Friday, October 11, 2013

Dining experience and culture in Bhutan

When meeting up with Singaporean who was working as a volunteer in Thimphu, he shared with us about his culture shock that he experienced when he was invited for dinner in Bhutanese’s house as a guest.

All along, I always had dinner in my host house and I didn’t notice anything different or special since we had the dinner straight, except that they were usually having late dinner (usually around 9pm). But I thought, it was due to the person who cooked, just finished his/her class at about 8pm, and they required an hour to prepare.

While he explained his experience, it reminded me of my first dining experience with Bhutanese as a guest, back in Kolkata. Then I realized, ohhh…. It was like that ya?? No wonder……  So I was relieved that I wasn’t alone who felt that haha… Thus, I was assured that this culture did exist, after I was invited for dinner by Bhutanese for few times at different houses and by different people, considered myself as a guest, with whole long procedures, at such long period of time.

Take note, Bhutanese themselves might not realize about their dining culture or habits, as they do it on daily basis or they find it common. However, as foreigner, we found it so much interesting and I shall share it here with you :)

Ngaja or milk tea with sugar
1. Once sit down, the host will serve you first with ‘Ngaja’ (milk tea with sugar) or ‘juice’, which is common term for ‘soft drinks’, e.g. Coke, Orange squash, Sprite, etc., or sometimes it’s really fruit juice, commonly mango juice and apple juice. While having your drink, the host will sit together with you and have a chit chat.

2. Once your tea or juice finished, they will start serving you with the next beverages, which usually contains alcohol. There are many types of alcohol that can be served, depending on the availability, but usually Bhutanese will store many different type of alcohol beverage in their house, such as: Beer Druk 11000, red or white Raven wine, Whiskey (Special Courier, K5, Black Mountain, Rockbee, etc.), Vodka Raven, local brewed arra (can be served plain or cooked with butter and egg), local fermented ‘changkey’ (can be served plain or cooked with butter and egg), etc.

Bhutan alcohol beverages with Chang-pa :)
3. The host will serve ‘chang-pa’ to accompany the alcohol beverage. There are usually two to three types of ‘chang-pa’ served, again, depending on the availability. Dried food, such as ‘Zaw’ or crispy rice crackers, ‘Taengma or Gaaza seep’ – cereal kind of dried raw food made of maize from eastern Bhutan, Indian ready-pack snacks e.g. Bhujia.

Plain Changkey with crushed instant noodle :)
There is one interesting snack that we don't usually eat in this way except in Bhutan, which is crushed dried instant noodle mixed with its provided powder and oil plus chopped shallots and green chilli, and sometimes if you like spicy, you can add mashed dorle chili into it. Wow!!! It’s powerful, easy and delicious ;)

Cooked Chang-pa: Juma, Veg w/ chili and cheese, chili chop
There is cooked ‘chang-pa’, such as: ‘chili chop’ (deep fried whole chili covered with battered flour) – it tastes really good, one of my favorite food there in Bhutan, spicy but very tasty!! –different kind of spicy meat such as: spicy beef liver, spicy pork fat, spicy chicken, and so on, potato or meat curry, which sometimes can be your main course food as well. There is also spicy Bhutanese sausage made of pig’s intestine, called ‘Juma’. All that food blends really well with the alcohol beverages (Bhutanese believe that ‘chang-pa’ is served so that you won’t get drunk easily :D)

There is also salad kind ‘chang-pa’. E.g. ‘chana’ – Northern Indian salad made of chickpeas, chopped onion, tomato, small green chilli, with some salt, tastes really good.

This session is usually taking the longest time of the dinner, which can last up to 1.5 hours. This is the time where the host and guest will have a long chit chat. Here, the host will usually make sure that your glass is full, at all time. So, after you drink, even if it’s only a sip, they will top your glass up almost immediately. If you drink arra, they will ensure the guest having the second serve, at least, can be more, of course.

Sometimes we eat too much ‘chang-pa’ and drink too much alcohol beverages that lots of time you will be very full even when dinner is not served yet.

