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Haa: Haap chugo - highland special - Dusty hardened cheese for sale
If you are going over to Haa, friends and family would expect you to return with a string of chewable 'bones'. The 'bones' are actually smoke dried chugo (hardened cheese), traditional Bhutanese candy, known throughout the country as Haabey Ruto because the chugo is extremely hard.

Shaped like thick square coasters with a dark brown exterior, the chugos, strung together by yak hair, is made by Haap yak herders who live near the Bhutan-China border, and who migrate to the Haa valley in winter.

Haa Valley

The chugo, which is widely available in Haa town, is made from yak's milk. The butter or cream is churned out and the cheese, wrapped in a coarse yak cloth, is placed between two flat stones to squeeze out the water. The cheese is then cut, strung around yak hair and hung above the wood fed oven to dry it.

Haabey Ruto does not have a sweet and milky taste like the white chugo from Bumthang and other parts of the country, which has sugar added to it.

The nomad's supply the chugo once in a year, from December to January, when they migrate to warmers areas of Chubakha and Kamla in Haa, which is about an hour's walk from the road.

The yak herders with large herds bring in at least 500 kg of chugo which is either sold or bartered for rice, oil and other food items, included for the yaks.

Haa shopkeepers say hundreds of kilogrammes of the dusty hardened cheese, strung around a thread of yak hair, are sold annually. The buyers are not only Bhutanese but also Indian businessmen, especially from Jaigoan.

Zam buys 120 kg to 150 kg of chugo every year for Nu. 200 a kg for her shop in Haa. The herders from whom she buys are her cousins.

Each string of chugo weighs between one to two kg and are either sold in strings or as single pieces which costs about Nu. 25. A kilogramme of chugo cost Nu. 250.

Wangmo, another Haa shopkeeper chews the cheese as a Doma alternate. The chugo is sold mostly during the planting season, she said.

Haa shopkeepers said that the cream and butter from the yak's milk was completely churned out giving the Haabey ruto a bland taste. But bland or no bland, Zam says, the products sell mostly during summer, and the buyers are usually Bhutanese from other districts who look for it as gifts for friends or families. Her stock of chugo is long sold out before the next supply arrives.

"You just have to soak the chugo in water and scrape out the smoked exterior," said Tashi, a Thimphu resident, who has developed an intense liking to the Haabey ruto.

This article was contributed by Kinley Wangmo, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2007
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