one of my favorite paragraphs just to give you a taste:

" Very soon, what appears to be random paddies turn a dense almost emerald green, vivid in the evening light against the brown winter backdrop of the empty fields. As it turns out these were densely planted with rice seeds and seedlings sprout very close together forming a thick carpet of a new green growth."   

Friday, October 4, 2013

Reading notes: Beer in Switzerland

I just wrote about beer from Southeast Asia when this interesting article on the beer industry in Switzerland popped up in Feedly.  For a brief couple of months in my early twenties when I was between ideas about "what" or " who" I wanted to be when I grew up, I worked as a waitress in a small town restaurant in Switzerland where I served a lot of beer and learnt that names for the different size glasses that the beer could be ordered in. At the time you could get a glass of beer, a glass of red wine or a glass of coke or a cup of coffee for the same price. Considering very little coke got ordered during my days as a small-town waitress I wasn't surprised to learn that Switzerland has the highest concentration of breweries per capita. Below is the great little graphic from the article ( which has several other very cute beer graphics-- worth checking out)  to demonstrate this fact, I suppose it is somewhat surprising that the Swiss beat the Germans on this.

However as the article also points out Swiss beer drinkers are not very adventurous when it come to what they drink, they tend to stick with what they know. In fact that restaurant I worked at only served one kind of beer.  The article is basically bemoaning the lack of craft beer in Switzerland but it doesn't really sound like the Swiss feel like they are missing out. Perhaps this is why its so telling that the main point of comparison for the article is the US which tends to be so novelty hungry.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reading Notes: The Matsutake Mushroom Festival

My job keeps me tied down to Thimphu for large chunks of the year ( thought admittedly for now I get a lovely long winter break) so I am always grateful to be able to read about other people's travels. All year I have followed this blog by an Australian teacher living in Bumthang with her family. She recently wrote about traveling eastward to attend the Matsutake Mushroom Festival in Ura.  Bhutanese collect Matsutake or Sangay Shamu ( Buddha Mushroom) to sell on the lucrative Japanese market where this particular mushroom apparently heralds seasonal change.  Her post on the festival is delightfully rambling ( its a little like listening to a work friend talk about their weekend over Monday morning coffee) so not all of the post is focused on mushrooms but  its worth a look for the absolutely wonderful photos of the festival in general and the mushrooms in particular.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Low tech apple harvesting

It apple season in our garden and unfortunately the birds are getting to the applies faster then us. Below is a sample of the damage.

My father ( a bit of a bird watcher) has been known to  comment that he wouldn't mind sharing the apples if the birds actually finished  an apple instead of leaving half of them uneaten! 

Sadly we have no tree climbers living in the house at the moment so apple harvesting has not been as smooth a process. This year we low-tech-ing  it. 

Allow me to demonstrate: 

Brother on a ladder using a long stick to shake the branches ..... sister and father below holding a sheet to catch falling apples ....

 .....equal limited success. Far too many apples miss the sheet and land up bruised and smashed 

Still to have a couple of these tasty beauties ... it's worth it!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Happy Blessed Rainy Day

Today is Blessed Rainy Day in Bhutan or Thure, a nationally observed holiday that marks the end of the monsoon (or rainy season) and the beginning of the fall. For farmer ( which according to most statistic would describe most Bhutanese) it means the growing season is behind them and the harvest is not very far away.

On Thure all natural water  is considered holy and everyone is encouraged to take an outdoor bath in order to cleanse themselves of their accumulated bad karma. Some people will leave a bucket out to gather rain overnight and then bathe with it in the morning. 

Its also an important family holiday and when I taught in the east of Bhutan, where the holiday is considered particularly important, many of my students made a huge effort to travel home for the day.  As it is with many family holidays sharing a meal is an important part of the celebration. Many families will start the day with a bowl or two or three of rice porridge or Thup is particularly important 

My sister's inlaws ( who are easterns) invited us to join them for  breakfast which of course turned into a regular feast. 

As with many visits in Bhutan  the meal started off with sweet milk tea and biscuits  ....

 quickly followed by steaming bowls of thup...

I ate three bowl full of the rice porridge  before realizing that another rice dish, shamdey ( a mixture of rice, butter, meat, eggs and sometimes a little spring onion) was waiting to be served!

This time with a little suja or butter tea....

At the end of the meal my sister's father-in-law insisted that my brother, Sonny, join him in celebrating the day with a glass or ara or home brewed alcohol. 

Another reason to raise a glass? This post mark an anniversary for this blog! One year ago one of my very first posts was about Blessed Rain Day and the thub we ate!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Reading Notes: Asian Beers

A former intern recently wrote to "blame" me for her fondness for South-east Asia. I encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to spend a summer in Laos and she has wanted to return to that part of the world ever since. She recently took up a teaching position in Vietnam and has been blogging about her adventure there including this recent post about all the different Asian beers she has tried since she arrived.  As a firm believer that context and atmosphere plays a huge part in how we enjoy food and drink  her final piece of advice is spot on, she writes " If you decide to try one of these beers back in the states and think its horrible, don't blame me. Book a flight to Southeast Asia and grab a Beerlao in Laos, I promise it will taste a whole lot better."  

