Sunday, June 12, 2011

Butter Tea

Those that travel with me to Bhutan are for the most part impressed with all things pertaining to the country. And almost across the board they are unimpressed with even the mention of the words 'butter tea'. I think to our English speaking ears and USA nurtured palates, these 2 words, unobjectionable and inoffensive on their own conjure up some vile flavor that no one wants their taste buds to experience.

It usually takes my clients a full week in Bhutan before they'll consider trying butter tea. I have to slowly ease them into this, yet another of many Bhutanese experiences and this I tell you is the one that is hardest one to convince them to try. The climb up to Tiger's Nest Monastery, the most difficult endeavor that many have undertaken in years, and a strenuous hike even for those who are accustomed to physical activity is an easier sell than butter tea, or suuchaa as the Bhutanese call it.

So what is it? It's a collection of various locally foraged wild herbs, so first you need to think herb tea and not caffeinated black tea.  These herbs are packed into bundles, about the size of a loaf of bread, though the shape of a brick. Black in color, and sold in the local markets (where most Bhutanese buy most everything pertaining to food, there are no supermarkets and just a few small markets). It's brewed with water, and then butter is added, from a yak or a cow, but far more common from a cow, as cows are more common. Added to this is not sugar but salt. The amounts vary according to the whim and taste of the person making the suuchaa, same as your coffee might not taste like the stuff I brew, but anyone will still recognize it as coffee. There's not pronounced smell to it, so in this respect it's unlike coffee, no heady aroma. It's high in fat and there was a time when Bhutanese needed this fat as fuel, living a hard life in the cold mountains, without lots of variety in foodstuffs. These days city dwellers don't need this high fat and protein drink to fortify them for a day of labor in the cold mountain air, but for generations they did, and the liking for butter tea remains, understandably strong.

So what's it taste like? Pretty tame, like broth, a sort of salty vegetable broth, beige, buff or even reddish in color. Had suuchaa been translated as broth or soup (salted herb consome), no one would hesitate a moment before tasting the stuff. By the time I'm able to convince my groups to try it, they've worked up a mental image of something they are going to hate, so they're generally surprised at how inoffensive it is. Some decide they like it, and then ask for it, in lieu of coffee or black tea in the morning. This usually scores them some point among the Bhutanese servers, accustomed to foreigners vigorously refusing offers of suuchaa.

It's a product that will need rebranding to make it in the USA. Bhutanese salted herb consome, you heard it here first.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The King of Bhutan

The 31 year old King of Bhutan announced his engagement in parliament 2 weeks ago. It was major news in Bhutan, here in the USA I've only read about it online. Another indication of how little gets reported about Bhutan outside of Bhutan. The Bhutanese are OK with this, they know theirs is a small, remote and little known country and they know what happens in Bhutan, to paraphrase a cliche, (mostly) stays in Bhutan. The Bhutanese one meets all seem so secure with their invisibility. At the same time they are proud and pleased that when the outside world takes notice if them, the notice is most always favorable.

Like Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Bhutanese King and his bride to be are both educated in England. The King at Oxford, the would be queen, 20 year old Jetsun Pema at Regent College. There are probably few other parallels. The wedding is set for some time in October, and you can bet it will not be televised world wide. With an absence of paparazzi in Bhutan (and interest outside Bhutan) don't expect much news about this. (Stay tuned here, I'll report).

Coincidentally I'll be in Bhutan for all of October, so while I'm not expecting an invitation, it seems likely to be an interesting time to visit an always fascinating country. I've glimpsed the king, and many have met him, all report him to be gracious, humble and smart. He seems to take seriously his stated role as 'servant of the people' and is now on a campaign to visit each household in the country. Much of this needs be accomplished by walking, as there are few roads in Bhutan. All Bhutanese seem to love him, and when they talk about him it's always with reverence and warmth. Many wear a button with his image, or an elastic wrist band that he gives out to people. Those who have met him (and many have) all speak very highly of him. It's touching to see a county that so reveres its leader, and the reverence appears to be because he earned it, with actions and words that show he has the country's best interest at heart (not a power or money hungry leader).

Visiting in March we were on the flight from Bangkok to Bhutan with the king and his entourage. That's right, he flies commercial, though business class. I was seated in economy, but 2 of my clients were in business class, and during a fuel stop in Bagdogra, India they came back to tell me, excitedly that he was just seats away from them. Upon landing in Bhutan the king approached my clients to wish them a pleasant visit to his country. A 5 minute conversation ensued, causing the disembarkation of the plane to be delayed. He presented them with buttons with his image, which they wore daily and were recognized by Bhutanese as having been given to them by the king himself (they must differ from the king buttons one can buy). They were understandable thrilled, my small worry was, 'how do we top this?'

