Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Farm intern Zoe Reich-Avillez ‘15 on learning to cook and eat abroad:

This summer I went to Bhutan, a small country in the Himalayas nestled by India on the west, south, east and capped by Tibet to the north. Before going I didn’t know much about the country—I didn’t even know it was a country. For the inevitable questions “What are you doing this summer?” “Oh, where is that?” I learned my basic geography. The month before I left, I read a memoir of a Canadian woman’s experience teaching English in Bhutan. I tried to read parts of a travel book, but couldn’t make myself read more than a few pages. Bhutan still felt like a mystery. And I wanted to keep it that way. I made myself a promise: I would let the place make its own impression on me. I would let the experience give me whatever unexpected lessons it had to offer. There was one thing however, that I knew I wanted to take away. I wanted to learn how to cook a traditional Bhutanese dish. This, I thought, was the best present I could bring back to my family and friends. With food, I could share a part of my experience without having to put it into words. 

In Bhutan, I had an all-too short, one-night homestay. The time I spent there was less than twenty-four hours, but most of it revolved around food. As soon as I arrived at Sangeeta’s home, I was offered tea (milk tea, more specifically with the special touch of grated ginger added by her mother—yum), crackers, and the Indian-Bhutanese special of pressed corn flakes. When Sangeeta took me to a nearby monastery, more tea with more crackers, this time served by monks. After a full two hours of visiting the various Buddha shrines, we then rushed home to make dinner. With Sangeeta, I washed my hands, my face, and my feet. Then we joined her mother, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor. Peeling garlic and ginger, slicing potatoes and tomatoes, I worked clumsily with the knife, attempting to mimic the strong, sure strokes of Sangeeta’s mother. Since there were only two knives, Sangeeta watched us both. And before long, she was joined by her brother Kkiran. Seeing me struggle with the knife, Kkiran offered his help. He took the knife from my hands and continued peeling, but only to show me how it was really done. Then he gave it back. “This must be very hard for you,” he said. “At home, you normally cut on a board.” I hadn’t even noticed.

With Kkiran’s advice, my technique improved, but only so much. As I continued to work, I became acutely aware of the three pairs of eyes trained on my hands. They were patient, allowing me to finish on my own time, but they watched with baited breath, worried that I might slice my hand instead of the potato. Luckily, I finished the task without catastrophe. With everything sliced and diced, we got to the actual cooking. On the menu for the night: ema datse (the national dish of chillies and cheese) kewa datse (potatoes and cheese), red rice, and a salad of lettuce and tomatoes. Sangeeta, Kkiran, and their mother worked side by side, narrating each step and letting me help wherever I could. When everything was prepared, Sangeeta’s father joined us in the kitchen. He set out two long mats and the kitchen floor became the dining room table. With the dishes set out before us, we filled out plates and dug in. Everything was eaten with the right hand. To eat the soup-like kewa datse, I followed Kkiran’s example: take of clump of rice and dunk it in your bowl. Slurp from the bowl as needed. When I made it to the ema-datse, I felt the same attentive eyes trained on my face. Sangeeta’s mother warned me not to eat too much, it was very spicy. But I loved it. Sure, I had to wipe my nose on my shirt of few times, but what’s a runny nose for the sake of delicious food? When I had my fill, Sangeeta’s family insisited that I eat more. “You’re still hungry,” they asserted. “You didn’t eat enough.” “Mey jou, mey jou,” I replied. “No thank you, I’ve had enough. I promise.”

In the morning, after drinking a cup of hot water, we turned to making breakfast. This time though, Sangeeta’s father took the reigns; buckwheat pancakes were his domain. To go with the pancakes, we made the ever-versatile ema datse. At Kkiran’s insistence, I led this part of the cooking venture, putting into practice what I had learned the night before. As we covered the pot of chillies and cheese for its last few minutes of cooking, Kkiran turned to me, “Now you know how to cook Bhutanese food. Back home, you can cook it for your friends.”

I can’t say I’ve cooked for my friends yet—partly because I’m not sure they can handle all those chillies—but I will. And when I do, hopefully we’ll eat with our hands, using the floor as our dining room table.