Yosha: the fermented gold of Merak
With recent development activities touching the remote highlands of the country, Merak gewog in Trashigang Dzongkhag is one place that is changing fast.
Within a few years of development, many things have changed in the land of the Brokpas.
But one tradition that is thriving and even flourishing is the making of yosha (fermented cheese). In fact, yosha business has always been vibrant and alive. Merakpas consider it a delicacy and sometimes of great medicinal worth.
Visitors to Merak feel that their journey is incomplete if they do not buy at least a kilogram of Yosha.
Known by different names such asyetpaa and zoetoe in other parts of the country, many visitors buy it for themselves while some buy it as a gift for others because it is greatly loved by people across the country.
Tenzin Dema, a Merakpa woman’s one storey house is filled with a strong stench that forces itself into one’s head and dwell in for days. The warm rooms are all filled with the smell.
She is packing a yosha as she has received an order from Rangjung. “A shopkeeper called me up in the morning asking me to send him five kilos of yosha.”
She is selling a yosha which has been fermented only for five months at Nu. 500 per kilo.
The ones that are available in the market today are fermented for only three to four months.
Tenzin Dema said that the yosha that are fermented for more than three years are precious. “We don’t sell the yosha that are fermented for more than three years as we consider it special,” she said. “Our parents say that if we add the special yosha in ara and drinks, it acts like medicine.”
Yosha is extraordinary as it takes years to age and be ready. Moreover, it takes special skills to make it.
An elderly highlander, Ap Sangchuk, 63, said that to prepare good yosha, the yak cheese should be moderately dry before it is stuffed. “If we don’t drain the water completely, the final product will be squishy and we will not get good yosha, “he picks a fermented yosha and displays it.
It takes time to seal the mouth of the hide bag as it requires hand-stitch. But stitching the bag becomes easy if the bag is stored near the oven and soaked in hot water.
“Yosha is an important source of income for us,” he says. “Yosha is valued more than meat by the highlanders.”
Usually, the highlanders of Merak make yosha between March and October. The sealed hide bag must be kept near the heat for about a month. Once the bag becomes hard from the outside, it is moved away from the heat.
However, it requires constant monitoring and it takes more than a year for the cheese inside to harden.
“The color of the fermented cheese needs to turn brownish as the yosha is good yosha if its color turns brown,” says Ap Sangchuk.
There is a high demand for yosha outside Merak. A kilogram of well-fermented yosha sells for about Nu. 500 in Merak and Nu. 600 in nearby places. However, it costs more than Nu. 800 when it reaches Thimphu.
Lanor-Tshogpa, a dairy cooperative, which was started back in 1995, helps the highlanders in marketing the yosha.
Nim Dorji who heads the tshogpa said that unlike in the past the yosha is bottled and sold as the tshogpa supplies the fermented cheese to the border areas.
The gewog center road has helped highlanders to supply yosha not only within the country but to the border as well.
Nim Dorji said that the tshogpa supplies fermented cheese to the border areas of Samdrup Jongkhar, Trashiyangtse and to as far as Tawang, Arunchal Pradesh in India. “The demand for fermented cheese in these areas is very high.”
Though the road connectivity in Merak has led to dilution of tradition and culture of the highland community, it has actually helped the yosha business, especially the marketing and supply of the product.
Though preparing yosha is an arduous job, most families earn more than Nu 100,000 annually from the sale of yosha.
However, Nim Dorji said that if there was an agent for yosha in every dzongkhag to help market the product, the yosha business would turn even more lucrative.
Today, the Lanor Tshogpa has 20 members and two more similar groups have been formed in Merak to help market the yosha.