Once a visitor was invited to a wedding party and when she got served kow, she asked her guide what the dish was made of after enjoying a mouthful of the dish. He responded ‘leather’. Imagine the look on her face. Kow translates to leather in English.

People from Tsangkha, from where I come from in Trongsa call it as Pa-go. In western Bhutan it is called Kow. Kow is a popular dish made of cow hide and although it was once a poor man’s alternative to meat, it is now a delicacy. It’s an art to cook it right; a minute too less, you end up chewing on leather; a minute too long, you end up with glue.

There are many special occasions such as lochoe (annual rituals) and housewarmings when it is served as one of the dishes at dinner. However, my best memories to this dish is linked to the time when a village house would get new wooden shingles on its roof.

The big day would be set after consulting the tsib (astrologer). Villages would be asked to help bring/carry the wooden shingles. Both men and women would be ready to carry the wooden shingles from the mountain, walking along a muddy and narrow path.

In the very early morning the lady of the house would serve breakfast to all the people helping, and they would then hike uphill for about two to three into the mountains. Each one would carry along newly-made bamboo ropes to carry the wooden shingles. Upon reaching the site, one of the men would take out a bottle of ara (home-brewed alcohol) and use some to make an offering to the local deities to guard them and request a smooth journey back to the village. After making an offering, all the participants would take out their own wooden cups from their pockets and drink around a cup and a half of ara. When you are served ara, you drink a sip or two and get it refilled. This culture is still practiced in the rural regions of Bhutan.

The contest would thus begin, a competition to see who could carry the heaviest amount of wooden shingles. People would stack the wooden shingles, wrap the rope around them, and carry them on their backs. Some people would carry as much as they could, but I’ve been told that some could be quite tricky about it. They would not carry as many to start with, but rather they will pick up the wooden shingles dropped along the way by the ones ahead to lighten their load as they struggled along the narrow and muddy path. As everyone hiked back, when they reach a point from where they could see the village, and they would cheer and shout. It was their way to inform the remaining villagers that they were approaching.

The lady of the house, along with the other locals who had stayed behind, would walk above the village to receive them. There is a flat meadow where they would put down their loads and rest. While they rested, the elders of the the village would start measuring the weight of each wooden shingle and work out who has carried the heaviest amount. People will then walk to the village in a procession, led by the top competitor, followed in order by the second, and third. After reaching the house, they would drop the shingles and go home to wash their faces and hair and dress up nicely for dinner. During dinner, the longest piece of cowhide would be served to the top competitor, the next longest to the second place winner, and so on. Dance and drink almost all through the night is usually how the day ends.

As young boys we would be very excited to see which person carried the most and always looked forward to growing up and take part in this contest. Our turn was just around the corner, but it ended up interrupted by modern schools and the introduction of corrugated metal roofing.

Contributed by Tshangkhab Namgay