Sweet and Spicy Bhutanese Pickles

Sliced Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers
Sliced Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers

As the mercury in Baltimore and DC has recently approached or broken 100° Fahrenheit, many folks here have turned to an easier, cooler way to dine. A few small salads or appetizers, some fresh bread and a light dinner is served. A sort of a Central Atlantic, tapas-style meal if you will. Slaws and potato salads are standard offerings in this region, but for those who wish to try a dish which brings an exotic dash to the table, these Bhutanese pickles are a must. They are simple to make, need only sit for a week before using, and are possible to eat a bit earlier if a sweeter, thinner pickle is desired.

As part of our continuing exploration of the food of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, these delightful pickles are sweet and lightly hot at the same time, with occasional blasts of coriander or cumin seed, giving a lighter, spicier flavor to them as you eat. For those with heat-sensitive palates, the number of chilies can be reduced for a gentler pickle, but as written, the recipe is a nice balance of sweet, hot, and spicy flavors.


Sweet and Spicy Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers

4 Asian cucumbers or 1-2 large western ones
1 tablespoon sea salt
11/2 cups rice vinegar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
4-5 finger-hot chili pepper or 4 hot, dried Thai chili peppers, diced

Slice cucumbers to fit a sealable jar or container. Remove seeds, if desired.  You may cut the cucumber into chunks or spears; there is really no set way to shape the pickles.  In general, the thinner the slices or chunks, the less time required to pickle. Salt the cucumbers and let stand for a couple of hours, preferably in a warm place.

Warm rice vinegar and water in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar until dissolved. When done, remove from heat and let cool to warm or room temperature.

Transfer the cucumbers into the sealable container and add the crushed Szechuan peppercorns, the cumin and coriander seeds and the diced chili pepper into the jars being sure to divide them evenly. Then, pour the sweetened vinegar over them. Depending on how you sliced or diced the cucumbers, you may need a second batch of sweetened vinegar to cover the vegetables. Seal jar and give them a good shake or two. Set aside in a cold place for about a week before eating. For a sweeter pickle, it may be possible to enjoy after a few days.

After a week, the jars should be kept in a refrigerator or in another cold place, even if unopened, to avoid them becoming too sour. If a jar is forgotten and allowed to sour too much, the cucumbers can still be used to add a sour blast to stews, curries or soups – sort of like one might do with too sour kimchee – make kimchee jigaae.


Szechuan Peppercorns
Szechuan Peppercorns

The magic ingredient that really sets these pickles apart is the Szechuan peppercorns. Related to both the rue and citrus families (not other types of peppercorns or chilies) Szechuan pepper imparts a distinct, zingy flavor to recipes, and can numb the lips and tongue in large quantities. It is also one of the cornerstone seasonings in Bhutanese cuisine and makes a deliciously, unique pickle.

In Bhutan, these pickles would probably be served over rice or with bread. Accompanying flavors would include fresh, cooked or pickled chili peppers and cheese or yogurt. Feel free to experiment with how they work on your table. Good recipes are made to be personalized and adapted for individual use.

Variations: Thinly sliced carrots can be added to the cucumbers, or the pickling recipe and method can be used to pickle other vegetables en seul or in a mix such as the popular asparagus and mushroom combination enjoyed in Bhutan.

(Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Photos of Sliced Bhutanese Pickles and Szechuan Peppercorns by ZKruger@Dreamstime.com)

Yak Snack Attack

Wild Tibetan Yak
Wild Tibetan Yak

I love yaks. I have many times admired their hulking, hairy majesty on the plains and hills of Western China, Tibet, and Nepal. Yaks are survivors – free-range animals manage to survive on some of the poorest pasture the world has to offer. Yaks are beautiful – from their natural flowing-haired glory of the wild to their domesticated cousins adorned by their humans with colorful blankets, saddles, or bells and ribbons on their tails or horns. Yaks command respect – you try staring down a line of cars on the Karakorum highway and see if they simply wait until you decide to move off the road. Not counting the successful modern Russian effort to domesticate foxes (as companion animals), yaks are also the last mammal to be domesticated by humans.  This was accomplished about 4500 years ago by the Qiang on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Brave people, those Qiang.

