Local Food, Cheese and Chilli

If there’s one typical thing for Bhutanese cuisine, it’s that the Bhutanese love it spicy! Chilies are not considered a seasoning, but a true valuable vegetable. Therefore traditional Bhutanese food is lavishly spiced with dried or fresh red and green chilies. Which is exactly why, while in Bhutan you ought to try the national dish of Ema Datshi, shown on the image above, consisting of Ema (chilli) cooked in Datsi (cheese). This recipe has spun into numerous variations: Kewa Datsi (potato and cheese), Shamu Datsi (mushroom and cheese). These would be the standard fare in most Bhutanese restaurants, but do tell them how hot, that is how much chili you can take in your meal.

Red rice, which is extremely nutritious and similar to brown rice, forms the main chunk of most meals in Bhutan. It is pale pink, soft, and slightly sticky after cooking, and comes along with one or two side dishes containing meat or vegetables. Pork, beef and chicken are eaten regularly, while commonly eaten vegetables include spinach, pumpkins, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, riverweed, onions and green beans. Nevertheless, buckwheat pancakes and noodles replace rice as the favorite staple in Bumthang.

Food for Tourists

Bhutanese cuisine is influenced by Chinese, Tibetan and Indian culture. The main dish, which generally includes white or red rice, seasonal vegetables, and meat (pork and chicken), are often cooked with chili or cheese. If you like Chinese food, you should be rather comfortable with Bhutanese food. However, do note that the Bhutanese like to cook their food with cheese so you would often see a portion of the selection containing cheese. You may want to bring comfort food such as dried pork and chilies if you are particular about food.

Dining Out

However, don’t be too worried if you aren’t able to take it too spicy. A majority of Bhutan’s professional chefs take into account the foreigners’ less spicy taste. Most restaurants in Bhutan offer customers a range from Continental to Chinese, and from Bhutanese to Tibetan and Indian cuisine. International fare is usually limited, but most hotels offer dinner in buffet style, which includes many different cuisines. Whenever you are dining out, always inquire what is available and what is in season. In a restaurant the full cutlery ensemble will usually be provided, but in a local café you may be limited to the option of a spoon or using your right hand and bowl of rice to mop up the meal.

It is generally safe to eat out in the major restaurants but avoid fresh salads if you’re concerned. One important point to note is to avoid drinking water directly from the tap thus, steps to purify water should be taken, or else drink only bottled water, as Bhutan’s agro industry has excellent bottled spring water. Furthermore, the price of a 1-liter bottle of water is only 6 BTN (0.10 USD).

On the left is a typical lunch at a Bhutanese restaurant consisting of red rice (unpolished rice), local produce, meat, and not forgetting Ema Datsa (Chili and Cheese). Additionally, breakfast generally consists of puffed corn or rice soaked in butter tea, though porridge is also common. A good number of Bhutanese people are vegetarian, therefore, there is a good variety of vegetarian food available although much of it is made using a liberal amount of chili and a smothering of cheese sauce. Ingredients such as nettles, fern fronds, orchids, asparagus, taro, and several varieties of mushroom appear in the traditional vegetarian dishes. For extra precaution, vegans should ask if a dish contains cheese or eggs when ordering.

The cost of dining out in an average Bhutanese restaurant for a single person can range from 320 BTN (5 USD) to 2,000 BTN (32 USD). For comparison sake, a combo meal at McDonalds or some place similar will roughly total up to 127 BTN (2 USD), and a 0.5-liter of domestic beer can land anywhere between 80 BTN (1.25 USD) and 150 BTN (2.40 USD).

Traditional Bhutanese Dishes to try

Ema Datshi – A vegetarian dish made of chili and cheese.
Phak Sha Laphu – Stewed pork recipe with radish.
Yak Skin – Fried and served as a snack.
No Sha Huentseu – Stewed beef dish with spinach.
Phak Sha Phin Tshoem – Pork with rice noodles.
Bja Sha Maroo – Chicken in garlic and butter sauce.
Momos – Chicken, pork, or cheese mouthwatering dumplings.
Dal Bhat – Simple rice and lentils.
Kewa Datse – Potatoes with cheese sauce.
Barthu – Fried noodles or noodle soup.
Ezays – Spicy dips containing chopped onions and chili with cheese or red chili paste.
Thueb – Porridge made from rice or flat noodles, topped with fried meat.
Jasha Maroo – A curry minced chicken dish. (as seen on the picture below)
Fing – Cellophane noodles that are popular with meat dishes.
Khur-le – Buckwheat pancakes