I like to think that I can handle a little spice. This wasn’t always the case. I certainly have not grown to love it as much as some people I know, but we’ll get there. Three weeks after we got married a friend was looking for someone to house a med student from Afghanistan for a few weeks. We had a spare room and agreed. Someday I’ll write more about this experience and the most memorable meal I’ve ever had. But for today, all you need to know is that Noman, the med student, put coriander chutney on everything. The first few days he was with us I barely tapped my food into the chutney, just to be polite, but the spice it added to meals was well above my tolerance level. When he left three weeks later, I was scooping hefty portions onto most things I ate.
Spicy food is a learned taste. I have a whole lot more learning and acquiring to do before I could ever rival the level of heat in Bhutanese dishes. As we began reading about Bhutan it became clear that these Himalayan people love their food spicy. Like make your eyes water, burn your throat, and make you want to roll over and crawl in a hole until it subsides level of heat to an untrained palate. Their palates are trained. Bhutanese teach their children to tolerate spice by starting them on it as soon as they are eating solid foods. The women will sometimes lick the sauce off of a vegetable or piece of meat before passing it along to the child to dull it a little, but some heat stays and in time the women leave more and more on until the children have a taste for an extreme level of spice. I don’t think they are in pain during every meal they eat, but I’m quite certain I would be after just a bite or two.
When I look at the pictures and topographical map of Bhutan, it isn’t surprising that it is a culture that loves hot food. There is not an inch of the country that is flat. Nestled in the Himalayas, I’m guessing that they use the heat in their food to bring warmth to their bodies and their homes as they eat together. These sherpas are feasting on spicy dishes and we set out to do the same.
We planned to make red rice, phaksha bexuk, bitter gourd chips and hoentay. To gather some of the ingredients for this meal we stopped at the Spice of India (I couldn’t find a Bhutanese grocery store, and India is relatively close in proximity and carried many of the necessary ingredients).
As we wandered around the store looking for bitter gourd, black mustard seeds, red rice, chili peppers, and buckwheat flour, I found myself curious about what the Indian folks in the store thought about us. There was another boy, a little older than Micah, shopping with his dad quietly and compliantly following wherever his dad went. Micah on the other hand was running all around the store pulling cashews off shelves, trying to lift heavy bags of rice, and rummaging through bins of vegetables despite our pleas to have him follow us and wait patiently while we shopped. I ended up getting our stroller and a bag of goldfish from the car to contain him and bribe him to sit while we searched for these ingredients that were newer to us. As I passed him goldfish I wondered if the owners of the store scoffed at my parenting. Do they bribe their children in India? Do their kids ever have meltdowns? Am I failing at parenthood? It has me curious about how children are raised in other countries. Maybe that little boy was just having a great day and he’s prone to the same type of antics as Micah. Or maybe they parent radically differently in other parts of the world. Maybe I’ll learn in time with more trips to the Spice of India.
With a new set of pantry staples, we headed home to cook. Making the red rice was fairly easy. We just followed these instructions. We bought some bitter gourd chips and snacked on those throughout the cooking instead of making them ourselves. I think the actual gourds we bought grew moldy in our fridge.
Phaksha Bexuk is a pork dish with dried red chiles and potatoes. We watched this YouTube video and tried to copy what she did. We were not totally sure what cut of pork she had, so we used a pork shoulder steak that we had in the freezer from a time we bought a pig from a man on craigslist (maybe I’ll write more about this experience some day too). We limited the number of chili pepper seeds so that we would be able to actually consume the meal instead of chugging gallons of milk and feasting on plain white bread for the evening.
For the dumplings we found a blog of two Americans living in Bhutan. They had a traditional Bhutanese cookbook and gave a good description of how to make Hoentay. Authentic Bhutanese recipes were surprisingly hard to find as we combed the internet. Hoentay is a steamed buckwheat dumpling from the Haa Valley. We started with the base of their recipe, but as we portioned out 50 grams of black mustard seeds we decided to make a few modifications. 50g of mustard is a LOT.
I don’t know if you’ve had freshly ground mustard seeds, but they have an overwhelming taste that can clear your sinuses. Safe to say, we scaled this waaay back and still found that they were a bit too mustardy for our tastes. The recipe just called for cheese. From our research on the country we think there is a pretty good chance that it was calling for Yak cheese as this is a staple in their country. After some searching, yak cheese was nowhere to be found in Grand Rapids. If you have a source of yak cheese, either fermented or not, please enlighten me. Amazon only carries Yak Cheese dog chews. We used Indian cheese instead.
The forming of the dumplings was a little challenging. Our first few tries were not very pretty, but the more we stuffed and crimped the seams the more we began to master the art.
The three dishes came together really nicely and looked well rounded on the plate. The finished product? We scaled the spice too far back. We ended with almost bland food because we had read so much about how they liked things hot that we tuned everything down and were disappointed that we didn’t have a spicier dish. Our recommendation is to taste and add spice along the way according to your level of tolerance. Next time we’ll use less mustard and more spice.
I guess that’s what this whole process is all about. Trying new things, learning as we go. Sometimes we’ll bring you a fool proof recipe that will be the hit of any dinner party. And sometimes we’ll bring you something a little more obscure that may need a few tweaks next time we make it. Below is recipe as we made it but we make no promises that it is the recipe as you should make it. If you give it a go let us know if you make some changes that we need to try next time!