At altitudes of 3,525 and 2,973 meters, the Merak and Sakteng communities, respectively, are two separate settlements, yet because of their identical culture and traditions, people tend to refer to these communities as a single entity, as one village. The two settlements are separated by a high pass called Nyak-cung La, and traversing this land involves a strenuous day-long trek between these two settlements. The people of these settlements are believed to have migrated from Tshona to Tibet in the fourteenth century, led by ’Lama Jarepa. Ever since their arrival, they have been wearing distinct dress and speaking a unique language, and they have become accustomed to the lifestyle associated with inhabiting the higher altitudes of eastern Bhutan and living as nomads.
The people of Merak and Sakteng have been rearing highland animals, such as yaks, sheep, and dzos and dzomos (male and female hybrids of yak and cattle, respectively), and their livelihood—food, clothing, and shelter—has relied on the products of these domestic animals. The yaks and dzomos are raised primarily for milking. Half of the milk is heated gently to turn into curd through pasteurization processes. A mixture of an equal volume of curd and milk are churned to produce butter and buttermilk. The buttermilk is poured into a cauldron and placed on gentle heat. This process creates cottage cheese and whey. Better is fermented cheese that can be made by boiling the cheese thoroughly in whey while making the cottage cheese, although it takes more time to produce this mellow fermented cheese. The cheese is called chora ’nyingba (where chora is ‘cheese’ and ’nyingba is ‘old’).
From Cheese to Fermentation
The cottage cheese, after being collected in a sifter-like basketry utensil called chur-tsa, is pushed and pressed into a leather bag with the help of chora laktong, a wooden log. Pressing the cheese tightly into the leather bag is crucial. If the leather bag is kept loose or cheese is not packed hard, maggots will breed, and the cheese in the bag will turn gooey and spoil.
Similarly, selecting the right leather is also essential: it must be soft and not too thick for the best results. So, sambar deer skin is reputedly the best material for creating quality fermented cheese, but in lower altitudes skins of other animals are also considered equally as good because the skins tend to be thinner than the skin of highland animals. Due to the highland animals’ skins being thicker by nature, the skins are generally avoided for cheese fermentation, but if the thickness of the skin is lowered by stretching and removing hair and inner linings, it can be used. No treatment is required for skin if it is not dry.
Once the leather bag is full, its stitched using a zhor-se khab, a four-sided needle, and an ’ngama thigu, a thread made from the hair of a yak’s tail. The finished product is then placed on a shelf to dry. Preserving under the right temperature and humidity is the most important factor thereafter; the heat should dry the skin gradually but not be hot enough to heat up the cheese inside, which would cause the cheese to putrefy. So, the perfect fermentation process requires mild heat with complete dryness. During the summer or in times of damp weather, if flies hover near the leather bag or if maggots are seen between the stitches, ashes are applied to prevent the cheese from rotting.
The cheese is stored in these conditions from few months to as long as three years. It’s found that the longer the duration of hoarding, the better the taste of the cheese. The best fermented cheese is red and yellowish with a slight pungent smell while lesser cheeses tend to be bluish with very strong pungent smell.
The final fermented cheese product is used as an ingredient in Bhutanese cuisine, especially for soups and chili curries while it can also be consumed raw or roasted as a standalone dish or served along with rice or zan, which is a kind of boiled dough.