022_Columns_FoodOne of the local radio deejays told me that the first breakfast café is opening soon in Thimphu, the busy capital of Bhutan. Breakfast is a Western concept that has crept in along with all the other changes Bhutan faces. Aid workers posted in the country from places like Scandinavia and Philadelphia have needs and desires: they suffer from withdrawal from their morning comforts of cappuccino, muesli, baked goods, and cream cheese. You will not find muesli on the shelves of your village general shop, or if you do it’s often stale and flavored with the diesel fumes of the journey it took to get here. Cornflakes are common in Bhutan, but they are not the crispy melt-in-your- mouth kind of cornflakes you may be used to. Bhutanese cornflakes are hard as dimes and meant to be soaked in hot tea. Furthermore, Bhutan is not a place where eating out is considered a treat, unless you’re talking about picnicking. Eating out is for those lonely people who do not have a family and a cook. Home-cooked meals are the preferred norm. And early morning is especially not a time when you’d find a Bhutanese wandering the streets looking for a good brunch spot.

So the appearance of a breakfast café is just one more sign of change. “I guess it’s good for the bachelors but not for the families,” remarked my friend Phuntsho Wangmo, who has hosted me for countless breakfasts. I have stayed with her family many times over the years; her doors are always open, and I’ve become like one of those stray cats she feeds from time to time.

Phuntsho is from eastern Bhutan, and the food on her table is true to her roots. You won’t find her at a breakfast café. So what does Phuntsho have for breakfast?

Nowadays at Phuntsho’s we often have red beans, fried rice, maybe a sunny-side-up egg on the side, plus tea. But even that is a change. “At home in the village, first thing, someone goes to fetch the water and the work begins, while another prepares the meal, which is usually made from whatever is left over from dinner,” she says. “But most of the time we have porridge.”

Porridge is a universal peasant food; in the West we usually think of oat porridge, but in other parts of the world corn, barley, and rice are just as common. It seems that warm soupy cereal grains were the breakfast staple of everybody’s grandmother: congee in China, kicheree in India, risotto in Italy, lugaw in the Philippines, champurrado in Mexico, grits in Texas.

Phuntsho, being from eastern Bhutan, grew up on cornmeal porridge. Some Bhutanese turn up their noses at cornmeal. There’s even a saying: Karap bopi tho mangi; solo khamthang pa mangi (“Corn porridge is not food, chilies are not meat”). But the secret is, everyone kind of loves porridge if it’s made right. “Corn porridge is always considered a poor man’s food, but it really tastes good, eh?” Phuntsho says with relish. “It is so tasty.”

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