Food transcends all boundaries, and both our trips to Bhutan were marked by this respect for food as we exchanged stories and traditions with our hosts in our cookouts and gatherings. “To Zowa Sho” means “Come eat!” in Dzongkha the official language of Bhutan. This simple invitation encapsulates what our journal hopes to do because it implies that you are not eating alone, that eating is an inherently communal act.
The dawn has broken, and the morning light is sneaking in through a gap in the curtains. The lodge seemed to be still in a deep slumber. Today, we are learning cooking from the Dasho’s wife, who is well-known to the locals as a brilliant chef! According to Barbara, a Swiss teacher who is on a volunteering teaching stint in Bhutan, a renowned hotel chef she knew was a big fan of Dasho’s wife cooking. We are definitely stoked we were going into her kitchen today!
At seven o’clock in the evening, Rinchenling Lodge is draped in a friendly darkness, serene and humbling. Our hosts were up early to prepare the kitchen, and I loved the rusticity of everything here, especially the dosai pan they used to make the buckwheat pancakes! During the preparation, Dasho shared that the Bhutanese believed that if you see a ‘mark’ in the pancakes when they are being cooked, it’s an auspicious sign to signify influx of guests!
One of the traditional Bhutanese ways of eating these slightly bitter pancakes was to make small slits to allow dollops of butter to melt right into the heart of the pancakes, then sprinkle salt to finish. We had plenty amongst us, though I eventually skipped the butter salt and enjoyed Dasho’s wife’s pancakes with their homemade strawberry jam instead!
And now’s our turn to share our way of eating pancakes – with the wild orange berries we picked and fresh lemon and mint from the garden! Here’s our pancake stack, affectionately nicknamed ‘stupa’ (a Sanskrit word meaning “to heap” or “to pile” and refers to the mound-like shape of the earliest stupas, structures that represent the fully enlightened mind of the Buddha) by a guide from another tour group! There are so many ways one can prepare pancakes, each one unique. I’m thankful for the sharing and learning.
A traditional alcoholic beverage, Ara is made from rice, wheat, maize or barley, fermented or distilled to form a clear looking or creamy liquor. Ara isn’t sold publicly and it is only within the home or farm confines that ara is produced and consumed legally in Bhutan. Dasho is a avid drinker and we’ve been offered at every dinner to share a bottle of his ara. I avoid alcohol as I tend to flush at my first sip, but my husband appreciates all alcoholic drinks and even tinkers with several home brewery sets back home. Imagine his delight when Dasho offered to teach us how he distilled his ara!
According to Dasho, it is typically the womenfolk in the household who makes the ara. “The quality of ara depends on the quality of the woman who prepares it,” Ngyen remarked. As Dasho’s wife busies herself preparing, Dasho patiently explained to us the process.
Fermentation of the barley, wheat, water and yeast takes a minimum of five months. The mixture is poured into a big pot to boil, and there is another slightly smaller pot of cold water placed on top to create condensation. When the water evaporates inside the bigger pot, the steam will touch the colder pot on top. Condensation then happens and cause the water droplets to drip back. There is also a rope tied around the outer pot to keep the alcohol from evaporating. This whole process takes about two hours. Dasho’s wife added two cordyceps and a few strands of saffron to flavour the ara in the inner pot. This is ara fit for royalty!
Dasho has been creative with his flavours of ara – when we visited, he had just placed a pear still growing on the tree into a bottle so the pear flavour can be captured for a more intense ara. Our three nights there were spent in merry-making, storytelling, centred around food and cultures. Traditions are truly better when shared.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
Given her Buddhist roots and culture that discourages killing, Bhutan imports most of her meat from India. Most meat dishes are stewed or cooked with chilli, and I thought it would be nice to share our Hainanese Chicken rice with our Bhutanese hosts.
Dasho and his wife were so excited they got their entire kitchen crew to be around to help cook and take notes. I was a little shy when I realised how quick the earnest staff were when I asked for help. I mumbled, “Hmm do we have ginger?” and many hands spread out to pass me some. Together, we deseeded chillies, blanched chicken, chopped ginger, and the camaraderie was so warmly felt. We even got to serve the chicken rice to a grateful Singapore tour group who had just arrived at the lodge!
Our hosts showed us so much kind hospitality and gave us free reign of their kitchens. We exchanged simple kitchen tips, experimented with new foods, partook in traditional methods of cooking and gatherings. Glasses are clinked, plates are passed around, and memories made and kept. The honest beauty of food comes alive in these cookouts.
We’re all defined in some way or another by our roots and traditions, be they cultural, religious or social. Traditions are for sharing, so somewhere, someone may delight in our unique local nuances.