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New Year food worldwide: Homemade stew and rice from 'world's happiness nation' Bhutan

Duptho Choden adds turmeric to a rice cooker before steaming the rice for the dish "desi," in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, on Nov. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Boo Changja)

TOKYO -- Tucked away in the eastern part of the Himalayan mountain range is the southern Asian country of Bhutan, which attaches particular importance to increasing its Gross National Happiness as the pillar of its national policy. On the morning of their "Losar" New Year festivities, they begin by eating a simple meal surrounded by family.

The period for Losar is decided by a solar and lunar mixed calendar that is unique to Bhutan. This year, it falls on Feb. 5 and 6 on the Western calendar, and is a holiday in the mountain nation.

Arriving before the scheduled time at the home of 35-year-old Bhutanese Duptho Choden in Tokyo's Sugamo district, the reporter met her just outside her door. "Everyone is always early in Japan, huh?" Choden said with a smile.

What Choden made was the boiled meat and rice dish "tukpa" and sweet turmeric rice called "desi." In Bhutan, these two items are eaten on the morning of Losar, and as they are household dishes to be eaten with all family present, Choden said you will not find them on any restaurant menu.

Duptho Choden's homemade boiled meat and rice dish "tukpa," right, and sweet turmeric rice "desi" is seen in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, on Nov. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Boo Changja)

As for the meat used in tukpa, beef or pork may be used, Choden said. In Bhutan, the meat of the Yak, a Himalayan cousin of the cow, is often used. While it is custom to make the dish with meat still on the bone, Choden made the dish on this occasion with beef jerky made in the country. When eaten by itself, the jerky has a deep savory flavor. "Japanese jerky does not have a strong flavor, so it's best to use meat on the bone," Choden advised. As for desi, it is usually enjoyed with a cup of the butter tea "suja" in true Bhutan-style. Each of the grains of the turmeric rice was a bright yellow. In Bhutan, the color yellow represents the royal family and is considered to be a sign of good luck.

It takes roughly one hour to prepare the dishes. Once the meat and rice have become soft, pepper and ginger is added as a finishing touch to the tukpa. The turmeric rice also finished around the same time, and after mixing in sugar, butter and cashew nuts, the desi was also complete. One bite of tukpa warms the body from the inside out, while the sweet buttery taste of the desi was one perhaps unfamiliar for Japanese people.

Sharing a border with India, there are many Hindus in the southern part of the country, but Tibetan Buddhism is recognized as the "spiritual heritage" of Bhutan as a whole. There are Buddhist stupas and temples scattered everywhere, and regardless of age or gender, people go to pray there on a daily basis. Because of this, there is no custom such as a New Year's prayer. However, for a household that has recently welcomed a new child, there are cases where the family takes the child to a local temple during Losar to pray.

What Choden always prays for is "happiness for all people." When asked if there were people in Bhutan, who like in Japan, wish for things like success in business and other material things, Choden said, "There are, but isn't asking for your wish to be granted a little selfish?" Three years ago, she married a university teacher and moved to Japan, but Choden still makes time to offer her prayers in her new home.

Butter, sugar and cashew nuts are added to freshly steamed turmeric rice to make the Bhutanese dish "desi," in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, on Nov. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Boo Changja)

After having suja and desi, and then tukpa, and finishing their morning meal on Losar, it is common for family, relatives and neighbors to all bring food together and go out for a picnic. According to Choden, Bhutanese love all kinds of picnics. "The children play and the adults talk the entire time," she explained. "That's it." Seeing her smile as she said "that's it" makes one jealous of the simple way Bhutanese seem to spend their days.

Tukpa is said to be prepared for those in the family who are physically weak, while desi is also often prepared for honored guests. Beginning with family and close relatives, the connections between people are carefully considered in Bhutan. Perhaps these simple dishes best reflect the kindness shown by the Himalayan nation's people on the New Year holiday.

(Japanese original by Boo Changja, Lifestyle News Department)

The Bhutanese beef jerky used by Duptho Choden when making her "tukpa" dish is pictured in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, on Nov. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Boo Changja)

*Main ingredients for tukpa (serves 3 to 4 people): Appropriate amount of beef or pork on the bone; 1 cup of rice; a pinch each of black pepper, ginger, salt and chili powder.

1. Put the rice and the meat into a pot and fill it generously with water, boiling at a high heat. Using a pressure cooker is recommended, but if one is not on hand, using a mixer or other item to smash the grains of rice speeds up the process.

2. If boiling in a regular pot, periodically add more water to the pot. Boil until the grains of rice are almost completely dissolved and the meat is tender.

3. Add black pepper, thinly sliced ginger, salt and chili powder for seasoning after completion.

*Main ingredients for desi (serves 3 to 4 people): 2 cups of rice, 2 teaspoons of turmeric powder, 2 large tablespoons of sugar, a fist-sized amount of butter and appropriate amount of cashew nuts.

1. Add the turmeric powder to the rice and steam it in a rice cooker.

2. When the rice has been cooked, add the sugar, butter and cashew nuts, and mix.

3. Let the mixture steam for another roughly 5 minutes.

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