If there’s one constant for Bhutanese cuisine, it’s got to be the chillies! Chilies are not considered a seasoning, but a true valuable vegetable in Bhutan. Therefore, traditional Bhutanese food is lavishly spiced with dried or fresh red or green chilies. Which is exactly why, while in Bhutan you ought to try the national dish of Ema Datshi (Chilli Cheese). As the name suggests, this popular dish is made up of Ema (chilli) and Datsi (cheese). It is a must-try food while you are in Bhutan. If you can’t take spicy food, let your guide know in advance and they will be able to arrange for the restaurants to prepare your meals with less spice.
Here is a one-minute video on how to cook the popular Bhutanese dish, ema datshi (chilli cheese).
This recipe has spun into numerous variations: Kewa Datsi (potato and cheese), Shamu Datsi (mushroom and cheese).
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. Some of the commonly eaten vegetables include spinach, pumpkins, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, riverweed, onions and green beans. When you are in Bumthang, central Bhutan, buckwheat pancakes and noodles replace rice as the favourite staple.
Bhutanese Food for Tourists
Bhutanese cuisine is influenced by Chinese, Tibetan and Indian culture. Don’t be surprised to see mountains of rice being served. Apart from white rice, the healthier red rice is also consumed in Bhutan. If you enjoy eating Chinese food, you should also enjoy Bhutanese food as they share similar taste and ingredients. Another major ingredient in Bhutanese cuisines would be cheese. Well, it is no surprise as Bhutan is a relatively cold country in high altitude and majority of the farmers rear cows, yaks, sheep and goats; livestock that produce dairy products. Thus, you will find cheese in most of the meals including their teas! Suja (butter tea) is a popular drink for the locals. Bhutanese enjoy sipping a cup of suja while munching on their zaw (roasted rice) for breakfast. Or sometimes, they like to eat porridge in the morning.
However, don’t be too worried if you aren’t able to eat food that is too spicy. A majority of Bhutan’s professional chefs take into account the foreigners’ less spicy taste. Most restaurants in Bhutan offer customers a wide range of cuisine 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.
Food in Bhutan is generally clean and safe for consumption. So far, there hasn’t been any complaint of food poisoning from tourists. One important point to note is to avoid drinking water directly from the tap and drink only bottled water if you have a weak stomach. Bhutan’s agro industry has excellent bottled spring water. Furthermore, the price of a 1-liter bottle of water is only 20 BTN (0.30 USD).
As a predominantly Buddhist country, 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 commonly 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). A bottle of 0.5-liter local beer can be anywhere between 80 BTN (1.25 USD) and 250 BTN (3.60 USD).
There are generally more restaurants in the capital, Thimphu and major towns like Paro, as well as the southern town of Phuentsholing. In the capital, the sweet milk tea (ngad-ja) is broadly available and may be served in a pot, accompanied with snacks. Otherwise, those who are adventurous might want to attempt a cup of Suja, a butter tea with salt added in it. While it is actually more like a soup than tea, it is surprisingly tasty and keeps you warm on a cold day. Moreover, the local brew known as Arra, which is distilled from rice, barley, or wheat is also available. If you are an alcohol lover, locally produced beers and whiskeys are available too.
There are some cafes that provide free wireless network (wifi) for their customers. Ultimately, visitors may want to check out establishments like Ambience Cafe, Coffee Culture, Karma’s Cafe, Art Cafe, and Season Restaurants in Thimphu.
Traditional Bhutanese Dishes to try
Ema datshi - A vegetarian dish made of chili and cheese.
Phaksha paa - Sliced pork stir-fried with red chillies.
Phaksha laphu (stewed pork with radishes).
Yak meat - Fried and served as a snack.
No sha huentse - Stewed beef dish with spinach.
Phaksha phin tshoem - Pork with rice noodles.
Jasha maroo - Chicken in garlic and butter sauce.
Momos - Chicken, pork, beef, cheese, vegetables, or chillies dumplings.
Kewa Datsi - Potatoes with cheese.
Bhathup - Flour noodle soup.
Ezay - A condiment made of onions and chillies with cheese or red chili paste.
Thueb - Porridge made from rice or flat noodles, topped with fried meat.
Fing - Vermicelli or glass noodles that are popularly eaten with meat.
Khur-le – Buckwheat pancakes.
Find out more information about Bhutanese cuisine.