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Coffee in Bhutan

My only complaint about Bhutan is that the coffee is bad. It's all instant, and tastes both weak and insipid to me. In past visits I'd ask the restaurant staff to bring me the jar of instant granules and add some more to the barely brown liquid. This helped some, but still left me, a die hard coffee and caffeine lover feeling unsatisfied. The Bhutanese are not to blame. They are a nation of tea drinker, either black tea brewed with hot water or with milk and spices (what we'd call masala tea), or butter tea, an herbal concoction of foraged herbs brewed with milk, butter and salt. Most foreigners blanch at the idea, but it's pretty good, though best to think of it as broth, not tea. But whether you like or hate butter tea, it has no caffeine, so does nothing to satisfy coffee craving.

Several visits ago I made this lament in public, probably not the first time, but this time a Bhutanese woman advised me to visit the Ambient Cafe, where so she said, they have great coffee. I will admit to scepticism, but the next day I was sitting in the Ambient Cafe and ordered a cappuccino. Not only did the menu have coffee, but it had a list of coffee drinks. Nothing so fancy (or vulgar) as a frapuccino, but all the standard real adult coffee drinks. Ambient Cafe certainly had a look to it, one that I'd not seen before in Bhutan. Comfortable tables and seating, poetry on the walls, good music, lots of books, magazines, and newspapers to browse, snacks, sandwiches and light meals that one might find in  California (the first and only lasagna I've seen in Bhutan, and vegetarian at that). And when my cappuccino arrived, it was pure caffeine bliss, seldom this good in the USA. Whoa, did I stumble into one of those Beyuls, the secret portals that supposedly exist all over Bhutan, that take one to another reality, this the Beyul to New Age California.

I met the owners, this perfect Bhutanese couple, Lehto and Juno. Young, hip, attractive, gracious, not unlike so many of their countrymen. I would have thought they had lived in the USA to get the vibe of this place so right. But no, they'd not been beyond India. They conjured this place up on their own. And it feels  great. Almost as exciting as discovering an actual Beyul.

My new discovery so wonderful I now bring all my clients here. They swoon over the coffee, feeling coffee deprived as they do (though some now bring their own coffee and filters and ask for water, but there's not substitute for having someone make you the perfect cup of coffee). I've learned that Juno makes or oversees the making of the pastries and food. Lehto mans the espresso machine and plays host. Their young son, Jigme has the run of the place and unlike some bratty American kids, he's funny and polite and cute, another asset to the place.

The clientele? A mix of Bhutanese, tourists and some of the very few expats in Bhutan.  I've brought some of my Bhutanese friends here, to introduce them to real coffee. And almost all of them find the real stuff too strong for their tastes. These are the people that can eat the world's hottest chilis all day long, yet quail at the taste of strong good coffee. Odd, but there you have it. They douse the coffee with sugar and milk, and then pronounce it palatable. To each his own. Bring me a double cappuccino, please.

Monday, May 9, 2011


All Bhutanese have 2 names, so far this sounds pretty standard. But not surprisingly it's not. We Westerners are familiar with the concept of 2 names, first and last names, names for women and for men.

In Bhutan everyone has 2 names, though not first and surname, simply 2 names. It's a country without family names. There's a  limited number of Bhutanese names, and every one of them can be first name, second name, man's name or woman's name. Easy or complicated? Well, a bit of both. Parents do not name their children. After the birth they wait for an auspicious day when they take the child to a monk who them blesses the child and chooses the names. Which means there's no shelf in the bookstores with 'what to name your child' books.

To the US way of thinking this is terrible, the parent has no choice in what to name the kid. But remember that many cultures also arrange their children's marriage, another lack of choice that makes people in the US shudder, yet in countries where this is the practice, most are onboard with it, and it seems to work. Bhutanese by the way, do marry for love (with some exceptions). They do not seem to mind a lama or monk choosing a name, and will wait some time, or travel long distances so as to have a powerful lama choose a powerful name, a name they believe will protect the child. I have friends who told me when they were young they were sickly, and their parents took them a more powerful lama to be renamed, and continue the story by saying they've seldom been sick since. Some parents shop around for names more to their liking, if the first names given are not to their liking. While I suspect this would not have occurred a generation ago, this name shopping does not raise eyebrows.

