The food in Bhutan is unlike cuisine in any other country. Bhutan’s remote location—high in the Himalayas and sandwiched between India, Tibet, China and Nepal—means all these neighboring countries have influenced its cuisine, yet it still retains its own unique food culture. Its mountainous geography and chilly climate somewhat limit what can be grown, but plenty of fresh products are grown in its warmer regions and lush, fertile valleys. This also means certain ingredients are widespread and used in a variety of ways. This includes red rice; dried beef, pork and yak meats (drying preserves the meat during the cold seasons); cheese; butter (made from yak or cow milk); buckwheat (made into pancakes, noodles and other dishes) and vegetables, such as cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms and even edible ferns.
One of the most defining ingredients of Bhutanese food is the chili pepper. Red, green and sometimes yellow, these are found all over the country, and they’re used fresh, dried, chopped up, cooked, raw and practically any other way imaginable. Traveling through the country, from its larger cities to the more rural villages, visitors are likely to see piles of red chilies drying in the sun or buckets of green chilies being sold in the markets. Some say the cooler mountain climate is why locals have such an affection for the fiery chili heat, reasoning they warm up the insides and make the outside chill a bit more bearable. Although these peppers’ ubiquity can be daunting to travelers not used to spicy food, the Bhutanese love chilies as much for their flavor as their heat. Whatever your tolerance for spice, challenge your taste buds a bit, and add some heat to your bites like the Bhutanese do.
The Dining Experience in Bhutan
Since visitors to Bhutan are required to take official guided tours, the tour operator or guide will likely dictate the dining experience. That said, you’ll probably eat in many different establishments, from more upscale restaurants in the capital city of Thimpu to more informal family-run restaurants or cafes in rural areas. The food is hearty and filling, and butter, cheese and meat are used extensively in the cooking. Strict vegetarians should be vigilant about communicating their needs as many Bhutanese vegetable dishes often have dried meat in them.
No matter what you order, you’ll likely be served a few small dishes on the side. These can include (but are not limited to) rice, chilies, chili sauce and condiments, as well as cheese and vegetable side dishes. This means every meal is an opportunity to sample a variety of local specialties!
Typical Bhutanese Dishes
No matter where you are in the country, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Bhutanese delicacies:
· Ema Datshi
If there’s one national dish of Bhutan, this is it. It’s so ubiquitous that some say you haven’t truly been to Bhutan until you eat ema datshi. The stew, which is somewhat comparable to a curry, is eaten daily by locals. It’s invariably accompanied by red rice. Ema datshi is made of chilies (green, yellow or red); yak or cow’s milk cheese; tomatoes and onions. Taste carefully, though. Bhutanese chilies are high on the Scoville heat scale and are meant to make you warm enough to sweat!
Steamed dumplings (similar to Chinese dumplings), these are a good food for less adventurous eaters to try. They’re typically served with meat inside (beef or pork) or in a tasty vegetarian form that contains cheese, vegetables and a blend of different spices. You’ll find them served by roadside street vendors at traditional mask festivals and other events, as well as in momo restaurants in the towns and villages around Bhutan. They’re often served with ezay, a spicy chili sauce for dipping, and they’re typically eaten by hand.
· Jasha Maru
Although this mix of chilies, onion, tomato, garlic, coriander leaves and ginger is usually made with finely diced chicken, you’ll occasionally find it made with beef. Often called a stew, there’s actually a hefty portion of chicken broth in the finished product. Like most Bhutanese dishes, it’s served with red rice.
· Red Rice
Everywhere you eat in Bhutan—from the most elegant resorts to the village festival—will serve you red rice. Red rice is grown in the rice paddies of Bhutan’s Paro Valley, which are irrigated with mineral-rich glacier water. Consequently, the rice is packed with manganese, phosphorous and other minerals and is a very healthy food. The red color of the uncooked rice comes from the flavonoid anthocyanin, a cancer-fighting antioxidant. As the rice cooks, the color fades to pink or pale red, and the texture becomes sticky and soft.
· Phaksha Paa
This is a classic Bhutanese stew made from strips of boneless pork shoulder simmered slowly until tender with mooli (daikon radish), ginger, bok choy and chili powder. When finished, preparers top the stew with dried pork and fresh strips of green chili. The dish is served with rice.
Backroads Pro Tip
Is there a strange texture to your meat? Don’t worry. Dried meat (often beef, pork or yak) is used extensively in Bhutanese dishes because it’s a practical way to preserve meat in the cold mountain climate. When served, it’s rehydrated and seasoned and becomes quite tasty! The texture might just be a bit different than you’re used to.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Because Bhutan is a small country (containing less than one million people and only one main road that crosses through the country), there aren't a lot of regional or geographic differences in the cuisine. That said, here are a couple of special dishes that might not be found everywhere in Bhutan:
· Shakam Shukam Datshi
You won’t find this rather rare dish at too many Bhutanese restaurants, but it can be found in a few places in Thimpu. Shakam and datshi are familiar ingredients—chilies and cheese, respectively—and shukam are Bhutanese dried white chilies. This Bhutanese dish includes cuts of dried beef cooked with cheese and white chilies. The white chilies add an incredible and unique sour spice to the flavor profile.
Hoentay, originally from the Haa Valley, are similar to momos, but they’re made with a buckwheat dough wrapper. The dumplings are usually filled with a combination of local spinach or turnip leaves and cheese, and they can either be steamed or fried.
Bhutanese Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
· Ezay: chili sauce
· Datshi: cheese
· Kewa: potatoes
· Shakam: dried beef
· Ara: traditional alcoholic beverage
Words to Know When Dining Out
Because the Bhutanese tourism industry is highly regulated, nearly everywhere travelers visit and dine will have English speakers or guides who can translate. That said, here are a few helpful phrases and words to practice in Dzongkha, the local language, when dining out:
· Thank you: Kadrin chhe la
· Where is the toilet?: Chhabsa gatey mo?
· Water: Chhu
· Butter Tea: Su Ja
· Spicy dish: Zhimbay
· Yes: Inn
· No: Men
Tipping’s not obligatory in Bhutan. Hotels and restaurant bills include service charges of 20 percent, meaning there’s no need to add anything further onto these bills.
Since travelers will always be with a guide or on a tour in Bhutan, meal etiquette can be ascertained by simply following the guide’s lead. Just remember, when dining in a group, always wait for everyone to be served before eating.
One possible dining-related surprise is the presence of meat in Bhutanese meals. Despite being a Buddhist country, meat is eaten extensively here.