Yak of Tartary - Stubbs
Yak of Tartary – Stubbs

Yaks were ‘discovered’ in a big way by westerners in the late 18th Century when British Captain, Samuel Turner admired them in Bhutan and sent a pair back to his cousin Warren Hastings in England.  One of the bulls died, but the other survived to sire several calves with Hasting’s cows and was dubbed, The Yak of Tartary before he was painted by George Stubbs in 1791. Almost 100 years later, the first yak arrived in North America for exhibition at New York’s Central Park Zoo, and by the turn of the twentieth Century, the National Zoo in Washington DC had several healthy yak on display. In the next couple of decades, yaks moved from the curiosity and educational circuit to the agricultural chain and small herds were established in the American and Canadian west. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s farmers and researchers experimented with yak breeding and meat quality, until several thriving ranches in the US and Canada now sell yak meat to consumers who enjoy their sweet, flavorful meat.

Tibetan Drinking Yak-Butter Tea
Tibetan Drinking Yak-Butter Tea

In Asia, I have enjoyed yak meat in stir fries, stews, curries and kebabs and found it a delicious, lean and sweet meat. Depending on the cut and the age of the meat, yak can be tough and tenderizing or marinating is a must. One of my favorite recipes is a stew I had again last year in Tashkorgan in which Yak meat is paired with bell peppers, onions, lots of garlic and chilies, and cooked in a ginger and star-anise rich sauce. Served on a bed of rice, the dish is pretty because of the strips of multicolor peppers, savory, a bit hot, and delicately sweet all at the same time.

In contrast to the sweetness of the yak meat, yak dairy lends a sour blast to beverages and dishes that produces a delicious pucker. Yak butter or cream in tea is a survival standard throughout the Himalayas and Pamirs, and the cheese, sometimes made as a wind-blown-in bleu, lends a unique tanginess to meat, vegetable and even fruit dishes throughout the region. I have a mind-blowingly delicious recipe from Bhutan combining tomatillos or tamarillos (or any ‘tree tomato”) with yak cheese for a salad with a real zing – but I digress.

Yak Jerky Package
Yak Jerky Package

My favorite way to enjoy yak on the fly is with yak jerky. Available fresh at markets and bazaars and processed and packaged every Chinese airport shop I’ve ever been in, yak jerky comes in three general varieties, sweet, sweet and hot with lots of chilies, and sweet and tangy with Szechuan pepper. There are a lot of variations in between, usually found in markets, but these three are the ones I’ve encountered most frequently.

The beautiful, multilingual packaging has a handle for easy portability, a description of the contents, and a picture of a few Yaks in the pasture. Inside, there are smaller, identical packages filled with the most delicious sweet and hot jerky you’ve ever had. I know there are lots of jerky afficianados out there, so I am aware of the gravity of my pronouncement that this yak jerky is the best, but I stand by it.

I have spent countless hours trying to reconstruct the recipe for both sweet, and sweet and hot yak jerky and think I finally have gotten it right. I hope you think so too.

Sweet and Hot Yak Jerky

1, 2-3 lb top or bottom round roast
4 cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
2 cups shaoxing wine
1 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 yellow (not sweet) onions, peeled and minced
6 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
¼ cup jaggery or cane sugar
2 tablespoons sea salt
2 tablespoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, roughly ground
1 tablespoon roasted peanuts, crushed
10 finger-hot chilies, crushed
Peel and juice of 1 orange, (dice peel)

Slice the meat crosswise in 1/8 – 1/4 inch slices. An excellent way to do this is to partially freeze the roast to make it firm and easy to cut. Trim the fat from the slices and pound lightly with the handle of the knife to thin out the meat. When slices are mildly translucent, slice again into strips for jerky and set aside.

In a non-reactive vessel, such as a plastic, glass, or ceramic bowl large enough to hold both marinade and meat, combine marinade ingredients. Place meat into marinade and make sure it is completely submerged. Cover bowl and let sit for at least 24 -48 hours in a cool or cold spot (not freezing). Check on the marinade and stir occasionally to make sure that the meat is evenly coated.

When meat is finished marinating, remove from the marinade and arrange on baking racks set into baking sheets with some space between the slices. If using a conventional oven to dehydrate the meat, line the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil and preheat to 150 – 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If you run out of baking sheets, the meat strips can be placed directly on the racks in the oven.

