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)

A New Look at Bhutanese Cuisine

A few years back, Ruth Reichl was quoted as saying that the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan had, “the world’s worst cuisine”. That quote angered me when I read it and has haunted me ever since. First of all, it isn’t true. Second of all, the statement is in itself nonsensical. How can someone proclaim something the “worst” without qualifying which characteristics earned it such a dubious honor? Is it the frequent use of yak dairy that offends? Is it the chili peppers? Ms. Reichl, please elaborate. Her comment reminded me of the scene in the movie Amadeus when Emperor Joseph II declared that there were simply, “too many notes” in Mozart’s opera Abduction from the Seraglio.

Tiger’s Nest Monestary, Paro

Reichl’s proclamation is born of ignorance of the full depth and breadth of Bhutan’s cuisine. That said, however, it is a very difficult cuisine to experience and understand. I have never encountered a Bhutanese cookbook – at least not one in English or any one of the other languages I read, and the internet has only three or four recipes that are copied endlessly. In the recipes available, cooks have all too often subtracted indigenous Bhutanese ingredients – like Perilla (Shiso) seeds, and copious Szechuan pepper and razor-sharp chili peppers – and inserted western ingredients in their place. Most of these substitutions change the flavor of a dish completely so that the food sampled is no longer Bhutanese. Often times, the food is not even a hybrid of Bhutanese and European or American cuisine – it is simply a shoddy imitation, like ‘pasteurized, processed cheese food’ in comparison with a luscious, creamy Mont d’Or cheese.

Restaurants in the U.S. and Europe purporting to serve Bhutanese food usually serve Nepali or Tibetan food with only one or two Bhutanese dishes peppering the menu. Sometimes, even these dishes are Bhutanese in name only and have little in common with the dish as one would experience from the hands of a skilled Bhutanese cook. I have seen one blog rave of Ema Datsi, Bhutan’s famous chili and cheese dish when in fact, he was served mixed vegetables and rice.

Bhutanese Dishes, Hand-Pulled Noodles (Foreground)

There are few authentic Bhutanese recipes in paper or e-print, restaurants in the west are not serving Bhutanese food, and unfortunately, it has also been difficult to experience the cuisine when travelling in country. Tourism is a new industry in Bhutan. Just forty years ago, the country opened its borders to tourists. As a new industry, tourism is still tightly controlled by the state. All foreigners must be on escorted tours and some attractions are closed to outsiders completely. Even in country, whether as a tourist or an expat, it has been difficult to eat a lot of Bhutanese food beyond that cooked for you by acquaintances and friends. Many restaurants in Thimphu and Paro offer Indian, Chinese and Nepali food that is misunderstood as Bhutanese. One Singaporean blog recently declared Bhutanese food to be delicious and just like that served at home in Singapore. Also, many of the Bhutanese dishes available in restaurants have often been overly toned down for westerners, with beans taking the place of chili peppers and cow’s milk products substituted for yak dairy. Lastly, recent years have seen a creep of western food appear on menus and shops have opened up in tourist areas that serve pizza, wraps and “hambuggers”.

Years of travel and relentless research have helped me build a more complete view of Bhutanese food than is usually found, and I surely do not think that it is the worst food in the world. In fact, I think that Bhutan has a cuisine that is as varied and delicious as that or Korea or Japan. You may wonder at my choice of comparison, but the inclusion of a high amount of wild and native ingredients – like mustard, turnip and radish greens, wild berries and flowers, fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms (for instance, Chanterelles) and red rice – and the enduring ceremonial use of food, form the basis of my association.

Buckwheat Dumplings (Hapai Hantue)

Although many people keep vegetarian, a selection of meat abounds from the commonly enjoyed pork and chicken to beef, water buffalo and yummy yak. Fish is also eaten, but is usually smoked or dried before cooking – at least traditionally. Delicious vegetables are everywhere if you look for them. From broccoli, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers and cabbage to potatoes, radishes (daikon), carrots, to eggplant, string beans, onions and garlic, and of course peppers both hot and sweet. Pulses include several types of peas and beans as well as lentils. Commonly enjoyed fruits are apples, delicious pears, and also mandarin oranges, but quinces, a large selection of berries, tomatoes, pumpkins, peaches and plums, and cherries, persimmons and jackfruit are also eaten. Almost all dairy, except that for complementary feeding of infants and a few beverages is eaten as butter or cheese. Yak is probably the most common dairy, but milk from cows, goats and buffaloes is also used for milder-tasting products. Grains eaten include rice, barley, wheat, millet, and maize, and flour is also made from buckwheat and pulses. Sweeteners are cane sugars, honey and sap from local trees.

As to herbs and spices, the dual foci that many recipes use is Szechuan pepper and cilantro (green or seed), but a wide variety of greens offer flavor including the aforementioned mustard and turnip greens to kale, chard and beet greens. Other herbs include mint, fennel, Indian bay leaves, wild onion leaves (the flavor of which can be approximated by mixing spring onion greens and garlic chives or by planting Allium hookeri in your garden), as well as lemongrass and keora. Commonly enjoyed spices are cinnamon, green and black cardamom; ginger, long pepper (Piper mullesua), turmeric, sesame, nigella (onion seeds), cloves, saffron, and perilla. Juniper berries and Indian gooseberries are also potent flavoring agents. I have read numerous accounts on the internet about how the Bhutanese don’t use herbs and spices to flavor their foods; they instead use only salt and chilies. I honestly have no idea how that unfortunate rumor could have been started, because the Bhutanese have large armamentarium of flavorings ranging from sweet, sour, hot, astringent and bitter that they regularly add to dishes.

