James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Come to Where the Flavor Is. Come to Yak Country.

Come to Where the Flavor Is. Come to Yak Country.

Chhurpi in Nepal

As you ascend the Nepali Himalayas, dense forest gives way to barren, snowy valleys. With this change of environment comes a change of livestock: buffalo are replaced with yaks.

One town at the edge of buffalo country is Bhratang. In an effort to be scrupulous, we always cross-checked our sometimes-hyperbolic guidebook with our trekking map. Both sources said that the town was moderately sized and had tourist accommodation. Bhratang seemed like the perfect stop on our journey around the Annapurna Circuit.

It began to snow around mid-day, which was exiting for us—an easily-impressed Australian family who’d never seen snow fall from the sky. But the snow soon worsened, and before long the entire valley was white. Tall trees were covered in dense powder while riverbanks began to sparkle.

Nevertheless, we weren’t far from Bhratang, where beds and boilers awaited. Except they didn’t. When we finally came across what looked like a teahouse, we were turned away. Instead, we were told to walk to the next town, which was half an hour away. It had just gone dark but we had no choice.

We soon realized we’d been duped; the next village, Dhukur Pokhari, was two hours away in a different valley. We walked through the night with our headlamps faintly illuminating the snow falling before our eyes. Through darkness and delirium, we came across a teahouse run by an elderly couple and their adult son, whose hospitality helped us recover overnight.

After eating dal bhat for days on end, I was stunned to awake to the first real dairy we’d seen for days: chhurpi, a local cheese made from yak’s milk. I immediately asked for a whole plate and devoured it at once. The sharp, creamy taste was incredibly refreshing.

Already a firm, dense cheese, chhurpi is also eaten with the rind on, our hosts explained. In a part of the world where agriculture is difficult and dairy is a luxury, no part of the cheese goes to waste. But it works, and that’s what chhurpi is all about—gnawing on blocks of milky goodness. As it moistens in the mouth, each piece becomes softer and chewier. According to our hosts, a block should be enough for hours of chewing. We were done in 30 minutes.

Over breakfast we asked why we were turned away from Bhratang last night. The son explained that a local businessman recently bought all the land in the village and turned it into an orchard. But the silver lining for us was that we were forced to cross into yak country, with a tangy yak-cheese breakfast to match.

With chhurpi in my belly, the previous night’s fatigue and disorientation were now a distant memory. The chewiness was almost therapeutic, like a stress ball for the mouth, only tastier. I ordered another plate, which disappeared just as quickly. With the snow passed and the sky now clear, it was time to head off. I ordered a final block for the road ahead.

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