As a child, I remember I was incredibly fascinated by baking. It amazed me how a person could just whip up some eggs, milk, flour, sugar,butter and create something so gorgeous. It was make believe; it was stuffs of fairy tales.
Mind you, this is Bhutan we are talking about. We were not ‘cake’ people. We were not even ‘sugar’ people. We are ‘air-dried beef- fermented cheese- rancid butter’ kind of people. And this was back in the days where people hardly knew what an oven was. So you can understand my fascination with cakes and pies.
I used to watch a lot of Walt Disney classics; mouth gaping when Snow White made this perfect pie, with the help of twittering blue birds. For me, the pie represented a world beyond me, and consequently a world I wanted so badly to be a part of.
We lived in a small town between Thimphu and Phuentsholing, and honestly, no matter how much I rack my brains- I can only remember close to 20 families living there. There were cowherds and shopkeepers, of whose lives I have no idea of. We were the ‘civil service’family- a diaspora of sorts.
Since this town functioned around a logging industry, we had several lumberjacks from Canada or the USA. I befriended a Canadian, Elsie, who was a housewife and had nothing much to do. I pretty much didn’t speak English; we were taught English in school (verb, noun, adjective, and the likes- which was of no use when talking). I like to believe I took up the challenge to string words I learnt in the classroom and blurt it out to her. She was kind, especially with my English.
She generally liked children, but I like to think she was extra special to me. She introduced me to Barbara Striesand (I can still remember that movie where she disguises as a boy), books and my first ever pink watch and Barbie doll (with the perfect pink gown!), which she brought it all the way from Canada. But of all, I love her for letting me have my very own fantasy on my 7th birthday.
My first ever decorated whole cake! I saw this beautiful creation out of a fairy tale on the coffee table, surrounded by neighbour’s children. It had the perfect white puff (which I nowknow as icing) embedded with colourful sprinkles. I really felt special; I was my own princess that day, when I blew out the candles around little hands clapping enthusiastically.
It’s amazing how in a short span of time, I embraced the ‘other’ world and almost forgot my entire journey on cakes. I remember the strong desire to understand a world different than ours. I really believed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs existed and there is a world where birds help you trim pies.
Probably the story is similar for most of us. We are remnants of the isolated, and now barely quasi-cosmopolitan population of Bhutanese. Not two decades ago or back in the days, our treat was flat pale biscuits (flour, sugar & water) from neighboring Indian towns, and on special days it was Krackjack (a packaged sweet & savoury biscuit by Britannica), Wai Wai and Maggi (thank god!). When we had a weekend trip to Phuentsholing, my parents would treat us with ice-cream in orange cones and soft brown slices of cake (without the white puff). These were the highlights of my childhood.
And now, a cake is not a cake- its either vanilla, banana, carrot, pineapple, chocolate or several other weird flavours. How could I have gotten so used to thinking I grew up around these? Especially when I cried my parents into buying a Baby Belling oven from a German guy who was leaving, just so I could bake- and didn’t have a clue how to go about it! There was a recipe book along with the oven, and for the longest time I thought margarine was German for the ‘white puff’.
There is still so many things I have no clue of, but I can proudly say that after a decade of baking fiascos, I discovered Google and a zillion recipes. Now I bake!
We are a new ‘modern’ country with relatively progressive people, but I will warn you; you will bump into persons who think wine comes in two shades- black or white and the sweeter it is- the better, that international cuisine begins and ends with fried rice, and the French are crazy to think snails a delicacy!
When you do run into these people, be kind and help them on their journey.
Karma Choden is a freelance journalist