Aubergine Sauteed with Garlic and Chilies

How cooks put these varied ingredients together is also extremely varied by geographic location, family tradition and personal preference and individual taste. There are stir fries, curries and stews; roasts, braises and baked dishes. There are salted, smoked, boiled and dried foods, and there are also dishes with flexible preparations and presentations, such as those that can either be a soup or noodles with sauce. There are unique fermented foods and pickles that are delicious, sweet and sour at the same time.

The lists above are by no means intended to be exhaustive lists of available foods in Bhutan, but only a sampler of some of the most commonly eaten foods, ingredients and flavorings. However, even with the meager offering of food to be found in these lists, it should be clear that there is no lack of basic foods in Bhutan to somehow limit the cuisine. In fact, the range of its geography from sub-tropical to alpine and from lowland to highland allows for an extraordinary variety of foods to be cultivated or gathered and eaten.

Roots and Relationships

To begin to understand Bhutanese cuisine it is necessary to know the basic history of the people and the importance of Bhutan in regional and in Silk Road trade. Although archaeological evidence (stone tools, megaliths and building foundations) suggests that Bhutan was inhabited at least as far back as the second millennia BCE, most modern Bhutanese trace their ancestry back to the Tibetan migrations into Bhutan in the 7th Century ACE. The Tibetans brought with them their food culture, but that culture soon began to incorporate new ingredients that they found in Bhutan’s fertile valleys and hills. This adaptation continued until Bhutanese food developed its own unique character. Of course cuisines are always evolving and Bhutan’s cuisine is changing rapidly today.

Some dishes, however, still bear marked similarity between the two nations such as Shamdeh or Shamdrey a dish prepared with meat and potatoes and served over rice. Both dishes contain ginger, garlic, onion (of some sort), and tomato. The major differences are the choice of meats – the Bhutanese favor pork and beef and the Tibetans favor beef and lamb or mutton – and the spicing. The characteristic star anise flavor of the Tibetan dish is missing from the Bhutanese preparation that opts only for the use of cinnamon as the dominant flavor. The traditional presentation of the Bhutanese dish also includes slices of egg when available.

On the Silk Road, Bhutan served as an important link and trade partner between Assam and Bengal in the South and Tibet in the North. The Bhutanese traded ponies, sheep, and dogs, chilies, textiles and other spices and in return received rice, betel, dried fish, and all-important rock salt from its trade partners. Other items brought into India by Arab merchants and into Tibet by the Chinese and Central Asians were also traded. So, far from being isolated, the Bhutanese were part of the Old World’s global economy brought about by the Silk Road. Thus cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cloves from Indonesia were incorporated into the litany of Bhutanese foods.

The Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant

Since 2001, the Bhutanese Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu has been educating its citizens and visitors about traditional ways of life with displays of artifacts from the rural households. In addition to exhibits, there are also docent-led programs to teach skills – such as proper etiquette for eating with one’s fingers, extracting oil from seeds or brewing ara, the traditional moonshine – that are rapidly vanishing as international and modern lifestyles are adopted by its citizens.

Bhutanese Tasting at the Folk Heritage Museum

Just a few months ago, in February, a restaurant opened at the Folk Heritage Museum that intends to educate visitors about Bhutan’s rich and delicious food culture and cuisine. It already has over 160 dishes (60 vegetarian and 100 non-vegetarian) on its menu and has hosted tastings of Bhutanese dishes. Menus are seasonal and ingredients are sourced from local farmers.

The restaurant/café arose out of the patronage of the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck and is a welcome addition for those of us who would like to learn more about Bhutan’s traditional cuisine. Next week, from September 25 to the 27th, the restaurant is hosting two days of celebrations for the Tsechu Food Festival. Alas, I have no plans to be there, but I will raise a cup of mistletoe tea to those participating and wish that I was.

The Silk Road Gourmet

I am always developing one recipe or another, and recently I’ve been working on a few from Bhutan that will be included in the second volume of The Silk Road Gourmet. A couple of evenings ago the whole family dined on a delicious meal of Bhutanese Roast Pork Ribs (Tsipsha Pan). In this dish (pictured below, in preparation) pork ribs are seasoned with salt, cinnamon, Szechuan pepper, and ground perilla and onion seeds. This is cooked briefly at high temperature on a bed of greens (I used mustard greens) and then the meat is covered with a sauté of caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, hot chilies, ginger and garlic and spices, along with some more greens and slow roasted at low temperature until the meat drips off the bone. In true Bhutanese fashion, another variation of this dish can be cooked as a braise.

Bhutanese Roast Pork Ribs (Tsipsha Pan)

I used finger-hot chilies, which are not as spicy as those used in Bhutan (only about 30,000 Scovilles), but I used a lot of them – 12 for the vegetable sauté for the roast and 20 for the ema huem da datsi preparation served as a side dish. I also left the seeds and the placenta in place after slicing the chilies lengthwise to leave the full heat intact. I served both dishes with Bhutan’s fantastic red rice.  As to cheese for the datsi, I used Turkish, whole milk feta mixed with gorgonzola to try to approximate the strong flavor and sour tang of Yak’s milk – it was wonderful (even if I do say so myself). I served the mustard greens that the meat was cooked in as an accompanying vegetable and they were delicious as well. Even our kids ate it, although my son, who has a heat-sensitive palate steered clear of the ema datsi.

You can look forward to these and other Bhutanese recipes, hopefully next year when the next volume comes out. Till then, keep traveling the world in your kitchens. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Paro by Wouter Tolenaar @ Dreamstime.com; photo of Bhutanese Roast Pork Ribs (Tsipsha Pan) by Laura Kelley, and other photos borrowed from the Folk Heritage Museum’s Facebook Page).