On day 5, our guest speaker at the Royal Thimphu College was Aum Kesang Choeden who spoke to us about traditional Bhutanese cuisine and culture. She shared her interesting journey of how she got to where she is today. It began when she was a young child, cooking with her family. She told us that the Bhutanese have a special way of referring to a good cook – they are called “the hand.”
Someone who has “the hand” means that they have the ability to turn an ordinary dish into something extraordinary. Although it was thought that Aum possessed this gift at a young age, her first career was in law enforcement. She was one of the first women to join the police force. She told us that although her legal investigations took her all over Bhutan, it was through this opportunity that she learned about the various cultural foods and traditions in each location.
With tourism, Bhutan’s government brought in more international cuisine, which morphed into fusion cuisine. This is when she realized that Bhutanese cuisine was not being showcased or offered to tourists. With this new understanding, she decided to leave her highly ranked career to pursue her goal of showcasing and preserving traditional Bhutanese cuisine. She began her first restaurant 11 years ago.
When sourcing ingredients for her traditional Bhutanese dishes, Aum works with local farmers and, in the early days, had to convince them to grow the raw ingredients she needed. At first, they resisted, saying that they would not make any money, but she assured them that she would purchase all that they produced. Eventually, the farmers produced more than she wanted. However, because of their agreement she still purchased it all, and had to rely on the traditional methods of preservation (dehydration, pickling, and fermentation) so the foods would not be wasted. In addition to her restaurant businesses, she also makes and sells traditionally processed and preserved food products in a small local shop in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital.
During her lecture she helped us understand many other aspects of how traditional Bhutanese cuisine has evolved, mainly from what was local and available – of people living close to the land. She also invited us to eat at one of her traditional restaurants after visiting the Folk Heritage Museum. And, later that evening we had the incredible opportunity to meet up with Aum once again at her demonstration kitchen/training school to try our “hand” at cooking traditional Bhutanese cuisine.
At the first station, fermented millet was laid out on and then covered by a tarp that spanned an entire table top. When she opened the tarp the steam from the millet began to rise. As a group, we then added the yeast she gave us to the fermented millet and mixed it in with our hands. Then she covered the fermented millet and yeast mixture and told us that it would sit for 3 – 4 months before being utilized in Ara (a traditional fermented, alcoholic beverage). Aum promised to let us know how it turned out and if our group possessed “the hand.”
Next, she introduced us to a variety of raw ingredients (vegetables, roots, fruits, grains, and spices) used in traditional Bhutanese dishes. And we got to try our hand at making: Momos (a traditional filled dumpling), Kewa Datshi (cheesy potatoes), butter tea (mixed by hand in a large wooden butter churn) and grinding spices before enjoying an amazing meal to end our exceptional day of traditional Bhutanese cuisine and culture.