Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Swiss-ish Chrismas

If you know my family -- you know that we are part Swiss ( my father is from Switzerland) .  Most of the year we forget about it and live pretty much like the  average urban middle class Bhutanese family ( except for a bit of chocolate and coffee snobbery). But Christmas is a little different. Its carries no religious meaning for us but because as children we spent so many Christmases in Switzerland with our Swiss grandparents and relatives, its the time of year that we really feel is both about family and honoring my father's Swiss roots.
 Its also very much about food. Christmas is about a big family meal and its about cookies. Lots and lots of cookies that we inevitable feel, given that this is season of gifting, we have to give away. We try to look for recipes that remind us of the cookies our grandmother and Swiss aunties made for us and with us. This year we made three kinds(starting from the top left hand and moving clockwise), Mailanderli ( a sort of butter, sugar cookie with a touch of lemon) with marmalade centers, Zimsterne ( with lots of cinnamon and almonds) and Basler Burnsli ( with hazelnuts and chocolate).  

We also tried to have a fancy dinner ( for us that means a tablecloth, non-plastic plates and glass of wine) which we attempted to make Swiss-ish but as you can see we also included chilli for those of us who can't do without it, even at Chrismas!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hoentoe ( Buckwheat dumplings from Haa)

Earlier this week it was Lomba or New Year in the districts of Paro and Haa ( in fact this year it happened to fall on the auspicious date 12/12/12).  Interestingly, while Losar is the official new years,  there is a lot of variation in new year across the country. ( Here is an interesting article that describes some of the various new years across the country.) My immediate family is from central Bhutan so this is not my celebration but every year I hope that someone will share the amazing delicious buckwheat dumplings or Hoentoe that are an important part of the celebration. When my family lived in Bumthang, our neighbors were from Haa and so we were insured a supply of Hoentoe this time of year. This year it looked like we had missed the boat. But then a day later, our cousin's girlfriend who is from Paro had her father hand-deliver a bag of Hoentoe right to our doorstep! My sister quickly whipped up a batch of chilli paste to eat with the Hoentoe.

Hoentoe look very much like the more common Momo and are similarly steamed but there are very important differences. The first is that the outer wrap is made of  buckwheat rather than flour  and the second is that filling is tangy mixture of dried turnip leaves, chilli and fermented cheese. Very delicious.

As Bhutanese have become more mobile, living and working in districts that are not their own, many people from Haa and Paro will return home for their new year while others will make a huge batch of  Hoentoe to share with friends, neighbors and co-workers.  These are newer traditions that I adore!

We did very well with the batch we were gifted. Here is the final Hoentoe which was fought over ( I won!) .

PS If you are interested in learning more about Lomba, here is a post by a Bhutanese teacher explaining what Lomba means to him.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Reading Note: NPR on the dangers of Tea Drinking and Pressure Cookers

Recently I read two delightful articles on the NPR blog that discussed topics that have come up on this blog. The first was on the"dangers" of tea drinking for  19th Century Irish women.  Apparently if "women had time to sit down and enjoy a tea break, this must mean they were ignoring their domestic duties and instead, perhaps, opening the door to political engagement or even rebellion."I am going to be thinking that as I savor my tea today! The second looked at pressure cookers and more specifically why they are less common in American kitchens.The great article includes some wonderful recipes to get first time pressure cooker users started as well as this lovely line describing the sound that a pressure cooker makes as it warms up, " wheezing like an asthmatic cobra."  I have never ever actually heard an asthmatic cobra but it does convey how dangerous a pressure cooker  can sound when its in action .

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reading Notes: Rice, rice and more rice!

From" Foods of the Kingdom of Bhutan" by Ernest T. Nagamatsu and Erik Nagamatsu
( Winner Best Asian Cuisine Cookbook at the 2011World Cookbook Awards in Paris)

" The Bhutanese make generous use of rice, enjoying it in desserts and snacks as well as in main dishes ( though desserts are usually local fruit mixed with fresh cream).  They cook with either white polished rice ( ja chum) or the  well-known red rice ( eue chum) of Bhutan, the best of which is grown in Punakha, located in a fertile valley east of Thimphu. The red rice which is fluffy, aromatic and pinkish in hue, tastes mildly nutty. "

