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Zhemgang and Bumthang district, Bhutan

Zhemgang district, Bhutan

Situated in the South-central region, Zhemgang is also known as Khengrig Namsum which literally means the three mountains and three skies. The district is divided into three agro-ecological zones from high altitude, middle altitude to mid-low altitude areas. Zhemgang is blessed with incredibly rich biodiversity sheltering endangered animal species and plant species.

kitchen garden in Zhemgang
A common kitchen garden in Zhemgang

Delving into the various food cultures in the district, I spent four months from mid of Dec 2022 to mid-April 2023. Seeking to explore and delve into the food system, I used ethnographic methods and participant observation i particular, living with a host family, observing and participating in their daily routine, interacting with the locals, participating in food production, preparation, sharing and consumption. Eatwell project focuses on more than human health therefore I emphasized on human-animal, human-plant, climate change, human-spirit and food-community.

The field site in Zhemgang is a remote village that rarely sees major developmental activities; however, it is becoming a hub for ecotourism thanks to its rich religious and historical background., The village consists of about 90 active households and most villagers are related to each other, hence it is a close-knit community.

Food paddy plantation Zhemgang
Food served during paddy plantation in Zhemgang

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood here and the farmers practice subsistence agriculture. Every household owns a garden where they grow vegetables like chillies, potatoes, cabbage, spring onion, beans, scarlet eggplant, mustard, perilla seeds, quinoa, tree tomato and cherry tomatoes and fruits such as peach, plum, ground apple and passion fruit and most villagers have fields where they cultivate rice, barley, maize and millet. Some households also rear cattle and produce their own milk, cheese and butter which are sold if there is more production. In addition, the villagers engage in foraging such as mushroom, ferns, potatoes, cane shoots, orchids and children pick wild berries and monkey apple from the wild. They buy groceries from shops nearby and buy meat and other items from Gelephu, a nearby district. The village sees many wild animals such as deer, boars and bears, and people used to hunt and consume the meat. However, since poaching laws were enforced, these practices has been discontinued.

Natural manures are used to produce food in a traditional way however; they use weedicides to remove grasses to prevent snakes and reduce weed in paddy fields. Agriculture is the main source of livelihood here and the farmers practice subsistence agriculture. Every household owns a garden where they grow vegetables like chillies, potatoes, cabbage, spring onion, beans, scarlet eggplant, mustard, perilla seeds, quinoa, tree tomato and cherry tomatoes and fruits such as peach, plum, ground apple and passion fruit and most villagers have fields where they cultivate rice, barley, maize and millet. Some households also rear cattle and produce their own milk, cheese and butter which are sold if there is more production. In addition, the villagers engage in foraging such as mushroom, ferns, potatoes, cane shoots, orchids and children pick wild berries and monkey apple from the wild. They buy groceries from shops nearby and buy meat and other items from Gelephu, a nearby district. The village sees many wild animals such as deer, boars and bears, and people used to hunt and consume the meat. However, since poaching laws were enforced, these practices has been discontinued.

Almost every household produces their own alcohol mostly ara, changkey and sinchang from rice, maize and millet. Though beer has become popular these days, people still produce alcohol for self-consumption and for selling. There is high consumption of alcohol in the village as people drink after work to relieve fatigue, on celebrations and get-togethers. They also start consuming alcohol from a young age and guests are always offered alcoholic drinks.

Tsenden marp (red sandal wood powder)
Ara with Tsenden marp (red sandal wood powder)

The village, known for its sacred and religious history, Has several rituals and festivals such as prechotla (Potato festival, a day where they believe Guru Rinpoche will visit their home so a wild potato is offered) and chubangla (celebrating food and entailing offerings to local saints and deities.

food offering during prechotla
Food offerings during prechotla

Bumthang district, Bhutan

Bumthang directly translates to “beautiful field” and is located in the north-central part. It is also known for its many sacred sites and ancient monasteries, hence being regarded as the cultural heartland of the kingdom. Apart from the historical sites and sacred monasteries, Bumthang is also known for its deep valleys, meadows and mountains.

fields and houses in Bumthang
Potato fields and houses in Bumthang

I Explored the food system here during May and June 2023, and was joined by my research assistant, Samden Dolma, on the second month. We used ethnographic methods, living with a host family, observing and participating in their daily routine, interacting with the villagers, participating in food production, preparation, sharing and consumption.

