Food is the single great unifier that connects us across cultures and religions. A trip to Bhutan will be incomplete without trying out some of its popular dishes.
While Bhutanese food is heavily influenced by Chinese, Tibetan and Indian cuisines, it still maintains distinct local flavours.
Just like its interesting languages, you will also find Bhutanese food habits and dishes interesting.
What type of food do Bhutanese eat?
Whether you are a meat-lover or a vegetarian, Bhutan offers you a variety of foods to satisfy your hunger. Let’s discover some surprising facts about Bhutanese cuisine.
Chillies are treated as vegetables
Do you love to eat spicy foods? If yes, you will surely love Bhutanese food. At every vegetable stall, every vendor sells chillies, and almost every cuisine has chilies as its ingredients. Unlike its tourism seasons with peak and off-peak periods, chillies are not limited to a particular season. It’s an all year round dish. Whether it is spring or winter, chillies are a staple in Bhutanese meals.
While countries all around the world are treating chillies as spice or seasoning, Bhutanese treat chillies as ‘vegetables’. In fact, one of the most heavily consumed vegetables within the kingdom. The Bhutanese simply love spicy food.
When you’re in Bhutan, you can see chillies hanging on roofs to be dried.
Bhutanese love cheese
Combine the chillies with cheese, popularly known as ‘datshi’ in Bhutan, and you’ll get the country’s favourite dish. Ema datshi, ‘chilli cheese’ is deemed the national dish of Bhutan. Loved by many tourists and locals alike.
Just like the chillies, cheese is also a staple in the Bhutanese cuisine. There are many variations of popular Bhutanese dishes with cheese such as shamu datshi ‘mushroom cheese’ and kewa datshi ‘potato cheese’. So, if you are a lover of chilli and cheese - you’ve got to visit Bhutan! Even if you are not a fan of chillies, not to worry as you can easily let your guide know that you can’t tolerate spice. They will be able to reduce the spiciness level for tourists.
Not all Bhutanese are vegetarians
Contrary to popular beliefs, even though Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist kingdom, not all Bhutanese are vegetarians. While there are a huge pool of vegetarians within the country, there are many Bhutanese who consume meat.
Some of the popular meats include chicken, pork, beef and yak. Aside from stews made of meat, they like to eat dried meats. Spinach, onion, potatoes, radishes, pumpkins, bamboo shoots, fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms, broccolis are some popular vegetables in Bhutan.
Fishes are rarely consumed as the country has very strict rules and regulations on fishing.
Huge influence of Tibetan cuisine
If you’ve been to Tibet, you may notice that Bhutanese food bears similarities to Tibetan cuisine. That’s unsurprising as historically, the early settlers of Bhutan came from Tibet. However, as the food habits and dishes continue to evolve, Bhutan continues to develop its own distinctive cuisine. Hence, Bhutanese food is spicier compared to Tibetan food.
Popular must-try traditional dishes in Bhutan
At every dining table in Bhutan, you will find a mountain of red rice – which makes Bhutanese food healthy. The red rice produced in Bhutan is of the highest quality. Bhutanese have been growing and eating red rice as their staple for centuries. Red rice is gluten free, full of nutrients such as zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B, protein and potassium. It is also known to contain more zinc and iron than white, black or brown rice.
Ask any traveller who has been to Bhutan what’s their favourite Bhutanese dish and you’re bound to get ‘ema datshi’ as an answer!
Although this chilli cheese stew seems like a simple meal, it's very delicious and highly recommended. Here is a one-minute video on how to cook the popular and well-loved ema datshi.
Jasha Maroo or Maru
Another traditional food that you must taste is the Jasha Maroo – a hot and spicy chicken stew. A perfect dish to keep you warm, especially during the winter season. Garlic, onion, chicken, chilies, ginger, and diced chicken are main ingredients of this dish. This simple delicious dish combined with red rice is sure to satisfy your cravings.
Another favourite Bhutanese dish that you must try is their phaksha paa which is made of stir-fried sliced pork with a variety of red hot chillies.
This dish is usually served with hoentay (buckwheat dumplings). Phaksha paa can be added with ginger, spinach, or other vegetables.
Momos are dumplings filled with either pork, yak, chicken or vegetables. These dumplings are popular throughout the Himalayan region including in Tibet and Nepal. Well, don’t be surprised to find chillies added into the Bhutanese dumplings.
Momos can be found everywhere in Bhutan. It’s easily available in most restaurants and eateries.
Find out more about other popular Bhutanese dishes.
Traditional eating habits in Bhutan
Below are some of the traditional eating habits in Bhutan.
Use of wooden bowls and bamboo containers
Traditionally, dishes were served in dapas (wooden bowls), but with the easy availability of modern goods, ceramic bowls have replaced the wooden bowls. Sometimes, bangchung (a circular container made from special bamboo called yura) was also used to put rice and other dry snacks. However, you can still find the traditional dapas or bangchungs sold in many handicraft shops across the country.
Eating with hands
Traditionally, Bhutanese used to eat with their hands while sitting cross-legged on their wooden floors. With modernisation, eating habits have changed and evolved. In urban areas, Bhutanese usually eat with cutleries such as fork and spoon. Today, you will only find Bhutanese eating with their hands when they are at home or having a picnic.
Eating within a group
Bhutanese usually eat in the form of a group. When eating in a group, it’s traditionally expected to sit in a circle and cross-legged on the floor. In the past, the head of family is served first and no one can leave until all the members of the family finish eating and silence is to be maintained while eating. However, these traditional practices are fading with modernisation. Silence is no longer maintained and laughter is shared during mealtimes.
Bhutan is an enchanting country rich in culture and traditions. One can only understand the full extent of its charm by experiencing it in person.
Want to discover breathtaking Bhutan?
You may consider taking a 7-day essential Bhutan tour, or spend 10-day to delve deeper into Bhutan. Check the best time to visit Bhutan and our tips when you’re planning a trip to Bhutan.
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