Place cookie sheets with meat strips in the oven and keep the oven door ajar with a wooden spoon or crushed can and cook for 2 hours. Flip strips and cook for another 2-3 hours or until done. The amount of cooking that it takes to dehydrate the meat will depend on the thickness of the slices, the amount of time marinated and the the innate moistness of the meat. To determine whether the jerky is done, take a piece or two out and let cool for 5-10 minutes then test the pliancy of the jerky. It should bend without snapping and not appear too red or raw on the inside.  When the jerky is done, remove from oven and let cool – then enjoy!  Store in a paper bag.  Keeps for several months.

Sweet and Hot Yak Jerky
Sweet and Hot Yak Jerky

Yak is available online from a variety of ranches which will send the meat FedEx like Hoopers. There are other ranches that sell to farmer’s markets, but will do special orders for yak-by-mail like Grunniens. In case you can’t get yak to try the recipe, it works well with boar, beef or horse as well. (But the sweetness and unique flavor of yak is worth the trouble.) If you already own a dehydrater or a convection oven, please by all means use it to dry the meat. You’ll have to adapt the drying times accordingly. The marinade can also be used to flavor meat for stir fries and other dishes with delicious results!

I hope you enjoy trying yak meat, and think on their wonderful attributes while dining. Yaks are Kings of the Karakorum, Lords of Ladakh, and in Latin they are Bos mutus (wild yaks) or Bos grunniens (domesticated yaks). However you choose to name them, I just call them, “Boss”.

(Words and recipe reconstruction by Laura Kelley. Photo of Wild Tibetan yak by Kptan@Dreamstime; Photo of the Yak of Tartary by Stubbs from Google Images; Photo of Tibetan Drinking Yak Butter Tea by Rai-Mai@Flickr; Photo of Yak Jerky Package by Laura Kelley; Photo of Yak Jerky from Google images.)

Bhutanese Red Rice Pilaf

One of the wonderful things to make with the Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry in the last post is a delicious, authentic pilaf of Bhutanese Red Rice. Red Rice is crunchy, nutty and one of the few rices that will grow in Bhutanese highlands and is thus commonly eaten. Other rices are also imported from the southern low countries, but red rice is Bhutan’s own rice – and the mother of many other red rice varieties.

Red Rice Pilaf
Bhutanese Red Rice Pilaf

One of the things that is bothersome about enjoying red rice is that the recipes on the packages usually don’t yield an edible product. I have found that this is because the prescribed amount of water is too low and the cooking time is also underestimated. I think that this is because the common Aisan cultural practice of soaking rice before and after cleaning it reduces the amount of cooking and water listed on the package by hydrating the rice during soaking.

That bit of analysis aside, this red rice pilaf is authentic. Mandarin oranges are grown in Bhutan, especially at lower altitudes. The fruits, juice and skins are used in foods to impart a light citrus flavor. In this pilaf, the zest balances all the allium (leeks, onions and garlic) to produce a crunchy, delicious rice. There is no thyme or oregano or other western abominations to alter the original recipe.

Red Rice Pilaf

1 cup uncooked Bhutanese red rice
2 tablespoons butter
1 small-medium onion, minced
3-4 finger-hot chilies, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, grated or minced
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
Zest of 1 mandarin orange (if unavailable, substitute other orange zest)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, roasted and ground
1 teaspoon perilla seeds, roasted and ground
2¼ cup water

  1. Melt the butter in a medium sauté pan. Add onion and sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Add chilies, ginger, garlic, orange zest, salt, pepper and perilla, and stir well. If necessary add a tablespoon or two of water or orange juice to moisten.
  2. Add water and rice and stir well. Heat to a boil and then reduce heat to a high simmer and cook covered for about 30-40 minutes until rice is tender and water is absorbed. Check the rice occasionally, but don’t stir too much. When rice is done let sit covered off the heat for at least 10 minutes before serving while preparing the other ingredients.

The Bhutanese love to vary dishes. Sometimes 5-6 different variations in ingredients or preparation methods are accepted as the same dish in Bhutan when these would be divided into different dishes in the west. If you’d like to try a variation on this pilaf, try a fine dice or sliver of nuts or add some crushed black mustard seeds for additional flavor. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Bhutanese Red Rice Pilaf by Laura Kelley.)

A Curry of Fish and Oranges

The Holidays have several brought crates of fruit into the house: apples from our friends at Moonfire Orchard, a large box of Korean Pears and a large box of mixed oranges and tangerines from an Auntie in Massachusetts. With the apples, I’m working on an ancient Roman recipe for Pork and Apples from Apicius which is sort of like a “twice-cooked pork” of antiquity. I’ve got a tagine in mind for the Korean Pears (as well as some Korean recipes), and with the mandarin oranges in the citrus box, I have been developing a delicious Bhutanese dish of Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry that I simply have to share with you.

