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Diary from Bhutan: Bhutanese culture and cuisine

Type: Article

In her third diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw talks about the conference 'Education For All Abilities', the difficulties in teaching and learning the sounds of a foreign language, her university students' shenanigans, and her newly acquired cooking skills.

As the year rolls on towards autumn, the monsoon rains are gradually petering out, school children are back after the summer break and the university year is two months in.

Stephanie Earnshaw running a seminar at the 'Education For All Abilities' conference in Bhutan

Over the holidays, I've been helping run seminars at a pioneering 'Education For All Abilities' conference organized by a charity called The Bhutan Foundation in conjunction with the Ministry of Education. It was fantastic meeting teachers from all over the country but the closing ceremony was the most entertaining part, as we all danced the night away in the traditional Bhutanese manner – lots of singing and dancing around in a big circle. There's no escape from the dancing but it's fuelled by arra (the local moonshine) and this, combined with the fact that everyone joins in and no one minds looking silly, makes it great fun.

I presented some seminars with the help of the teachers I have been working with over the last few months. But the fascinating thing for me was being able to sit in on sessions run by foreign and Bhutanese education specialists. One session was quite surprising for me though; the Bhutanese presenter (a teacher from the school where I work) started his presentation on 'How to cope with hearing impairment in the classroom' by explaining what hearing impairment means. Everyone listened attentively. Then he brought up a PowerPoint slide that read 'Disability is often caused by actions in a previous life (Karma)'. Everyone nodded sagely. But he did go on to say that for some children this is not the case: the disability is not their fault, and therefore they should be helped.

Many children with disabilities are left in a corner of the classroom for most of the day, as schools don't have the resources, or often the will, to support them. Often, parents don't complain as disability is still widely regarded as the result of actions in a previous life, and therefore not to be challenged.

Stephanie Earnshaw teaching phonics in Bhutan

At school, I'm now into a routine of phonics with three classes of 45 pre-school and year-one children. The teachers usually observe the lessons because, although phonics are on their syllabus, none of them have been trained in phonic sounds or how to teach them. It's great fun but most days either a teacher will be missing (taking the worksheets for the lesson with her), the photocopier will have broken down (sometimes it will just have disappeared) or the lesson will be cancelled due to a puja (religious ceremony). It's not unknown for school to be cancelled because everyone had to stand in the monsoon rain for a puja the previous day and their only set of school clothes is still wet.

Despite all this, we're making progress with our phonics, drawing some great pictures (in the absence of photocopies or printouts) and having fun. The main problem at the moment is the difference between 'a' and 'e', which to the Bhutanese ear sound the same. 'E is for?' I say. 'Apple!' they chorus.

I try to be understanding since I have my own pronunciation problems. There is an aspirated t/d sound in Dzongkha which I just cannot pronounce despite my best efforts. I keep thinking I've got it, only to be told that what I think is right is actually wrong. There are some sounds that are so unfamiliar it's hard for me even to hear them. Luckily, the six-year-olds are far better at picking up on new sounds than I am!

Bhutanese dancers

The university term is in full swing now and I'm really enjoying teaching the first-year English class. I get to teach students from all degree courses as the class I'm doing is a foundation English course that's compulsory for everyone. It's designed to make sure students' English skills meet the requirements of a university that aspires to be of international standard.

Although the medium of instruction in Bhutan is officially English, the students still come up with weird grammar, as well as some really funky vocabulary. Marking 120 essays every week is tough but I console myself with hilarious sentences like 'I was having a concern about the fooding facilities' and 'I hate crowdy places they disturb our mind.' The best one so far (although I'm quite ashamed to admit that I've let this happen in one of my classes) was when one of the students told me in his essay 'I love you not because you are beauty, not because you are big, but because you are frank.' That's right, just call me 'big Frank'.

I can't complain though, some teachers have had students drunk and falling asleep in class. And although there are strict rules banning alcohol on campus and prohibiting female students from entering the boys' dorm and vice versa, there are already rumours of shenanigans out in the woods surrounding the campus. But there are black bears in the woods, so lovers beware – the consequences of breaking the rules could be a mauling!

One final highlight of the past few weeks has been learning how to prepare some Bhutanese cuisine. I am now accomplished in the art of making authentic Bhutanese momos (dumplings), rumal roti (handkerchief bread), kuli (buckwheat pancakes), kewa datshi (cheesy potatoes with chilli) and the national favourite ema datshi (chillies with cheese), although I can't eat this last one because it's far too hot! Since I've yet to discover a single Bhutanese recipe book, I've written it all down and included one of may favourites below in case you want to give it a go.

Vegetable momos - Serves 5-6 (20 momos)

Vegetable momos Vegetable momos

  • Chop half a large cabbage very finely. Add a pinch of salt, mix and leave to stand for 5 minutes. (This is to draw the water out.) The cabbage needs to be in a large bowl as you will be mixing it with other ingredients later.
  • Chop one large onion very finely and squeeze off the juice. Leave to stand for 5 minutes.
  • Put 4 cups of plain flour in a large mixing bowl and mix with water until it forms a dough. Try not to make the dough too soft and knead well.
  • Take the cabbage that has been left to stand and squeeze well to extract excess moisture.
  • Add 3-4 dessert spoons of grated cheese to the cabbage. (In Bhutan, processed cheese is used but you can use any mild cheese of your choice.) Add the chopped onion to the bowl and mix thoroughly.
  • Add three dessert spoons of vegetable oil to the mixture. Taste and add salt if necessary.
  • Take the dough and knead into balls about the size of a cherry plum or large conker. Coat each ball in plain flour.
  • Roll out each dough ball to a thickness of 2mm and add a teaspoon of cabbage and onion mix.
  • Close the dough around the mix by pinching at intervals in order to form a crinkled effect, finishing in a crescent shaped momo – a bit like a miniature Cornish pasty. You can also twist the folds inwards and pinch them together to form a round shaped momo.
  • Lightly oil the pans of a steamer.
  • Place the momos in the steamer and steam for about 20-30 minutes.
  • Serve hot or cold with chilli sauce.
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