7 Things From 7 days In Bhutan | 2. Food tastes even better when you know the sources.

We couldn’t have come at a better time – during summer in Bhutan, the land is impressively shrooming with mushrooms, peaches, plums, flowers of all colours! In this post, we languish in Bhutan’s simplicity and explore her down-to-earth and back-to-basic ways in appreciating what nature has blessed her with. Bhutan has banned the sales of pesticides and herbicides, and agriculture is wholly organic, so much so that few products are labelled organic anymore. The epitome of sustainability, we have much to learn from the ambition and determination of Bhutan. Our farm-to-table theme itinerary led us through pristine greens, shades so deep. We hiked through muddy fields and grassy slopes under a sun sometimes golden and warm, and at other times, piercing and harsh. We’ve got a foretaste of what the farmers go through on a daily basis, subject to the mercy of nature. We visited factories and farmers’ markets and roadside stalls, and realised efficient food production doesn’t have to take place in fancy schmancy setups.

Centenary Farmers’ Market

Nature's colours in their full glory at Centenary Farmers' Market.

Nature’s colours in their full glory at Centenary Farmers’ Market.

As you may have already read in our earlier post, the Centenary Farmers’ Market is one of the biggest domestic markets for Bhutanese farmers. Located near the main town in Thimphu, the double-storied building houses about 400 stalls selling organic and seasonal produce of vegetables, fruits, rice, spices, mushrooms etc, as well as incense and a cozy little cafeteria.

This is merely a little corner of the sprawling grounds within the Centenary Famers' Market.

This is merely a little corner of the sprawling grounds within the Centenary Famers’ Market.

Vendors typically arrive by Thursday evening and the market buzzes on throughout the weekend. This is where you can find most of Bhutan’s colours! The sprawling grounds were clean, dry and well maintained with obliging vendors who happily allowed us to snap endless photos.

This smiley vendor was very obliging and helped us to pick our plums and peaches. He even gave us a few extra plums!

This smiley vendor was very obliging and helped us to pick our plums and peaches. He even gave us a few extra plums!

Given the sheer number of stalls in the market, we did have some difficulty selecting our produce. Being the ‘kiasu’ Singaporeans that we are, we were determined to browse through each stall before we decided on the produce we wanted and the stalls we wanted to purchase from. We certainly spent a pretty awesome afternoon in the windy market!

Sacks of spices with alluring smells as you approach.

Sacks of spices with alluring smells as you approach.

We love how the vendors display their produce here. This is thingey or peppercorns, commonly used in Bhutanese cooking.

We love how the vendors display their produce here. This is thingey or peppercorns, commonly used in Bhutanese cooking.

Summer's the season for these curly wurly fiddlehead ferns, also known as nakey in Bhutan.

Summer’s the season for these curly wurly fiddlehead ferns, also known as nakey in Bhutan.

Summer’s the season for nakey, curly and tender fern fronds also known as fiddlehead ferns, as well as the highly-prized matsutake mushrooms. In Japan, matsutake mushrooms are really pricey so I was souper pleased to find them in amazing abundance and affordability in this market! Look how dwarfed my hands are compared to these beautiful mushrooms! Only two stalls had the mushrooms in these sizes, and we had to buy at least 500g of mushroom according to the vendors.

The legendary matsutake mushrooms that dwarved my hand! These are organic and command a high price in Japan.

The legendary matsutake mushrooms that dwarved my hand! These are organic and command a high price in Japan.

These were so beautiful! Rich hues that glisten in the market.

These were so beautiful! Rich hues that glisten in the market.

Druk Asia had informed us earlier that this would be the season too for plums and peaches, and indeed, every fruit stall laid the stone fruits proudly in baskets, the rich purple of the plums and velvety cream and coral tones of the peaches glowing above other fruits. Till this day, I’m still very much amazed how such beautiful produce come from traditional farming methods free of chemicals.

Perfect pretty peaches that we had as snacks in our long bumpy car rides across mountains.

Perfect pretty peaches that we had as snacks in our long bumpy car rides across mountains.

Hello, peach. I think we had one too many!

Hello, peach. I think we had one too many!

 

Cultural Hike

The view from the top of Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten in Punakha. Valleys and mountains and clouds. Just breathe and take it all in.