And for a little more on red rice, this interesting article from an Indian publication about red rice growing in Kerala.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Time for tea: How Tshomin makes her afternoon tea

Now that the days have become colder my family's intake of hot beverages, never skimpy to start with, has steady increased. My sister ( who I will call Tshomin in this blog)  often makes a pot of sweet brewed tea ( or Nga ja) for everyone in the afternoon. Here is a step by step explanation of how she does it. Tshomin repeatedly  told me while I photographed her making tea that this is not the way many other Bhutanese would choose to make the tea. They would prefer it less strong, more milky and far sweeter. That warning aside, I think one of the pleasure of brewing your own pot of tea is that you can modify it to your liking. So here step by step is how Tshomin makes her afternoon tea.
Step one:
She adds gently smashed ( more smushed then really smashed) cinnamon bark and cardamon to a pot of cold water .
Step two
She add loose black tea to the pot. This is her first modification. Many Bhutanese would add powdered ( and sweetened) milk ( the Indian brand everyone uses is called " Everyday")  to the pot at this point, since they want their tea sweet and milky. Tshomin adds more tea and she adds it earlier because she likes her tea darker and stronger.
Step three
Once the tea has had a chance to steep , Tshomin will add the powder milk. She tells me that the milk powder wouldn't mix properly if she just spoons it into the pot, so she uses a cup to help her mix it in.  She adds several spoonfuls of the powder to a cup.
 Step four
Once the tea has started to boil, my sister uses a ladle to pour some of the hot brewing tea into the cup full of mild powder 


 Step five:
She mixes the the tea water and powder milk with a spoon. 
 Step six
She pour the mixture back into the pot of tea and uses the ladle to mix it in.

  Step seven
She uses the cup and the ladle to pour the still mixing tea back and forth several times  to get a good consistency.  

Step eight

She adds just the tiny-est amount of sugar, just a pinch. Here again she differs from  most other Bhutanese who will add several heaped spoonfuls of sugar to their pots of  tea.


Step nine

Now the tea is ready to serve. Tshomin uses a sieve to make sure none of the tea or the cardamon and cinnamon land up in any one's cup.


Since Tshomin protested throughout the process, that her tea was not " typical," I want to point you to this great article in a local paper summing up contemporary tea making and drinking. Despite the "typically" Bhutanese fondness for tea, there is clearly a lot of variety out there.

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?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Boarding School Food

Like many other middle class Bhutanese urban kids, I spent a good chunk of my childhood in a boarding school in India.  Complaining about the food was a huge part of the boarding school experience (another day I will write about how my time there greatly shaped my fondness for instant noodles). In retrospect there are now meals and meal time experiences ( including eating out in the "Buzz"- short for bazaar ) that I am very nostalgic about.  So I was delighted to see the Rocky and Mayur, hosts of " Highway on my Plate" ( a show that combines road trips in India with culinary video journals) on NDTV, were at my old school to sample the delights both on campus and off.  What I liked most about the video of the trip is that while I barely recognize the dining room or food at the school, the restaurant they review was an old favorite. Nice to see some things don't change!

Friday, November 2, 2012

On the road

 Last week I traveled with family from Thimphu, the capital to Bumthang , home district of my mother's family. Its a eight to ten hour car trip over winding mountain roads that rise and fall as we cross various mountain passes. ( No tunnels! My mother is fond of saying that Bhutanese go around mountains rather than through them). When I was younger these trips would make me violently car sick and I would spend much of the trip miserable and vomit-y. Even the thought of eating would make me ill. However in the last decade I have been remarkable un-carsick. I am not sure why ( theories are welcome). So apart from the dependably spectacular views I have also been able to enjoy all the culinary delights of a long road trip.
One of the greatest pleasures of travelling in the autumn, when the corn is ready to be harvested,  are pop-up corn roasters. Often on a part  of the road that seems in the middle of nowhere ( no village or house in sight) someone will  make a little fire and sell freshly roasted corn. Nothing is done to the corn beyond pulling off the husk and holding the cob over the burning embers of a fire . We often comment how a little lime and salt run along the cooked cob would make it even more delicious, maybe next year we will remember to carry some.
My parents almost always carry a picnic basket of tea/coffee supplies  to help break up the long journey. They will choose a random spot, usually somewhere scenic and sunny and then stop to make coffee and share a snack. This time they choose a lovely little stupa on a hill in the middle of the road and we climbed up to enjoy a little break.

