One 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.”
Until Indian rice became readily available, only wealthier Bhutanese and those from central Bhutan typically would eat red rice porridge, called yomri, for breakfast. It was reserved for special occasions in the east. The recipe varies a bit from valley to valley, from household to household. It’s definitely a recipe to be fiddled with, but once you get it right, it’s a lovely way to start the day. Wholesome, warming, and nutritious.
Or, if you are a modern Bhutanese bachelor, skip the yomri. Instead, wake up alone in your flat in Mothithang, go to the new breakfast café, and order a cappuccino with white toast and eggs, then get into your government-owned Land Cruiser Prado and sit in your office reading Facebook updates with half-lidded eyes. Know that you are a symbol of change.
As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche wrote in What Makes You Not a Buddhist:
Nothing that exists or functions in the world, no constructs of the imagination or of the physical plane, nothing that passes through your mind, not even your mind itself, will stay as it is forever. Things might last for the duration of your experience of this existence, or even into the next generation; but then again, they may dissolve sooner than you expect. Either way, eventual change is inevitable.
But breakfast café or not, maybe porridge is forever.
Recipe for Rice Porridge
1 cup Bhutanese red rice—you can also use any other nubby rice, preferably whole grain, like French Camargue.
3 tablespoons oil, butter, or ghee— butter is the best, but it’s expensive in Bhutan, so many use cheap oil and round out the taste with a teaspoon of butter at the end.
1/2 cup of cheese cut into pea-sized pieces—generally a dried Bhutanese cheese like chugo, soaked overnight so it’s chewy. Otherwise try medium-to-mild farmer’s cheese that won’t melt. Feta can work. The idea is to have little chewy bits floating in the porridge.
Salt to taste
A dash of chili powder
Thengay, otherwise known as Szechuan pepper
1 tablespoon of crushed ginger or 1/2 tablespoon of garlic
Cilantro or spring onions
Make the garnish after you’ve finished with the base so that the ingredients retain their fragrance. The chili, thengay, and ginger are essential, but the rest are optional and can be added to taste.
Cook rice thoroughly with extra water. You can use leftover rice, but it’s not as tasty. put into an earthenware pot over an open fire (or any old pot on your stove). Add the butter and salt, then stir in enough water to make it soupy. Use a polished branch to blend well (or just use a blender). Add the cheese and cook for about 15 minutes. Don’t let it dry out; keep adding water so that it has the consistency of gruel. Add thengay, ginger, and a pinch of chili, and let cook for 5 more minutes, but don’t boil after you add these, so that the mash stays fragrant. Thengay is a powerful pepper berry that numbs the tongue. Some people hate it. Use sparingly, just 1 to 3 peppercorns finely ground. if you want to add cilantro, do so at the last minute, then serve. Fetch Grandma from the altar room. Gather the children. Sit in a circle and eat while discussing the harvest. You can serve with tea, but as phunthso says, “Tea is only for people who don’t drinkara [Bhutanese liquor.]”
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