The view from the top of Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten in Punakha. Valleys and mountains and clouds. Just breathe and take it all in.

Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten sits grandly on a ridge high above the Punakha Valley. This is a temple built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, and dedicated to spiritual protection for the kingdom. Once up at the top of the four-storeyed temple, you get a commanding view of the rice fields, mountainous peaks, and the wind billows away in majesty. The highlight for us though was the hike from the foot of the hill on which the chorten is built. Ugyen had told us it would be a breezy 40-min hike, but our incessant need to pause to talk to farmers, touch and snap pictures of anything edible resulted in a longish hike of almost two hours!

Sharing our foraged nakey with a cute little farmer's girl on the cultural trail up to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Sharing our foraged nakey with a cute little farmer’s girl on the cultural trail up to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Remember the nakey or fiddlehead ferns we bought in Centenary Farmers’ Market? It turned out that they grow wildly along the trail too, and with the help of Ugyen, we became fern foragers! I held a big bunch in my hands as I hiked across the muddy fields.

This man saved us from inedible wild ferns which we mistook as fiddlehead ferns. Thank you!

This man saved us from inedible wild ferns which we mistook as fiddlehead ferns. Thank you!

Along the way, we met this stout man with a dog next to him. His job was to clear the trails of fallen branches and loose stones so hikers and farmers traversing could have a safer path. He was quick to notice the ferns in our hands and pointed to Ugyen that more of half of what we picked were not nakey but inedible wild ferns! All thanks to him, we are still alive now! While waiting for us, our driver, Panda, who used to be a chef, also did some foraging for us, knowing how much we liked the nakey. In a matter of minutes, his reap was way higher than ours, and thankfully, all edible too!

I miss this jolly little chap who followed us all the way on the cultural trail to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten, and back down!

I miss this jolly little chap who followed us all the way on the cultural trail to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten, and back down!

We met this lovely girl who gave us directions on the easier and less muddy routes to take. Independent, polite, eloquent and confident, she left a deep impression on us all.

We met this lovely girl who gave us directions on the easier and less muddy routes to take. She even helped us to pick nakey. Independent, polite, eloquent and confident, she left a deep impression on us all.

The splendid rice paddy fields on our cultural hike.

The splendid rice paddy fields on our cultural hike.

Just before we ascended up the hill to the chorten, farmers were busy preparing the fields for rice planting. Look at the extensive varieties of food grown here! We even found an avocado tree uphill, the unripe avocados camouflaged by surrounding greens. It’s my first time picking avocados from the wild and they were gingerly wrapped so we could bring them back to Singapore.

My small bounty of wild avocados, freshly picked!

My small bounty of wild avocados, freshly picked!

This hike has made me think about food sustainability on a deeper level. Let us be thankful for whatever’s served before us. It’s the result of the hard work of many.

Buckwheat Fields
Once a widely-grown and prevalent traditional crop, buckwheat has been gradually abandoned by farmers for other cash crops such as rice and potatoes that provide higher yields with less effort. In Bumthang, where most of the buckwheat still grows, we were souper blessed to be able to join a farmer in his harvest of buckwheat.

A farmer and his helpers in their early harvest of buckwheat in Bumthang.

A farmer and his helpers in their early harvest of buckwheat in Bumthang.

That morning, the sun rose high and showered the russet buckwheat fields with a deeper glow. In the middle of the field sat a genial farmer in his sixties, whacking hard at the buckwheat stalks with a long stick. Ugyen spoke to the farmer on our behalf and we learned that the whacking was to ‘beat the seeds out’, after which the grain-like seeds go through a filter of sorts. The buckwheat harvests are then used as grain alternatives or milled as buckwheat flour to be made into pancakes, noodles and the likes. Now, as the buckwheat production dips into a further decline partly because of manpower shortage to beat out the seeds physically, even the husks which were typically discarded are now salvaged to be made into buckwheat husk pillows. Leftover stalks are also dried to become hay for animals during winter.

The farmer patiently explained to us how buckwheat was harvested.

The farmer patiently explained to us how buckwheat was harvested.

