Simple, spicy, and comforting — this is what describes Bhutan’s local food. Bhutanese cuisine is a magical mix of local staples with Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian influences, that reflects the rich history of the formation of the kingdom and the tastes of its primary religion — Buddhism.
The cuisine speaks of its rich heritage and environment. Spiciness is the main flavor, preferred to beat the cold weather and bitter winds of the mountains. Chili is an essential part of nearly every dish and is mostly overpowering. Chilis are not merely a condiment or add-ons to enhance the flavor, they are many a times the main ingredient by themselves. The chilies of Bhutan are so hot, they can make an average person sweat profusely and turn humans into fire-wielding dragons after a few bites.
Staple food includes chili, unpolished red rice, cheese, and meat. River weed, spinach, asparagus, green beans, and fiddlehead greens are used in all vegetarian and non-vegetarian bowl meals, that are mixed with cheese and chili, which are part of nearly every dish.
Non-vegetarian fare includes chicken, mutton, yak meat, beef and pork. A red chili paste accompanies all meals, just in case you wish to add more fire to your palate.
Food is always served in wooden bowls, and locals eat with their hands to savor the food completely.
Since tourism is growing massively in Bhutan, every restaurant also has a buffet system, which is the preferred option of most tourists, as going à la carte could easily take up over an hour for your order to come in, as each dish is prepared individually and everything (including a bowl of rice) is freshly cooked.
Indian buffet spreads are the usual spread of a mix vegetable salad, roti (phulkas), one desi sabzi (mostly aloo matar in gravy), stir-fried veggies, dal (boiled lentils with sparse use of salt and red chili powder), red rice, white rice, and dessert (gulab jamuns or rasgullas taken straight out of the ready-to-eat packs).
Desserts are not part of the Bhutanese cuisine, which is why if you go around looking for something sweet or an ice-cream, you will be disappointed with packaged Indian sweets on offer. Also, Bhutan does not have a lot of street food as such — only few fried snacks and dried yak’s cheese that hangs from the stall of every vegetable vendor.
Agriculture is prevalent in Bhutan, with farmlands being important to the economy. Red rice and buckwheat are the major crops produced. Potatoes are grown in abundance, so are apples. While some other fruits, vegetables and grains are also grown on small lands, Bhutan mostly imports the rest of its food from the neighboring countries, chiefly India.
Bhutanese religion does not allow humans to kill and eat animals. So, most of the meat eaten in Bhutan is what has been exported from India, or what has died a natural death in their country.
DISHES TO TRY
- Ema datshi: Informally known as the national dish, this is a mix (vegetarian dish) made of large, whole green chili and melted cheese (and the primary culprit of setting your stomach and intestines on fire). It is eaten with rice.
- Shamu datshi: This is a variant of ema datshi, and is made using oyster mushrooms in a cheesy gravy. Also eaten with rice.
- Kewa datshi: This dish shows off their local produce in the best way. Potatoes are cooked in cheese and chili and served with rice. Ngakhagchu datshi is the same dish made using asparagus when it is in season.
- Red rice: Red rice is the most widely eaten grain in Bhutan. It is unpolished and partially milled, making it easier to cook than other rice varieties. It is gluten-free and has a slight nutty crunch to it, which goes well with all spicy curries.
- Jasha maroo: This is the most popular chicken dish where finely diced chicken is mixed with a host of spices, made into a stew and served with rice. It is spicy.
- Phaksha paa: Boneless pork shoulder is cooked with a few veggies and lots of red chili powder. The stew is topped with dried pork and lots of fresh green chili (because there can’t be enough of it!), served with rice. Norsha paa is the same dish made with sliced beef.
- Momos: Momos are the most popular snack in Bhutan. However, surprisingly, you will not see any streetside “momo stalls” like you do in India and can only order these dumplings in cafes and restaurants. Stuffings include minced pork or beef, cabbage, or fresh cheese mixed with spices such as garlic, ginger and coriander. And of course, served with a nose-tingling spicy red chili dip.
- Suja: This is the Bhutanese butter tea served after meals to wash down the spiciness and get you ready to face the cold winds again.
- Jaju: This is the traditional Bhutanese soup made from spinach, turnips, milk and butter. Cheese is also added at times to this soup.
- Khatem: These are thinly sliced rounds of bitter gourd that are fried in butter and makes for a tasty snack for all times. Yak skin is also fried and served as a snack in some places.
- Every traditional Bhutanese eatery comes with a sort-of a secret room, where the men play snooker, hidden away from the sight of other patrons.
- There is free movement of street dogs in and out of these cafeterias/restaurants, who sometimes wait on you as you look at the menu and decide what to eat.
- Dried yak cheese, known as chhurpi, is a hard variant of cheese, which comes in small cubes and hangs from wooden stalls on the side of the road where vegetables are sold. But beware, it may take hours before they finally begin to break down in your mouth. While locals feel this is a great way to pass time, you may think otherwise when the hardness of the cheese starts hurting the inside of your mouth.
- Paan is widely eaten in Bhutan, by both men and women, while driving a car, while walking on the road, while working. Known as doma-pani or just doma, Bhutanese people love chewing on to betel and areca nuts wrapped in a betel leaf. And yes, spitting freely on the roads is a common sight.
- I have saved the best for the last. K5 is the locally blended scotch whisky, and is named after the 5th king of Bhutan, HM King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. Even though I am not a whiskey person, I was going gaga over this smooth Himalayan blend in no time. It would be a sin to leave the country without having a taste of this amazing concoction.
Zhim bay, Bhutan!