In their more gung-ho days, they packed a picnic lunch too but more recently we have a standard road-side restaurant that we stop at in a tiny town called Dungdung Nessa. It might not look like much but in fact this restaurant is a very popular stop and often we have run into people we know (on the way back for example, it was  a cousin headed to Zhemgang for  workshop)

 The food is very hardy and the servings are generous . You sometimes are even able to get an order of yak meat. You get rice and a  side of meat, with some dal and a little bit of green chilli salad. In addition I ordered suja ( butter tea) and an serving of ema-dasthi ( chilli and cheese).

 We also had an another unexpected tea break once we were in Bumthang. We had to stop to make a delivery in the one of the first valleys , Chumey, and the people who came to collect the goods brought along a flask of sweet milk tea and snacks for us. They set up at a bus stop. 
 One of the snacks they brought along was zowa, a sort of roasted rice that you can either eat by the handful or add to your tea for a little crunch. 

Aren't all the best road trips really about the food?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Peaches by candlelight

 This time of year the trees around our house are so heavy with fruit that we can hardly keep up with all the ripening apples and peaches. In fact much to my mother's frequent distress many of our apples are being eaten by bird or they fall off the tree and rot. We have been giving away apples by the basket-full.

 Luckily  my family has "invented" a new favorite way to eat our peaches. The peaches are peeled, the pit is removed and the small peaches are then sliced in half. Then we cook them in a large pan with some sugar and water. After dinner we eat the peaches in a bowl with some fresh homemade yogurt.

Its a simple dessert, much lighter and healthier than peaches and cream, prefect after a regular weeknight dinner. During a recent power outage we discovered that peaches and yogurt are even tastier by candlelight!



Friday, October 19, 2012

Reading notes: NPR does dal

Much to my absolute delight NPR recently had a great article on dals with recipes. The best part is the wonderful assortment of dal variations described including a dry dal and deep fried dal dumplings. The readers comments are also informative, amusing and well worth a read. Also the delightful author of the article is on twitter @mbhide

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cold weather and tingmos

In my mind cold weather can only mean one thing food wise, comfort foods! This week there was a sudden cold snap  and in response my mother made one of the most widely eaten Himalayan comfort foods- tingmo or tingmomo. Tingmo for the uninitiated is a sort of steamed bread that can be used to soak up everything from soup to curries to spicy pickle. I have heard it called the Himalayan version of white bread.  When it comes out right, its wonderfully soft and fluffy and just a tiny bit greasy. My mother uses a standard white bread dough recipe with salt and yeast to make her tingmo ( thought I know other recipes out there sometimes call for sugar and soda). She mixes and kneads the dough and then leaves it in a covered bowl to rise a little. It will eventually be cooked in a the same kind of steamer  as we use to make the fancier, better known Himalayan dumplings, momos.
The bottom most pan of the steamer will be filled with the water that will steam the tingmos. As it cooks the tingmos this water will become wonderfully greasy and tasty so that it actually can be made into a lovely soup to eat with the tingmos. So while I grease each layer of the pan my mother chops and fries onions and ginger before adding various chopped vegetables, whatever you have on hand, in this case it was cabbage, beans ,some potato and then of course she adds salt and water.

Next my mother works on further soften the dough by folding in more butter. Here is a photographic representation of  how she does this: 

1. She spreads chunks of butter onto rolled out dough

2. Then she cuts into the rolled out dough

3. She uses the cut to roll the dough

4. She roll, roll, rolls until she has a cone like shape

5. The she punches the dough back down so that it called be rolled out again

6. She repeats all this from the top a couple more times until she is confident that her dough will make the softest, fluffiest, yummiest tingmo.

Now it time to start shaping the tingmos and steaming them. My mother once again rolls out the dough and then she rolls the dough up, as seen below until she gets a long thin tube of dough.

 She then uses a knife to cut circular slice off the tube. She then gently pulls on either end of the slice and joins it together, as seen below

And now they are ready to be placed in the steamer. Here are the tingmos before they are steamed.

And here they are once they are steamed .

And here they are served and ready to eat. In this case with some of the soup made in the same steamer and a tomato sauce made with generous amounts of chilli, onion and garlic with a little cheese added at the end.