Did you know also that there is sweet buckwheat as well as bitter buckwheat and herbal buckwheat? This farmer grows the bitter ones, which looks somewhat different from the ones we get form the States. If the land is too fertile, sweet buckwheat can become bitter, so most farmers rotate crops in the same plot of land, for example, planting buckwheat after potatoes.

After a workout of buckwheat whacking on the fields under the hot sun, this was what we harvested. Indeed labourious.

After a workout of buckwheat whacking on the fields under the hot sun, this was what we harvested. Indeed labourious.

The back-breaking work at the buckwheat fields.

The back-breaking work at the buckwheat fields.

As a rough estimate, this farmer’s buckwheat field can yield only about 20kg of seeds or about 8 kg of buckwheat flour per harvest. According to Ugyen, buckwheat used to be food for the poor, but with its decline, prices have since gone up three-fold, and now it is food mainly for the richer ones in the community, or those who still yearn for a taste of nostalgia. Our host at Rinchenling Lodge in Bumthang, Dasho Jamphed Ngedup (Dasho is a title given by His Majesty the King to people who have been recognized for their services to the country), recalled he used to eat buckwheat all day – buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, buckwheat bread for lunch and buckwheat soup for dinner. Now, given its relative rarity, buckwheat noodles are typically served only at big gatherings, for instance, formal work functions. Even though Bumthang is a buckwheat-growing valley, production is low and yields have been underwhelming.

Those days in Bumthang after this field trip, I lingered over each buckwheat pancake we had with much thanks. The humble buckwheat has seen grander times, but its farm-to-table story is one that stirred my heart most.

Potato Fields

This busy field was so filled with laughter as the farmers teased one another and the children with soil-stained clothes helped around and did what they did best, run with glee.

This busy field was so filled with laughter as the farmers teased one another and the children with soil-stained clothes helped around and did what they did best, run with glee.

Not far away from the buckwheat fields is the potato field. And what a buzzing field it was! Children were chasing one another around with dried mud stains on their knees, faces full of glee. We asked to help harvest the potatoes, and everyone welcomed us with bemusement. We bent down, picked up potatoes big and small, and threw them into baskets spread around the fields. After twenty minutes of harvesting, I looked up with pride at my basket, only to realise how much fuller the other baskets were. I don’t make too good a farmer, do I?

This tractor was donated by the Japanese government, and it certainly makes harvesting a lot less arduous.

This tractor was donated by the Japanese government, and it certainly makes harvesting a lot less arduous.

The farmers here used tractors kindly donated by Japan to plough the land and loosen the soil so harvesting is made easier. Dasho shared that when he was a child, potatoes were mostly homegrown in a small kitchen patch for own consumption. In the 1970s, potato farming became large scale, and potatoes were regarded as a cash crop for sale to India.

Hello, potatoes. Still caked with soil, these are precious crops the result of much hard work.

Hello, potatoes. Still caked with soil, these are precious crops the result of much hard work.

All hatted out at the potato field with the young owner.

All hatted out at the potato field with the young owner.

 

Root Berries

 

These grow wild and taste like sweet mangoes, though they look like orange raspberries.

These grow wild and taste like sweet mangoes, though they look like orange raspberries.

I’m besotted with these wild orange raspberry-like berries! Ugyen said they are root berries, and throughout our three days in Bumthang, we carried with us little bottles to pluck and collect these pretty berries. They can be found almost anywhere, some even next to wild marijuana (Yes, you read right – marijuana grows in abundance here. No wonder it’s called ‘weed’!). Ugyen had a penchant for spotting the berries and would climb up high to pluck the plumpest juiciest ones for us. The best guide in Bhutan, truly! These berries may look like raspberries, but taste like sweet ripe mangoes. I couldn’t stop popping them!

The plump ones are extremely sweet, though harder to pick as they tend to grow higher up.

The plump ones are extremely sweet, though harder to pick as they tend to grow higher up.

Freshly-picked root berries as a dressing for our pancakes and a star in our salads!

Freshly-picked root berries as a dressing for our pancakes and a star in our salads!

 

Red Panda Beer Brewery
Not too far from Rinchenling Lodge where we stayed was this humble brewery, so small we thought it was someone’s home when we drove past it one day. This brewery makes the “Red Panda Beer”, a Weiss beer that is un-filtered and free of preservatives. Production is kept small, and goes through the traditional beer brewing method of cooking barley and malted barley from India and hops from Germany, boiling, pumping, filtration and fermentation. True to Bhutan’s sustainable and green practices, bottles are recycled, and even the processed barley are given to the cows. “Cows very happy!” quipped the factory guide.

