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?