Mrs. Sonam Trophel was slightly round and quiet, a bit like a Bhutanese version of my army-wife grandma. The long tables in her restaurant were decked out in red and white checkered cloths, like a scene straight out of a truck stop on the I-5. In the ten days I spent in Bhutan, I ate at her restaurant twice, a testament either to the fact that the country has far more monks than restauranteurs, or that half way around the world, I found myself drawn to the familiar flavors of her famous tomato soup.
During my junior year of college, my roommate for a study abroad quarter at Oxford was the Princess of Bhutan. Her brother, the crown prince, would occasionally stop by and perch on the edge of my dorm bed and they’d share stewed hot chillies and red rice out of plastic tupperware. I was more than a little starstruck; I imagined their hometown Himalayan kingdom to be foreign and exotic, frozen in time like a real-life Brigadoon.
When I visited a few years later, Bhutan didn’t disappoint: mist hung in steep valleys, Buddhist temples clung to cliff faces for dear life, and phallic graffiti covered the side of houses to ward off evil sprits. The entire country - 15,000 square miles - is filled with giant penises.
Yet as foreign as it seemed, I was surprised to meet monks sporting plastic Crocs and clandestinely texting on cell phones tucked into their red robes. Maroon 5 played at the “Om Bar” in Paro where I grabbed a beer with a cute Druk Air flight attendant. This is the country that measures Gross National Happiness, but its secret doesn’t lie in being locked in the past.
I’m not sure where the closest tomato grows, certainly not on the steep hillsides that barely support the native chillies and grazing yaks. Usually I take to the palate of the locals when I travel - I did try the butter tea and fresh fiddle head ferns - but Mrs. Sonam Trophel’s soup seemed to fit into the landscape.
The liquid was velvety and familiar, no hints of the clumpy paste that she must have whisked and whisked into warm water before pouring it over the sizzling aromatics. You could taste the bite of the finely processed shallot and ginger behind the bold tomato boom. Maybe there was cornstarch, maybe just years of perfected timing and stirring and tasting and simmering and tasting before absentmindedly cranking in eight twists of black pepper.
I didn’t find an exotic mountain kingdom or the ancient secrets to eternal happiness, just a friendly monk to share a Red Panda beer with, a princess who likes to stay up late and giggle from her dorm bed, and a good bowl of tomato soup.
Mrs. Sonam Trophel’s Famous Tomato Soup
Adapted by Samantha L. McCoy
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 shallots (or the small onion of your choice)
2 cloves garlic
1-2 Tbsp fresh ginger (to your taste)
4 c water
12 oz tomato paste
1 Tbsp salt
8 twists of black pepper
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp cornstarch (optional)
Cream (for optional garnish)
1. Heat up your olive oil while you process the shallot, garlic and ginger as finely as possible.
2. Sauté the shallot bits for five minutes on their own first. (Relatively low heat – just enough to sizzle) Then add the garlic and ginger bits for another five minutes.
3. Add the water and the tomato paste. Stir thoroughly to break up clumps of tomato and raise your heat to medium.
4. Add salt, pepper and sugar as the soup comes up to a simmer.
5. Add the cornstarch, if you feel you’d like to thicken things up a bit. (You may want to dissolve the cornstarch first in a little cool water on its own, to avoid clumping.)
6. Garnish with a swirl of cream and croutons, if desired. Or just enjoy with some nice crusty bread! This amount easily will serve 4-5 people, depending on how big of a bowl you’re offering.