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?'