I first ate this salad for breakfast in central Bhutan, where it was served heaped on a huge bowl of fried rice – a fine farmer’s breakfast.
Aum Tashi Wangmo, our host, had pulled the ingredients from her garden shortly after dawn. She chopped and sliced the vegetables, wielding a vast knife and chopping board as she perched awkwardly on a tiny stool in the middle of the kitchen floor. Crumbling a handful of homemade cheese on top, she slid it onto the dining table, where we promptly demolished it, pestering her for the recipe between mouthfuls.
Tashi Wangmo’s breakfast salad is called Goen Hogay (“cucumber salad”) in Dzongkha. Because Bhutanese farm cheese is a friable feta-like cheese, and because the other major ingredients are cucumber, tomato and onion, the salad bears more than a passing resemblance to a Greek salad. What lifts the Bhutanese version apart from its European cousin is the addition of handfuls of fresh chillies, coriander (cilantro), spring onions (scallions), and Sichuan pepper, which grows wild on Himalayan hillsides.
My month-long stay in Bhutan wasn’t long enough to acquire the local appetite for spice (which is so sizeable that that would probably take a decade or so to develop), so I’ve reduced the amount of chillies and pepper in the recipe below, and used feta in place of the homemade cheese. Happily, the result is still very much in the spirit of the original – resfreshing and moreish in equal measure, fit to serve whenever you fancy (breakfast, anyone?), with fried rice or pita bread and boiled eggs, with the chilli heat turned up or down, depending on your tastebuds.
Bhutanese Cucumber Salad / Goen Hogay
From the cupboard/supermarket:
100g (4oz) feta
1tsp ground Sichuan pepper
salt to taste
- If your cucumber has thick skin, huge seeds, or is particularly juicy then peel it and scoop the seeds out – otherwise you’ll end up with soup, rather than salad. Chop the cucumber into bite-sized chunks and place in your serving bowl.
- Dice the tomatoes and slice the onion finely, then add them to the cucumber. Chop the chillies, coriander and spring onions finely, and throw them into the mix.
- Finally, crumble the feta into the salad, season with the pepper and salt and stir well. You can serve the salad immediately, but it’s even better if you leave it for 15 minutes or so to allow the flavours to mingle and the salt to draw out some of the vegetables’ juices.
- The woven basket shown in the photos is the Bhutanese version of Tupperware – a lunchbox and plate in one, with one slightly larger plate that pops over the smaller one. Bhutanese food is eaten with the hands, and the plate is simply picked clean and wiped off after each meal, although forks and spoons turn up in some restaurants.