Friday, November 1, 2013

Winter Warming with Thingey

Many days I eat hot and spicy food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'm sure chilli must be addictive. On the odd occasion that we eat 'tourist' food here, I always ask for some ezay (chilli salsa) to add some heat and make it interesting. I know I'll need a chilli garden when we go home!

Lately, its not just chilli I crave but also thingey, known as szechuan peppercorn in Australia. It's an acquired taste. I remember trying a local specialty at the Matsutake Mushroom Festival that had a heavy sprinkling of thingey and my tongue and lips tingled all afternoon. I didn't really enjoy the sensation. This article shines a scientific light on the experience.

This lady is harvesting thingey in Paro.

Toast the thingey husks until they easily crumble when ground with a mortar and pestle.

Recently I've been adding it to ezay at home, and in the past week have discovered a new favourite Bhutanese food which is distinctly flavoured with this unusual spice: thukpa noodle soup.

The weather has suddenly become wintery. Even in the middle of the day, the cold wind goes straight through my layers of thermals, scarves and thick socks, and I feel that cold-to-the-bone feeling. Lunch and dinner by necessity need to be warm, comforting and nourishing.

Last week at school we stayed behind for hours each afternoon until long after dark to help mark highschool tests. One day geography, another economics, another English. It is an eye-opening experience in many ways. To make it worth our while, the teacher whose test we were marking brought in something to eat and drink. We had desi rice (rice with chilli) and suja (butter tea), sweet tea and biscuits but my favourite by far was thukpa.

Mr Lhabab's wife demonstrated her culinary skills by bringing a huge thermos full of soup for all the staff to enjoy as we laboured over nonsensical essays and rote-memorised short answer questions.

Mmmm. Her soup was thick with homemade noodles, chunks of potato and fine strands of green vegetable. It was spicy with chilli and aromatic with thinghey. I happily filled up with two bowls of this warming soup and although I was full I was already craving more!

The next day Bob and I met up for lunch at the 'aloo chop shop' opposite school. With autumn has come a change in menu. Our host offered a large thermos of thukpa ready to serve.

Hers was similar but had thin slices of turnip instead of potato, and was less of a soup and more of a thick, lucious stew. Again, the distinctive taste and aroma of thingey was the outstanding flavour and I could feel my craving momentarily satiated.

Today was so cold we barely ventured outside, but stayed in and kept warm with tea by the fire. I searched the net for a recipe for Bhutanese noodle soup but the best I could find was a recipe for Tibetan Thanthuk. I have happy memories of enjoying many a bowl of thanthuk at Tibetan eateries across the north of India. I thought I'd give it a try for dinner tonight.

Reading about how the rustic noodles are made brought back memories of seeing a large group of Tibetan pilgrims standing around an enormous pot of soup cooking on an open fire in Spiti Valley, India. Like them, I had travelled to this remote place to attend a week-long HH Dalai Lama teaching. It was fascinating to watch them working fast and rhythmically, singing as they went, flicking small blobs of dough into the soup. When I made the soup tonight, I was taken back to that time, remembering the scene and although my noodles were irregularly shaped, they tasted light and delicious.

A perfect winter warming dinner. No doubt this version is much lighter than the Bhutanese style I've had this week which has a thick white broth. I think I prefer this version to be honest! It got the thumbs up from Bob who is being dragged along on this thingey taste adventure whether he likes it or not!

Here is my adaptation of the recipe I found on the excellent Yowangdu website.

to serve 2 - prep and cooking time - 25 mins

For the soup
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 cm piece of ginger, finely chopped
1 tomato finely chopped
1/4 vegetable stock cube (or powder)
1 tsp salt or to taste
2 tsp soy sauce or to taste
Half a long daikon (Japanese radish) sliced thinly
2 tbs chopped coriander
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp toasted and ground thingey (szechuan pepper)

(other vegetables such as spinach, sliced carrot, brocolli, cauliflower etc would all be delicious)

For the noodles
1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup water
1 tsp vegetable oil

First make the noodles:
In a large mixing bowl mix flour and water by hand until a soft dough is formed. Add more water as required. Knead dough on a surface dusted with flour until it is soft and flexible (about 5 minutes).
Break dough into four golf-ball sized pieces and roll into banana shapes. Cover surface lightly with oil and put aside, covered, to rest for 15 minutes while you make the soup.

To make the soup:

Fry onion, garlic, ginger and tomato for 3-4 minutes. Add about 6 cups of water with salt, chilli flakes and stock cube. Add daikon (and any other vegetables). Bring to the boil. Allow to simmer for about 5 minutes and then begin adding the noodles.

To make the noodles:
Take a lump of dough and stretch and flatten it to make a long flat sausage. One by one flick a thumb-sized piece of dough into the pot of simmering soup. Work quickly and continue until all the dough has been used. Allow the soup to cook for 5 minutes after all the noodles have been added. Stir through the coriander leaves and crushed thingey. Check for seasoning and serve hot!

With two more months of winter ahead of us, I'm sure this soup will become a favourite - so quick, tasty and warming. Here's to a new food obsession: thingey!



  1. Will certainly be giving this a try

    1. Great Bridget, but its not as though you will need a winter warming soup. At least this one is very light and fresh with the coriander and szechuan pepper. Enjoy!

  2. I love the recipe and it reminds me of a dish we learned to make in China Called "cat ears noodles" made by the same method but boiled separately in water and added to any sauce pasta style. I hope you don't mind that I added it to my file of recipes that an be made with ingredients available in Bhutan I am planning on sharing this with incoming teacher in orientation and hopefully running cooking session for those interested

    1. Of course that's fine! For someone a little challenged by cooking you could make it easier by just adding some small pasta, but making the noodles was easy and fun. I'm so happy you will be part of the orientation for new teachers. You will bring a lot of experience and reality to those first 2 weeks :)