Bhutanese names are mostly 2 syllables, easy for English speakers to pronounce and pleasant sounding to our ears. With relatively few names you hear them over and over and quickly get the hang of them. Common names: Dorji, Tshering, Jigme, Pema, Tashi, Lobsang, Sangay, Tshentso, Wangchen, Chukie, Sonam, Nawang. Dorji is perhaps the most common name, it means Thunderbolt, which seems a pretty sexy name to me. The lack of family names means a persons history is not carried in the name It also means that men do not 'own' women in the Western sense, where women relinquish family names to become the property of the husband. It also means that when someone shouts "Sangay" a bunch of men and women will look to see who called for them.

Like all rules, there are exceptions. The Royal Family does have a family name, Wangchuck. A handful of names apply only to boys or girls. And some Bhutanese of Nepali origin have Nepali names (though many have the typical Bhutanese names). And a few people have western nicknames. But mostly as you travel in Bhutan you encounter over and over the same melodious names, shared by siblings and people of opposite sex. In a pleasant way, it reinforces that in Bhutan, things are unlike elsewhere.

Pictured: 2 brothers, Dorji and Dorji.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I'm takin to you.

If you've been to Bhutan and seen the national animal, this tired joke will make sense. Otherwise, you read it first here. Bhutan's national mammal is the Takin. That's Budorcas taxicolor to a biologist, but I'll stick with takin. It's a high altitude hoofed mammal, sort of cow like in general form. The story Bhutanese learn as kids and visitors learn from their guides is that the irrepressible saint, Lama Drukpa Lama Kinley, affectionately called the Divine Madman asked to be served an entire cow and a goat to eat. He ate them both (the story does omit how one man ate an entire goat and cow, but strange wonderful things seem to happen in Bhutan, so bear with me). When only the bones remained, the locals asked for a miracle and Drukpa Kinley placed the goats skull on the cows body, snapped his fingers and the animal that came to life was the takin. Divine creation, Bhutanese style.

Bhutanese who are very adept in English fail to laugh when foreigners gaze upon takins and say, "hey man, what you takin about", or any of the other phrases the beast engenders. Maybe they understand, just think our sense of humor too pedestrian. But I tell you, sophisticated adults from the USA always attempt these bits of wit in the presence of takins.

You can see takin if you go trekking in Bhutan, but they are rare and shy and inhabit remote areas. So most people see them in the Takin Reserve above the capital of Thimpu, Bhutan's largest settlement with 80,000 people. Some 20 years ago several takin were brought here, along with a few other native animals to a zoo. The king later decided that keeping captive animals was not in line with Buddhist teachings, so requested they be released. The freed takins wandered into Thimpu (the zoo was in the hills above Thimpu) where they found easy pickings in local gardens. It was decided these takin were too habituated to humans, so they were recaptured and housed in a multi-acre enclosure called the Motithang Takin Reserve. Here they are breeding and looked after by their keepers and biologists, and can be seen daily by visitors. It's a popular spot for both Bhutanese and tourists, as it provides the visitors with another 'only in Bhutan sight' and story.

First of many: Experience Bhutan launches May 5, 2011

Though I am currently in Massachusetts, I feel, to paraphrase, I've left my heart in Bhutan. Or is it my soul,  though if I'm going to be accurate, it's really only some of my luggage I've left in Bhutan. Recently returned from my 10th visit, and each visit I seem to lug about the same amount of stuff there, what I feel is needed for a 2 or 4 week stay. Overweight luggage fees never a problem flying to Asia, as I make enough visits there each year to have gained elite status with United Airlines and partners (and so receive a heftier luggage allowance), but the last leg of the journey with Drukair from Bangkok is the one where only my so far successful sweet talking keeps me from paying the fees.

There is some sweet talking the Thai staff of Drukair, though equally significant I travel with others (important to mention, I lead tours to Bhutan, my reason for all the trips, so I always have a small entourage of about 4-8 people with me), and we weigh the luggage altogether, thus avoiding fees, as enough of us are under the alloted amount, generally, though when that's not the case I've successfully resorted to cajoling.

So where was I? Oh yea, a few trips back I realized I ought to leave luggage in Bhutan, so as to not have to schlep so much there every few months. This works out pretty well, but I don't always recall just what I left, and bring duplicates of what's there, or forget to bring something I need. But by and large it works out well. I have some clothes that are permanent residents of Bhutan, so they're luckier than me. Though I feel pretty lucky to return as often as I do.

Want to join me (and my clothes) on a visit to Bhutan? Next trip: June 30-July 12, 2011. Space available. Details: