Bhutan is a small country sandwiched between two oversized countries like China to the north and India to the south. Bhutanese cuisine plays a significant role in Bhutanese tradition and culture. Though Bhutan strives on preserving its culture and its traditional values, it has had some impacts from these culturally large countries. So to a foreigner, a Bhutanese dish might come across as a version of Indian dishes or Chinese dishes. However, this is not exactly true. In fact, this is only true for Bhutanese food served in restaurants since they modify it to cater to the varying demands of the customers. So I would recommend staying at a farmhouse at least once while in Bhutan to sample true authentic Bhutanese dishes.
In olden days different regions in Bhutan ate and considered certain dishes as their own specialty. The main reason being Bhutan’s geographical setting and its varied climatic conditions that fostered only certain food groups to be grown in each area. This led them to produce different dishes depending on what was cultivated and available. But since the development kicked in and farming methods improved, some prominent dishes climbed the favorite ladder of the nation. These dishes have not only managed to impress the Bhutanese but have intrigued visitors from foreign lands as well.
I am born and brought up in Bhutan, and as a Bhutanese foodie I have witnessed the evolution of Bhutanese food. That’s why I have taken it upon myself as a local to let the world know about authentic Bhutanese cuisine. So read the whole article to get a complete idea about which Bhutanese dishes to try while visiting Bhutan.
Ema Datshi is the country’s national dish and a personal favorite. It literally translates to chilies and cheese and, what’s not to like about chilies and cheese? Bhutanese love their chilies hot. And by hot I mean tearing, sweating kind of hot. Though cooking methods vary from home to home, the most common approach is to slow cook the chilies and the cheese in butter creating a gooey, silky texture. This melts right on your tongue just before it bombards your taste buds and blows your mind.
There are many variations to this dish such as adding potato to make it Kewa Ema Datshi. Another popular variation is mushroom Ema Datshi. These improvements are made to tone down the heat from the chilies for people who enjoy Ema Datshi but cannot tolerate the heat.
TAKEAWAY: A moment of pride for Bhutan was when the former president of the United States, Barack Obama, chose mushroom Ema Datshi as the main course from the menu at an Obama Fundraiser event in New York. It was prepared by an award-winning Michelin Starred Indian chef Vikas Khanna.
This is an absolute treat for the bacon lovers. The Sikkam is a thin strip of pork which is desiccated in the cold wind. This makes the pork fats so translucent it almost looks like glass. Sikkam paa is not an everyday Bhutanese dish for the Bhutanese due to its calorie content and is mostly saved for special occasions like traditional ceremonies and festive times. Sikkam is prepared with a variety of vegetables, though radish and spinach are the most common companions for the Sikkam. Dried red chilies are tossed as a whole to retain its heat as much as possible.
Suja and Zaow
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Bhutanese people love tea, almost to the extent of having tea with every meal. Moreover, they love loads of butter in their tea. Yes, to a foreigner where sugar is considered the main sweetener for tea, it may sound extreme to add butter, but this traditional Bhutanese salt and butter tea has a manner of growing on your palates. Suja is cherished by the Bhutanese and is often treated as the welcome beverage to any guest along with the Zaow. Zaow is roasted puffed rice generally offered with the butter tea as cereals. This combination is preferred by many Bhutanese as a very light meal when in a hurry.
Are you a fan of freshly made pasta noodles? Great! Puta will beat all your expectations. Puta is almost like pasta but made with buckwheat. The noodles are made from scratch and rolled by hand to develop their rich taste. The freshness of the noodles is what makes it an authentic Bhutanese dish. Puta is indigenous to central Bhutan but is enjoyed by the whole country.
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People who love dumplings are going to enjoy this dish a little too much because this is the best version of dumplings anyone can get anywhere in the world. Hoentey is a dumpling made with Buckwheat flour. The fillings are made of spinach, cheese, butter and over a number of spices. This popular Bhutanese dish is only native to one region in the whole of Bhutan called the Haa Valley. Residents of Haa Valley are known as Haaps, and hoentey is a delight for them. However, it is not an everyday meal but is only made once a year during the Lomba, the New Year for the Haaps.
Insider tip: If you ever visit Haa Valley, make sure to spend a night at a farmhouse and request the lady of the house to make or even teach you how to make this healthy delicious dish.
Apart from these Bhutanese dishes, red rice dominates daily meals in Bhutan, which is eaten along with other curries and dishes made of either meat or vegetables. With this article I could only touch the tip of the iceberg of what Bhutanese food truly stands for. However, you can learn more from the last episode of Parts unknown featuring the late celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain. It is an awesome video on Bhutanese food and culture.