Adorned yak of highlanders
Adorned yak of highlanders

The field site in Bumthang is located at 2875 meters and has a temperate highland climate with dry winters. The village consists of about 80 active households including Brokpas (nomadic yak herders). The farmers mostly cultivate barley, wheat, sweet buckwheat, millet, maize and rice. The government has provided green houses to each household to grow winter vegetables since the winters can be harshly cold. Each household also has vegetable garden where they grow peas, ma (chives), spring onion, mustard, spinach, potatoes, radish, turnip, cabbage, carrot, broccoli, pumpkin and coriander. Due to the dry weather there are only few fruits grown such as apple and peaches. In the green houses people have planted chillies, it is their first attempt to grow chillies thus they take extra care and even use pesticides to prevent pests. They also use weedicide to remove weeds mostly used in paddy fields. As for the manure they use natural manure.

Green house in Bumthang
Green house

People go up the mountains to forage cordyceps during the early summers. Cordyceps are fungi which is known for its medicinal properties and sold at a very high price. The villagers consume only the broken or the tiny ones and mostly they sell it because it is their main source of income. Before the villagers leave to collect cordyceps, they all go through a medical checkup to see if they are fit to climb up to 15000 ft and above. Their food for the journey and stay up the mountains included magi noodles, kapche, dried meat and dried vegetables, rice, tea, biscuits and light snacks to make their load lighter and their journey easier.

In addition people also forage for dhem, nachung, wild chives, pankay (wild fern) and mushrooms. People forage in groups since there are bears and people can easily lose their ways in the thick forests. One of the enjoyable hobbies for children is to pick wild strawberries which are easily available in the wild.

Meat production is non-existent and meat consumption is very rare, the people only prefer meat from a dead cow or yak and not slaughtered. It has been only few decades people reduced meat consumption, animal rearing and consuming alcohol which resulted from preaching of Khenpo Tshewang in Bumthang. They hardly produce alcohol, only few produce ara which they offer to guests or for occasions but unlike in Zhemgang here the alcohol intake is considerably less. During funerals, the family of the bereaved is strictly prohibited to serve meat and alcohol to villagers.

Cordyceps
Cordyceps

Key observations

An issue prevalent in both field sites is religious guidelines. Recent Buddhist guidelines discouraged people to consume meat and rear animals for meat. We observed that both field sites have completely stopped hunting, rearing livestock or any form of meat production and consumption. In Bumthang, even the children refuse to eat meat due to religious and social norms.

In Zhemgang, due to decrease in livestock rearing, most villagers rely on other districts or India to buy eggs, milk, butter, cheese and meat.

Zhemgang is abundant with food produced or in the wild and it is self-sufficient however, since roads were built they have easier access to shops and other parts of the district to buy food unavailable in the vicinity. This development has also led farmers to sell and transport their farm goods to a wider market. This also meant people can buy can or bottled alcohol and on top of making their own local ara (alcohol).

Similarly, in Bumthang, after construction of roads the villagers have better access to market to buy and to sell food products younger generation prefer ready-made meals such as noodles and snacks over traditional flour based food. Samyang (Korean noodles) has become extremely popular among children. Bottled and canned alcohol has become popular than locally made alcohol.

Human wild-life conflict still remains a huge issue in Zhemgang with wild boars attacking the potato and maize fields and deer’s attacking paddy field. Huge wild animals like tiger and leopard are said to attack the livestock in the village.


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