We, foreigner, when eating for the very first time, will usually wonder how come the dinner is not served yet although it has actually been cooked and ready to eat. Why we have to wait until so long (one to one and a half hour), and the host kept pouring our glass to full, and replenish our ‘chang-pa’ until we are too full and have no more space to eat our dinner hahaha…

Bhutan vegetables dinner with dhall and curd as dessert
4. Dinner will only be served once the drink has or almost finished and time will be around 9pm. Rice is usually the staple food and Bhutanese people are really able to eat rice, especially man hehehe…  and will have at least a second serving of rice.

Shakam w/ veggies, ema datsi and kewa datsi
The host will usually cook at least two dishes. For non-veg, they will cook one or two types of meat, e.g. ‘Shakam pa’ or spicy dried beef, ‘Phakpa-sha’ or spicy dried pork, chicken curry, etc., curry vegetables, ‘ema datsi’ or chili cooked with cheese, ‘kawa datsi’ or potato cooked with chili and cheese, ‘nakey datsi’ or fern cooked with chilli and cheese, other beans, etc. Not forgetting the ‘dhall’ or lentil bean soup to accompany the main dishes. Vegetable and chili pickles are optional, depending on the availability.

You can choose to eat with bare hand or with spoon. Bhutanese love to eat with their hands, but some will prefer to use spoon.

The real dinner time last quite fast, usually less than half an hour.

Curd made from fresh milk
5. Sometimes the host serves dessert, such as: curd (purely made of milk). But for them, their dessert will be ‘doma’ – areca nut or betel nut wrapped in local paan leaf, added with lime paste.  It has been essential part of their life and culture.

6. Once dinner finished, it’s time to go back, or to sleep.

Again, for us, this late dinner is considered unhealthy and makes us gained weight fast. Usually for Singaporean, we have our dinner at around 7pm (after work). Most reservation made or booked in restaurant is at 7pm.

As for me personally, I usually eat less rice (as we believe that eating more rice will make us gain weight fast), and eat lighter meal during dinner (it’s suggested to eat heavy food for breakfast, medium size for lunch, and light food for dinner). However, special occasion will have an excuse for heavy meal during dinner :) Drinking time will usually happen once the dinner is over, although sometimes it’s in between dinner time.

The whole dinner process mentioned above (in Bhutan) will take around 3 – 3.5 hours time. It reminds me of the dinner process in Switzerland, which also takes almost the same time, but with different sequence of meal, food and drink served, etc. But both share the same characteristic, which both country has lots of time to spare to enjoy their dinner, slowly, over chit chat and alcohol beverage (usually wine and liquor) is a must.

In Singapore, we have dinner relatively fast. At home, it usually takes us about half an hour for normal dinner. If guests are coming, then we will drag the time longer to about one hour or more, and then continued with drinking and chit chat or having desserts.

We will have longer dinner at home if we serve steamboat or hot pot. With steamboat, we can eat easily for at least two hours. In restaurant, it will last about 1-2 hours, depending on with who and what kind of food you are having.

Overall, it’s a very good experience to be invited for dinner by Bhutanese friends. People is not rushing for time as they have nothing much to do at night time other than taking a rest. Keep this culture up and amaze more foreigner with it :)    


Langa Tenzin said...

You have learnt so many things about Bhutan although you went there once only. The number of things and Bhutanese terms you grabbed are commendable. I am guessing you carried a pen and a paper along wherever you went and then jotted down the terms as you took picture of different things. LOL Keep writing. I am wondering if you read my blog sometimes. I find you quite active on other blogs. Just wondering! :)

Overcome said...

Hi Langa, thank you for your comment :) I read your blog post too. Btw, it was my second time to Bhutan. My first was last year.

Yeah, I brought my small book along during my travel. That's my habit to record where I went, what I did, etc. I love taking photos too hehe..

I tried to memorize the often used words. If I forgot, I would ask my Bhutanese friends for help through messaging :)

Pema Wangyel said...

keep visiting, keep experiencing, keep writing and thank you for being wonderful guest who did not miss even the minutest detail of Bhutanese hospitality and happy you learnt so much about Bhutan.
Nice read.

Overcome said...

Hi Pema, thank you for your encouragement and compliment :) I wish I can keep visiting and experiencing Bhutan too hehe... I enjoyed my stay there to the fullest and many more unforgettable memories that I will share in this blog. And I will write as long as I live too as it's my passion to share what I felt and experienced in words. You keep writing too ok? :)

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