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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013
Bhutan eyes Japanese 'soba' skills to keep buckwheat culture alive
AOMORI — A Bhutanese farm official visited Japan last summer to learn about techniques for cultivating and processing buckwheat, a former staple in the tiny South Asian country's highlands — and the key ingredient in "soba" noodles.
The Bhutanese government hopes to apply that knowledge toward its efforts to raise production of buckwheat products, including soba, said Gaylong, an Agriculture Ministry official who like others in the country goes by only one name.
"It's hard to cut," he said as he struggled to cut the noodles with a knife at a restaurant last August in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, a region known for its soba culture.
In tiny Bhutan, particularly its dry mountainous areas, buckwheat was widely grown and once served as the main staple in regions where rice cultivation was difficult.
Gaylong explained that in his country, buckwheat is roughly grounded and dough is pressed and cut into noodles with a pressing tool instead of knives. The noodles, called "puta," are usually served with hot chili peppers.
But growing buckwheat has become less popular as people's diets change. An increasing number of farmers have chosen to cultivate potatoes, which are more profitable, Gaylong said.
To keep the noodles in the mix, Gaylong has been teaching people in the central region of Bumthang how to grow buckwheat for the past several years.
His products have gradually gained acclaim, with pancakes made from local buckwheat even served at the October 2011 wedding ceremony for King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema, who visited Japan the following month.
Gaylong said that during his one-week stay in Hachinohe, he picked up a lot of useful tips for making, processing and marketing products in his country.
"I didn't know that you can freeze the noodle," he said. "There are many ways to process buckwheat in Japan."
Soon after returning to Bhutan, Gaylong started developing new buckwheat products — including bread and raw noodles with long shelf lives.
"The domestic market is still small. We want to produce something that foreign tourists will buy," Gaylong said, adding that he eventually wants Bhutanese farmers to train in Japan.