Tomza: The Bhutanese Lunch Box
Kesang Choden sat us down for an interview in Chuniding Food on a drizzling Wednesday afternoon, but that didn’t stop her bright personality showing up in the answers that she gave to our questions. Kesang Choden is the woman behind Chuniding, a food brand from Bhutan that brings to the market an authentic taste and flavors of traditional Bhutanese cuisine. She also runs the popular Bhutanese restaurant Folk Heritage Restaurant in Thimphu.
Written by Yinxi Photos by Aidan Oleary
Chuniding Food officially opened in 2005, when Kesang Choden first realized that her growing stock of products that friends and family gave her from all over Bhutan could become a resource from which other Bhutanese people could make things happen. “My generation was quite fortunate because the government was opening up a lot of new departments and creating a lot of avenues for better jobs. w e had lots of choices unlike now – it’s very competitive to get into a government job now. There was an opening in the police department, and it was the first time that they were opening slots for women. I, and my late friend who I studied together with and grew up together with decided to join the police force together in the early 89s. We had the luxury of discussing together what we were going to do. That’s how we got into the police department.” she says.
Kesang talks about her experience in the police force, and the ways in which it influenced her to go into food. She reflects how at every homestay she stayed at in her two decade plus long tenure in the police force allowed her to “venture out of [her] domain”. She was able to experience foods from all over Bhutan, and one of the things that inspired her most was the attitude with which the farmers would approach the creation, and sharing of food. “We accompanied our investigating officers and went all over the country. During that time it was an opportunity for me because back then we did not have that many police cars and we didn’t require that many as well – not many roads had opened and we had to spend nights in other people’s homes in the villages. And then you know bhutanese people by nature being very accomodating, we’d be provided with food, free food. Of course we never went empty handed , we always went with a gift for the family. That’s how i got more and more insight into bhutanese food .i was already cooking – i already knew a lot of recipes from my mother, from my grandmother, from my older family members. But then I had the opportunities to go into the interior of the family, which opened a lot of new areas for me, especially when it came to traditional cooking.”
She recalls that the method was very simple, and despite a frugal use of ingredients, when the “food came out it would be delicious and there would be enough for everybody”, says Kesang.
“When I look back on those times, I just wonder at the simplicity and how carefully they would use their limited resources, as well as how willingly they would share. So that’s how it all happened – wherever I went, east north, west south, when it came to food, the principles would always be the same – the family would be very generous. They would always take care to serve more to the guests and eat less themselves. You develop a respect for the food, and for their concern and hospitality. You get a very good feeling.”
“One thing I noticed about your food is that we are very very modest, and in our modesty, we did not place so much value in our food to present it to visitors to eat. We can just observe the mentality – that the modesty of the people is there. Because the amount fo heat that we had in our food – the spices the hot spices, and then we would eat a lot of fermented cheese and dried meat, pork – we did not think that it was easily acceptable for the pallet of the visitor, so to us tourism meant a lot of people coming with a lot of money. In a way, I think we were trying to devalue our own food. And then we had restaurants coming up, we had hotels, we had chefs who left to learn and then came back to train others. I think the visitors started getting bored of the food. And then I saw comments on Lonely Planet, papers, reviews – tourists gave comments on Bhutan, everything was beautiful except when it came to the food, which is when it wasn’t so good. Especially for people like me, it was not good – it hurt my sentiments. It’s not true that our food is bad, it’s just that people have never tried the actual Bhutanese food because no one has tried to present it in it’s form. The way it should be presented. So we were just trying to improvise, and tried to do something with our food and then call it our own, which is incorrect. So in the end I think that we became very famous for ema datsi and kewa datsi, but not in it’s actual form.”
This is especially present in the recent incorporation of tomza lunches in the menu of Chuniding Food. Appearing specially on Fridays, tomza is a traditional packed lunch, where the food is wrapped in either a banana leaf or bamboo leaf – depending on the province – and all wrapped in a cloth. This was used in a time before containers were widely used, and Kesang confides that the method of tomza preparation makes the food taste even better.
Additionally, Kesang Choden comments on how “22 years ago I would’ve gotten a lot of ingredients which our forefathers ate. But after 22 years, I found that the whole dynamics about the tradition of food had changed.” These changes include the influx of imported grains becoming more common than grains grown within the country, as well as the rising popularity of technology such as the rice cooker. “I think there is a shift in the globalization and nationalism that grows out out of it – also many students now grow up without being surrounded by gardens. Many are concentrated in the valleys for school.”
Before she parts with us, she notes that it is “very important to know where that food is coming from, and to value it.” Wise words for all.