As well as inspiring a little jealousy and wanderlust, the post definitely also encourages me to consider writing about Bhutanese beers in the near future!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Reading notes: NPR 's dumpling week

All week the NPR food blog, The Salt, has been sending out great dumpling stories, many of which include fabulous recipes that I don't have the time to try.  Perhaps the most interesting post was one in which they attempted to document all the many, many,  many kinds of dumplings, what they are calling their "Global Dumpling List." And yes, momos are on the list but more interesting is their list of " disputable dumplings" that includes everything from empanadas to samosas. Why disputable? Because NPR put together a panel of "Dumpling Experts"  to help them decided what should actually be considered a dumpling!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Reading Notes: Instant Noodles

Summer holidays are behind me and I am back at work which means , once again, less time for original blog content. As if NPR food blog, The Salt, knew that I didn't have time to come up with my own content, earlier this week they put out a great post on the global popularity of instant noodles. Elsewhere on this blog I mentioned how my time at boarding school gave me a real fondness for instant noodles so it always gives me a twang of sadness when someone  is dismissive or worse, hyper critical of instant noodles.  In boarding school we ate instant noodles because we thought the school food was "gross," because they were easy to make ( we could even eat them raw, sometimes mixed into a bag of chips), because we could get them cheap and because it was easy to add things to them like chili powder, dried mushrooms, vegetable  and cheese to customize and improve the taste.  The NPR article points out that these are many of the same reasons that instant noodles are popular all over the world: 
 it's the multinational noodle companies' conquest of countries like Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, Brazil and Mexico that really interests the anthropologists: Frederick Errington of Trinity College, Tatsuro Fujikura of Kyoto University and Deborah Gewertz of Amherst College. And it's here that they make one of their most intriguing arguments: Instant noodles do good by alleviating the hunger of millions of people around the world. These supercheap, superpalatable noodles, they write, help the low-wage workers in rich and poor countries alike hang on when the going gets tough."They're cheap and tasty and tweakable," Gewertz tells The Salt. "They're capable of being transformed to everyone's cultural taste."In Thailand, instant ramen is seasoned with lemongrass and cilantro. Mexicans can buy Maruchan noodle soup cups flecked with shrimp, lime and habarnero , among other flavors. Papua New Guineans have incorporated the noodles into rituals as cardinal as weaning babies and honoring the dead, she says.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dried Chilies ( Long overdue post #2)

Bhutanese famously think of chilies as a vegetable and not a spice, every meal requires them.  Unsurprisingly chilies are grown in every single district or dzongkhag in Bhutan, thought of course as this article put out by the agriculture ministry points out, climate and elevation differences mean that there is necessarily a lot of variety in the types of chilies grown. Chilies are grown both for personal family consumption and to sell in the local market. 

Unsurprisingly chili is one of the most commonly dried "vegetables" in Bhutan. In the past when transporting vegetables was difficult this was an important way of insuring a year long supply. Times have changed and fresh chilies are available year long but Bhutanese still choose to dry some of their supply.

According to Kunzang Choden in her  book " Chilli and Cheese: Foods and Society in Bhutan" sun drying is still the most common way to dry chilies. She also make the following observations about the colors of dried chilies  :
"Mature chilies, which begin to get a tinge of red coloration, easily turn read when sun dried. Green chilies split in half and sun dried retain their color so they are green even when dried. The biggest chilies are selected and blanched by immersing them  for some minuets in a pot of boiling water and then drying them in the sun. These chilies become a yellowish creamy color when dried and are known as shur kam ( boiled and dried or white chilies).   The colored chilies preserved in different ways not only add color to the dishes but also widen the possibilities of different tastes and textures." 

Below are some picture I took in the fall and winter of chilies being dried in my own neighborhood.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Dried Meat ( long over due post #1)

It's July, summer holidays and at long last I have time to catch up on some of the posts that I had planned to do ages ago. This post on dried meat has been waiting since the winter!

Thimphu winters are typically dry and cold. There might be some early morning frost, even the occasional snow but in general winter is a very dry time.  Many Thimphu residents take full advantage of this dryness.  Strings of meat and chili hung out on washing lines, on balconies and out of windows are a familiar sight all over the city during this time of year. 

I love that in an age where most urban middle class families have fridges  and there is a reliable weekly market with fresh vegetables that people still spend time and energy preparing vegetables and meat to dry. 

Our family bought a leg of beef to dry this winter. The meat has to be cut into long narrow stripes and then hung out to dry. Its actually easier to do this messy work outdoors. Below is a family friend who  helped us cut our meat up this year. You can see that we just lay out a plastic sheet and did the chopping mostly  without a cutting board 

We did have some very interested observers. Here is our ( greedy) family dog, eagerly and carefully watching the work being done. Don't worry he got his share of the bones!

And here is the final product hung out to dry. The meat takes several days to dry so at night we have to cover it all and guard it from birds, dogs and cats. Sadly this year we had actual human thieves come and steal a portion of our meat overnight and then our clever cat got into our storage and ate the rest of it.

