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.