Thursday, August 1, 2013

Puta Lotta Love in your Buckwheat Noodles!

We are living in the gastronomic heart of Bhutan. In nearby Chamkar a Swiss man by the name of Fritz Maurer has set up a number of flourishing food industries. We are fortunate to be able to buy a couple of varieties of real Swiss cheese, local apple juice and Red Panda weiss beer. Additionally behind our home is a milk processing plant that produces homemade datsi cheese.
Finally our region is coming into its own with harvest season upon us – local people are toiling in the fields to gather their crops of mainly potatoes, but fruit trees are also yielding long awaited apples, peaches and plums. In early summer we enjoyed many a weekend collecting abundant wild strawberries, and just as they have finished my students have shown us the wild orange-coloured raspberries that grow all around. They taste similar to but sweeter than raspberries at home.
We had a taste for the bare-bones availability of fresh foods when we first arrived and so we have to enjoy the abundance while it lasts – I’m not looking forward to seeing all the fruits and vegetables becoming sparse as the weather cools.
Across Bhutan there are a few foods that really define cuisine here – particularly ema-datsi (chillies and cheese), kewa-datsi (potatoes, chilli and cheese) and shamu-datsi (mushroom cheese and chilli) with red rice, ezay (chilli salsa) and momos (vegetable or meat dumplings). Bumthang is famous also for producing buckwheat which is made into pancakes and noodles called ‘puta’.
Before I tasted puta for the first time here I imagined it to be something like Japanese soba noodles which are a family favourite. Their long, thin, silky strands and subtle flavour make them one of my favourite comfort foods. Puta are as different as they possibly can be, while still being noodles made of buckwheat flour! Rustic, thick, chewy and strongly flavoured with bitter buckwheat, they might take some getting used to! Depending on where you eat them (we’ve sampled them many times at nice hotels, homes and outdoor festivals) they can be fairly inedible through to delicious.
What makes puta special is not just the noodles themselves but the way they are traditionally prepared cold with a simple dressing of chives and Szechuan pepper. Locals also like to dunk them in a drink of cold churned yoghurt, but I prefer to keep them separate.
Recently while staying at the River Lodge in Chamkar I asked the owner’s daughter Yeshi to show me how she prepares puta – and she very kindly gave me a personal cooking class. I haven’t had a chance to make them at home myself yet as I don’t have a noodle press to make the noodles. It seems like these aren’t easily available here as anyone who wants one puts in an order when friends or family visit Thailand. Guess what I’ll be looking to buy when we hit Bangkok in December?! An alternative would be a pasta machine.
The basic dough mix is simple: buckwheat flour, water and eggs. Yeshi made a large quantity for a crowd, but suggested to make a smaller quantity by using two or three cups of flour and just one egg. The dough is made fairly firm and left to rest a while, then pressed through the noodle mould.
Noodles coming out of the noodle press.


A plate full of noodles ready to cook.


The process of making puta is slow when making a large quantity. Yeshi pressed just a small bowlful through the noodle maker at a time, then quickly immersed them in a large pot of boiling water. They only take a minute or two to cook – when they rise to the surface they are done and scooped out with a sieve and immediately placed in a bowl of cold water. Yeshi slowly and patiently separated the noodles as they cooled in the water and finally drained them and put them in a large bowl. The process was repeated several times until all the dough had been used.
Cook briefly in boiling water.


Yeshi is ready to add the chives to the cooked and cooled noodles.


I loved the pace in Yeshi’s kitchen – she worked methodically, but had time to talk and explain what she was doing, never rushing the process of preparing her noodles with a lot of love.
Once all the noodles had been cooked and cooled, Yeshi crushed some Szechuan pepper corns in a mortar and pestle. She then heated some vegetable oil in a large wok and added what I think were garlic chives (chopped into 2 inch lengths) briefly, just to impart flavour to the oil. This oil and chives was then poured over the noodles and gently mixed through with the hands. Then a couple of teaspoons of Szechuan pepper were sprinkled over and a little salt and the dish was done. Just like that.

Szechuan peppercorns.



When we stayed at Gangtey Palace I watched this lady collecting Szechuan peppercorns from these bushes.



Although aspects of the dish are laborious, it comes together quickly and I look forward to learn how to make these so I can share them with friends at home.
Please excuse the lack of ingredients list and quantities. Recipes like these are not written down here but passed from mother to daughter and each cook makes the recipe to their own taste. Experiment and have a try and see what you think!



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