So how do we eat the dry meat? It came be cut up and eaten as is, often with a chili paste. Growing up my all time favorite breakfast was " Bhutanese breakfast" -- Suja ( butter tea), rice, ezay ( chili paste) and shakam ( dried meat) that had been lightly roasted usually over an open flame.  More often however  we cook it with vegetables ( like dried turnip leaves ) and chili as show in the picture below. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Local" Bhutanese Foods

If you were asked to describe a typical Bhutanese meal what would you include? Definitely chili. Probably rice. Maybe Kewa Datshi ( potato and cheese with lots of chili). But those are lazy assumptions, sort of  like assuming all Americans eat hamburgers all the time. The truth is that like many other places there is a lot regional diversity. In Bhutan some of that had to do with climate and topography. Its not possible to grow rice everywhere ( thought there are reports that global warming is changing that) in Bhutan and for a long time, specially before the improved road connections and the complete monetization of local economies, staples were what was grown locally. In my home district of Bumthang for example it was buckwheat, further east it was maize. Of course these food practices are quickly changing in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. 

Recently the institute where I work had a conference that sought to demonstrate and celebrate "non-mainstream Bhutanese cultures." Of course that meant a lot of academic-y, formal presentations about things like ritual and kinship BUT the organizer also invited members of the communities that were discussed at the conference. They were there both to demonstrate aspects of their "local cultures" and to interact with conference attendees. The highlight for me was that on the final day these special invitees set up a small, edible food display in which they shared some local foods including wild foods that they gathered in the forests near their homes and brought to the conference to share. 

A group from Samtse in Southern Bhutan prepared a shelroti, a well known regional food among ethnic Nepalis across the Himalayas. The twist is that instead of using a mixture of mostly just ground rice to make the deep fried dough, they also added some ground local potato. Additionally instead of using the refined white sugar that makes the bread sweet ( as is increasing the case-- at least in Bhutan) they used jaggery ( a kind of local sugar produce made from sugar cane) to sweeten the dough. The result was both a little more soft and less sweet then the shelroti familiar to most Bhutanese. 


Here is a picture of the batter, mixed and shaped by hand.

This is a picture of the shelroti being deep fried.

And here is a box of the final product. This was definitely one of the hits of the food display. We saw a lot of nicely dressed women filling their handbags with shelroti to take home and share with their families.

Below are  pictures of some of the wild foods that were on offer.

This pinkish mixture (don't worry that is food coloring NOT chili!) is a banana flower soup.

This is a wild mushroom that I have written about before, jilli namchu.

I look like I am holding some kind of a nut but this is a actually a kind of wild tuber or potato from Zhemgang, Central Bhutan. This particular potato had to be cooked overnight to get rid of its natural poison!

Below are two other kinds of wild potato also from Zhemgang.

And below that are two kinds of millet that were grown and eaten by a group in Southern Bhutan called the Lhop. In both cases the millet is cooked into a sticky, dough-y consistency. It was a pre-rice staple.

Above is foxtail millet.

And this dark brown mixture was made of finger millet.

Below is a picture of the food display and the crowd hearing about the each of the dishes before they got to sample them.

 And finally here is my plate of goodies. The liquid is actually home brewed alcohol which also proved to be very popular! My favorites were actually the banana flower dishes and the wild potato.

 I think the nicest thing about the event is that for many of the Bhutanese attendees this was an important opportunity to hear about and taste unfamiliar local foods from different parts of Bhutan.  It definitely expanded our definition of what counts as  Bhutanese food!

* For those of you who are interested the conference was called "Leveraging Cultural Diversity"  and it was hosted at Royal Thimphu College, where I currently teach, in collaboration with the Swiss development organization Helvetas. You can read more about the conference  here , here and  here.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Meat Buffet at a Bhutanese Wedding.

Recently I was invited to a wedding in Paro that had the most impressive meat buffet. Unlike a lot of fancy weddings and events that I have been to lately the family didn't cater the event instead they did it the old fashion way and got together to cook up the feast. And what a wonderful old fashion feast it was! And of course a "typical" Bhutanese celebratory feast means meat, meat and more meat!  

Here are two photos of the meat aisle taken from either end to give you a sense of the spread. 

Many of the preparations and even types of meat on offer were old fashion. Each is considered a delicacy and treat. For example below is tripe or stomach lining. It has rubbery texture that I don't enjoy.

Here is one of my favorites, blood sausage fried with chill and other spices. Incredibly dense and rich.

Liver- prepared with a lot of oil and a lot of spice, also very rich.

A pork stew-ish dish. Yes those floating white pieces are pork fat. Bhutanese love pork with a layer of fat.

Since it was a summer wedding, the flies were very much in attendance. One member of the family just stood near the food swotting them away with yak tail fly swotter. Surprisingly effective!

Despite eating more of the meat then I should have, I managed to save room for the beautiful and very tasty cake baked by a cousin of the groom, who owns a cafe/ bakery in Paro called Tshernyoen.