Now, fish with fruit frightens some people, but many cultures have great recipes and combinations for these seemingly disparate ingredients. For example, the Iranians and Azeris have a fish with sour cherries that is nothing short of amazing, and the South Asians have some lovely fish and mango dishes. So there are precedents. Fish with orange recipes abound in the Himalayas and SE Asia, but my favorite so far is the Bhutanese recipe which has just the right balance of sweet, spicy, sour and hot for me.

Fish and Orange Curry
Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry

Bhutan is a paradise for fishermen with the rivers and streams abundant with fish – especially trout – and shellfish. The fishing is so good that several tour companies run specialty tours for fly-fishermen who want to try out their skills on some of the fish in these pristine waters. People who are good fishers or who can afford to, also eat a lot of fish as well – especially so for a high-altitude, land-locked country such as Bhutan.

But what to do with all that fish? Below is one recipe for Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry that I recommend. It is authentic Bhutanese, so it is spicy. If you have a heat-sensitive palate, you may reduce the number of chili peppers to suit your taste. In Bhutan, the fish would be fresh water, but I used 2 pounds of Norwegian mackerel I had on hand and it was delicious. I served it over a Red Rice Pilaf and together they made a great meal.

Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry

2 pounds of fish, gutted and heads removed
4 tablespoons sweet butter
1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, peeled, thinly sliced and separated into crescents
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 large thumb-size piece of ginger, peeled and grated or minced (2.5 in. x 1 x 1)
8-9 Finger-hot chili peppers, minced, but with seeds and placenta intact
1 large tomato, cut into a large dice
1/2 cup water or orange juice
1 cup fish stock*
1-2 mandarin oranges, peeled and separated, and seeds removed**
1 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper
1 teaspoon perilla seeds, lightly roasted and ground
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)

  1. Melt butter in a large saute pan over medium heat and add the onion slices when butter is warm. Stir and separate the onions as they warm and after a few minutes, reduce heat to low, cover and let the onions rest as if you were caramelizing them. Let the onions cook quietly for 15 or 20 minutes and then resume cooking over medium heat by adding garlic and ginger and stirring liberally. Cook for 5-8 minutes, or until the garlic starts to swell. Then add the chili peppers and the tomato, stir and cover again and cook for a 3-5 minutes.
  2. Add the water or the orange juice (this can be done earlier if the contents of the pan are too dry) and stir well. When the water is warmed, add the fish stock stir and cooked until the contents of the pan are warmed. Now add the oranges and cover to cook. After about 3-5 minutes uncover and stir again, pressing down on the orange and tomato segments to let them release their flavors into the sauce. Then add the salt, Szechuan pepper and perilla seeds and stir well.
  3. Chop the fish into serving pieces. I cut mine homestyle, which means having to battle bones at the table, but we don’t mind this. Over the many years we have been eating fish this way, we have become skilled at eating the top layer of fish and just lifting the bones out before tucking in to the top layer. If you use a different cut of fish, you will have to change (reduce) the cooking time to suit the cut.
  4. Using the homestyle cut I just lay the fish pieces into the sauce and ladle the sauce over the fish. When all the slices are in the pan, cover and let cook for 5 minutes or so. Then uncover and spoon some more sauce over the fish and repeat for about 10-12 minutes to ensure the slices are fully cooked. Do not flip or turn the slices unless you are confident that you can do so gently without breaking the slices apart. When done, uncover, remove from the heat and plate as desired. Adding a bit of chopped cilantro as a garnish pretties it up just before bringing it to the table.

* Fish stock is easy to make from stored bones or shells with remainder meat from other meals. If you don’t store shells and bones for stock-making, dissolve some Hon-Dashi Japanese fish stock in a cup of water and use that instead. There is no substitute for fresh stock, but reconstituted stock works in a pinch.

** If you are making the Red Rice Pilaf to serve with the fish, don’t forget to use the zest from one of the oranges.

The flavor of the dish is phenomenal, hot chilis and sweet oranges over a bass-line of tomato and onion with a grace-note of Szechuan pepper makes this dish a keeper in our home. Hopefully, you will think the same thing. (Words and Photo of Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry by Laura Kelley).