How was food in Bhutan? For gourmands, that was the first questions – the prettiness and happiness being taken for granted. Well, to understand Bhutanese cuisine, one has to understand the region, the geography and its people.
Bhutan is extremely mountainous, and almost everyone lives in valleys. These valleys are generally in the north south orientation, divided by high eastern Himalayan ranges. So even though Bhutan is quite small in land area, and well under a million in population for the entire country, there are variations in cuisine between various regions of the country.
To remark that Bhutan is a unique destination for tourists would be to underplay the significance such places. The world could well be divided into those who have been to Bhutan, and well, those who haven’t. Given the fairly tight restrictions on the number of people who can visit this remote Himalayan nation, the ‘visited’ club is an exclusive club. Suffice to say, Bhutan’s existence in the midst of south Asia, is just one of the quirks that makes our planet worth exploring, especially off the beaten track.
Clean, polite, orderly, languid paced, with a great sense of public aesthetics, where the people protested when democracy came to them in the previous decade – monarchy was apparently so benevolent – for such a small country, it is no wonder that Bhutan is high up on bucket lists. Over the previous few decades, it has assiduously built up this reputation for uniqueness, and this is reflected in many aspects of life, including its cuisine.
Indians need to count themselves as specially blessed, for along with citizens of Bangladesh and Maldives, they are not subject to the usual restrictions that visitors from the rest of the world face – restricted visa, entry by air only, high entry fee.
Travelling between the east and west is not really the easiest option, which has contributed to the development of local food traditions. Sikkim is to the west, and Nepal beyond that, while Tibet, now part of China, is to the north. All these have played a major role in shaping Bhutan, perhaps more than India, which lies to the south and east.
For the visitor, all staples of generic travel food are easily available – bread, eggs, noodles, candies et al. However, for those yearning for the local stuff, be warned – take the local cuisine in small doses.
In Bhutan, chillies could well be the national food. And hot rather than savoury or sweet or sour, is the chief flavour, apparently. The nation is obsessed with chillies, and green and red chillies are to be found everywhere. It is no surprise to find them in grocery stores in sacks and on tables and in packed bags in multiple stages between fresh and dried. It is greater surprise to find them in almost every other store as well! And on most rooftops, where they are drying. Almost all meal dishes have chillies, and they enjoy the status of entrées in their own right.
The chilli mania is mainly weather led. The heat of eating chillies in copious amounts acts as an internal fleece blanket – needed in these extreme temperatures. So yes, locals to eat a lot of chillies – as part f meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner and at snack time too! Do not for a second imagine you can match that – without consequences. The excessive use of chilli does not kill other flavour – indeed there are hardly any as there is an almost total absence of spices except salt.
The staple that chillies are eaten with is rice. Eue chum is the local red rice with a distinctly nutty aroma. Red Rice is local grown – in extremely pretty fields in summer – and is rather harder than what most Indians would be used to. Crunchy and nutty would describe it well. Cooking it turns it a bit paler – almost pinkish. Now other rice varieties from lower lands are easily available too. While Buckwheat is eaten mainly in northern parts such as Bumthang, and maize in the Eastern districts, and rice is the main staple for the rest of the country, especially the more populous west and south.
What is considered the national dish of Bhutan – ema datse or datshi – may leave you a little cold. In feeling, not heat, for its main ingredient is chillies! Well, basically a lot of chillies are combined with chopped onion and cooked over fire with dates, a local cheese – think paneer, only harder. While this can be served as is, the dish also sometimes has shredded meats such as phagsa (pork), norsha (fresh beef) or shakam (dried beef) or vegetables added. Do try it – in the right proportions, the blandness of ema datse actually goes well with side dishes, which are guaranteed to have a greater hotness quotient!
Chief among these would be various dishes generically called paa. Usually meats, these combine chillies with pork or other meats. A spicy minced chicken, Jasha Maru, is also popular.
Bhutan’s high altitudes means the growing season is short, and greens in short supply. So drying them for winter is a common practice, and even street side vendors sell dried cauliflower, bitter gourd, carrot, brinjal, pumpkin and many other crops dried in packets. Local tomatoes distinct in colour and shape, are commonly used in cooking.
Bhutan’s links with Tibet are historic, and the two areas have had long, if not always peaceful, exchanges of ideas, culture. goods and influences. So no surprise then that dumplings or momos are common here too, and the Tibetan style is getting more popular with tourists. Other snacks include khabzey (dried fritters made with flour, water, and sugar, which are then deep-fried) and juma (Bhutanese sausages marinated in spices), and noodles.
East Asian food influences are marked too, and easily seen in everyday and tourist food. Restaurants commonly serve Chinese, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Indian foods. Top flight hotels will serve fancier stuff, from pancakes to croissants to éclairs. While spices are not common, increasingly they are coming from India and Thailand – cardamom, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and thingay or Sichuan pepper.
Dairy foods, especially butter and cheese from yaks and cows, are also popular. Yes, as with many other hill regions, the absence of sugar means tea can be buttery and salty. An acquired taste, so if unacquainted, take small sips when trying for first time. Locally brewed ara or rice wine and beer also help tackle the cold. Unless you are going in the peak of summer, the temperature is what you will have to combat at all times, leading you straight to hot food!
Bhutan may not offer great variety, but its unique offerings indeed make the global palate richer for its presence.