The facilities in the Red Panda Beer Brewery. Humble as they are, they produce smooth, unfiltered beer that's free of preservatives.

The facilities in the Red Panda Beer Brewery. Humble as they are, they produce smooth, unfiltered beer that’s free of preservatives.

The barley that is imported from India and used for the Red Panda Beer.

The barley that is imported from India and used for the Red Panda Beer.

For 5USD, you get a guided tour and a bottle of beer. We chilled ours and shared with our Ugyen, Panda and our hosts ar Rinchenling Lodge. I’m not quite the drinker but the men were clinking glasses and making plans to buy more, so you know this beer has to be pretty good!

Even the packaging is uber cute!

Even the packaging is uber cute!

On a side note, we finally knew why our driver, Panda, is nicknamed as such! He loves their beer and since he also turns red after some drinks, and looks jolly like the red panda, he was nicknamed after the “Red Panda Beer”! How cute!

 

Bee Farm and Honey Factory

The office next to the Bee Farm and Honey Factory, bearing the signature architectural style of Bhutanese buildings.

The office next to the Bee Farm and Honey Factory, bearing the signature architectural style of Bhutanese buildings.

In July when we visited, it was honey harvesting season, but we were told that there was a global shortage of bees and production is limited. The honey factory owner almost didn’t let us buy any honey as his priority was to sell to the locals, particularly the restaurants and lodges. We were finally allowed to buy a limited quantity after Ugyen persuaded him to let us bring some back to Singapore to share with our customers.

This was all that was used to bottle the honey from barrels of stored honey.

This was all that was used to bottle the honey from barrels of stored honey.

Like many local factories, this bee farm and honey factory run a small production. There was an elderly lady using a small machine to bottle the honey from barrels, and a younger lady to cap the bottles manually before packing them in cartons of twelve. She’s also the one sticking the labels on the bottles. The modest set-up is typical of Bhutanese agricultural landscape, and it made me particularly mindful about not wasting food. Even honey is becoming such a precious commodity!

Visit www.BhutanHoney.org for more information on the honey produced in Bhutan!

Swiss Cheese Factory

When the car first turned into Bumthang Valley, I sat up in awe and rubbed my eyes. It is beautiful. Without the prayer flags, I could almost believe that I was in Switzerland with the expansive meadows, wild brilliant flowers and wispy clouds. So it’s no surprise Swiss cheese is savoured in Switzerland-like Bumthang! The founder of the Swiss Cheese Factory in Bumthang, Friz Maurer, came to Bhutan more than 40 years ago responding to an advertisement in a Swiss newspaper for a cheese-maker in the land of the Thunder Dragon.

Gouda cheese maturing in the factory.

Gouda cheese maturing in the factory.

We weren’t allowed into the factory when processing is underway for hygiene purposes, but the guide very kindly allowed us to view the equipment used. With basic machines, this factory produces a wide variety of cheese, including gouda and emmental. The gouda is kept for at least three years to mature in taste, and the witty guide shared, “With customer, three years, ready! No customer, another three years!” There was a small sampling station at the souvenir counter, and the lady generously served us a big slab of emmental cheese. So tasty!

The sampling station and souvenir store just next to the Swiss Cheese Factory. Beer and apple juice bottles are all recycled as part of Bhutan's effort to be a sustainable and responsible kingdom.

The sampling station and souvenir store just next to the Swiss Cheese Factory. Beer and apple juice bottles are all recycled as part of Bhutan’s effort to be a sustainable and responsible kingdom.

This culinary sojourn has certainly humbled us city dwellers as we find a slower pace in life with a deepened appreciation for the work that goes behind the food brought before us on the table. Food tastes even better when you know the sources. Let’s be thankful.

 

* Drukair (Royal Bhutan Airlines) flies from Singapore to Bhutan thrice weekly. Find out more at www.drukair.com.sg.
To book your trip to Bhutan, contact Druk Asia, Bhutan Travel Specialist (www.drukasia.com; +65 63389909, email:help@drukasia.com).

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