Woman On A Mission
Once upon a time, she fought crime as one of the Royal Bhutan Police’s first two women officers. 23 years later, this retired Lieutenant-Colonel has taken on a different kind of fight – one that involves the degradation of Bhutan’s traditional food culture in the face of rapid globalisation. Meet Kesang Choedon, the founder of Chuniding Food
Kesang Choedon was just 20 when, together with her (late) childhood friend, she decided to plunge into unknown territory by signing up to join the Royal Bhutan Police,. “We were the lucky generation – there were many new job openings in the government sector, and the Royal Bhutan Police were recruiting women for the first time,” she recalls. “My father was also in the police force, and growing up, he always emphasised the importance of duty to our King and Nation. Naturally, when the opportunity came along, I went for it.
“The work place was male-dominated so it was very challenging in the beginning. But my seniors, who were all male, were very supportive and tried to make my life as easy as possible,” she adds.
“The 23 years I spent in the force was a very exciting time,” Kesang says thoughtfully. “I love investigations, and back then, it was still an adventure to be a police officer in the countryside: there were no roads or cars. We had to travel everywhere on foot. We walked through mountains and crossed rivers at night. Sometimes, we slept in the forests, or in cowsheds on farms along the way.
Kesang reckons that it was during that time that her interest in food started developing. “My work took me to many places and gave me the chance to observe food preparation from different farms, where I picked up a variety of cooking methods from different valleys. These experiences also enabled me to learn first-hand about what was edible and what was not. I quickly learnt to prepare my meals using whatever I could find growing near me.”
Smiling at the memory of her grandma’s cooking, she shares, “Growing up, I was exposed to my grandmother’s food which was irresistibly good! That, and our farmers’ food – those were the key reasons behind why I left the police force,” Kesang reveals. “One day, I read some bad reviews about Bhutanese food, and in my heart, I knew. I was so sure that my passion for the preservation of Bhutanese food, had surpassed my desire to carry on serving in the police force.
Pensively, she adds, “It was an extremely difficult personal decision, but my conscience was clear. We Bhutanese feel a great sense of responsibility to serve our country, but I realised that I could serve my country in another way – I found new purpose in my personal mission: to preserve our food culture and fight the degradation of Bhutan’s traditional food practices in the face of rapid globalisation.”
After Kesang retired from the Royal Bhutan Police, she started an eco-lodge, with the intention of providing travellers with a true Bhutanese experience. “But I soon realised that my true passion was food – and everything to do with food!” she quips. “So I closed down the lodge and turned the entire facility into a food factory.”
A SISTERHOOD OF STRONG WOMEN
Understanding the hardship of unemployed women and mothers, majority of the staff at Chuniding Food comprise of women and young mothers, who are provided with a conducive environment to earn a dignified living. “We are a small scale enterprise that incorporates all principles of our Royal Government’s policy to substitute import, increase export, use local products, and generate employment,” says Kesang.
The company currently employs and trains 30 young women in the processing and marketing of Bhutan’s food treasures. There’re nearly 150 different organic food ingredients from a wide range of local products, including dried fruit and vegetables, cereals, pulses, health drinks, herb teas, and spices. These products are sold in an organic shop, and offered in a Folk Heritage Restaurant in the capital.
“We have a deep-rooted connection to our ancient heritage and immense respect for our natural environment. Understanding the need to innovate and adapt to modern lifestyles, coupled with the wisdom of our grandmothers – and their spiritual connection to the earth we walk on, as well as the skies above us – these are the driving forces behind Chuniding Food that guide our day-to-day living,” Kesang emphasises.
“Let me tell you an interesting story about Chuniding honey,” says the compassionate mum. “In South Central Bhutan, people usually leave a hollowed area of about 1sqft in the walls when they build their houses. During the flowering season, fresh cow dung is smeared on the walls to attract the bees, which then start to build their hives in the hollowed areas. However, once the honey is ready, the bees will get restless and start stinging the dogs and other animals. This is the time when people cut out the honey comb,” she explains. “The process involves using smoke to suffocate the bees and kill them.
“What we’ve done now, is we’ve requested for the farmers to change their honey-harvesting methods to avoid killing the bees. They’ve been taught to just smoke lightly from one edge of the comb so that the bees will sit on the opposite side. The empty side of the comb is then cut, leaving the other half of the honey for the bees. We compensate the farmers by paying them for the entire comb and while this might not make business sense, it’s our way of doing whatever we can to minimise harm to our eco-system.
Conservation of the environment is a very important aspect of our work. We use every part of our raw materials.
A company that walks the talk, Chuniding Food uses only raw materials sourced locally, including foraged materials from the pristine forests of Bhutan. During the monsoon season, rain water is harvested for use in food production. In order to preserve the rich, natural flavours and the nutritional value of their products, no artificial flavourings or preservatives are used. “We have our network of farmers and foragers who are strongly encouraged to grow their crops organically. They are also saved the hardship of transporting their produce to the markets.”
My grandma lived to 110, so I had time to ‘absorb’, build upon, and develop her treasure trove of family recipes into an enterprise.
“I was very lucky because I could tap into her vast knowledge of food and cooking,” Kesang fondly shares. “I’m very keen to hand the knowledge down to my daughters and to the young people working with me. I believe that our food culture is deeply linked to our religion and our strong relationship with nature.”
Citing an example, Kesang continues, “In Bhutan, we have a religious offering called ‘du-na-gu’, the nine cereal grains. They stand for common wealth, diversity, and generosity for what we get from nature, and what we share. These nine cereal grains are offered in my shop, and I teach people how to cook them. This is how we build upon tradition and work towards a healthy and sustainable future.”
The nature of Kesang’s work has given her the opportunity to interact with farmers and learn more about the need to supply her people with naturally grown food. “If Bhutan is to be 100 percent organic, then farmers, processors, and consumers all need to work together,” she points out. “Many consumers aren’t aware of how important it is to choose local and seasonal food from Bhutan, in order to support framers and their efforts to be fully organic.
“The reality is that there is only a very small market that’s truly organic, and the risk of non-organic methods sneaking in, remains. There are processes that are still missing, for instance, crop rotation and good water management, these are practices that make farming resilient in the long run.”
Kesang however, remains optimistic about the future. With a hearty laugh, she exclaims, “I consider my food business an invitation to farmers to create their own organic market! This is also an invitation to consumers to value what we have in Bhutan: food that’s not only tasty but also highly nutritious!”