A trip to Bhutan is incomplete without trying Bhutanese food. It is a spice that Bhutanese people are in love with that is found very boldly in their various dishes.
Vegetarian tourists can breathe a sigh of relief about their food options.
It is interesting to note that despite the existence of many popular meat-based dishes, a significant number of Bhutanese are vegetarians. There are also plenty of Indian and Chinese foods available across the country.
1. Ai Datshi – A stew made with chillies and cheese
‘Datshi’ means ‘cheese’ in the Bhutanese language of the Dzongkha, which they use in many dishes, the most popular being Ema Datshi which is like a stew made of chilli and cheese (‘Ema’ means chilli) and may prove too spicy for some.
Being the national dish of Bhutan, it is arguably the most popular dish in the country and no discussion about Bhutanese food can go without mentioning Ema Datshi.
Chilli seeds and ribs are removed and split lengthwise and mixed with cheese, garlic, water and a little oil.
This cheese is a farmer’s cheese that does not dissolve in water and is rarely found outside of this country. Sometimes onions and tomatoes are also added. Yak cheese can also be used.
There may be small differences in the preparation of Ema Datshi across the country (such as the consistency of the liquid), but the ultimate essence remains the same.
2. Shakam Datashi
Shakam Datshi is another variant of this dish made from dried Bhutanese beef which is a very popular meat.
The beef is dried and preserved but not completely dehydrated. This is then boiled in cheese and butter.
3. Kheva Datshi (Potatoes and Cheese)
Kheva Datashi consists of chilies along with potatoes that are finely chopped and then cooked with cheese and butter. Tomatoes and chilies can also be added for some flavor.
Shamu datashi mainly consists of mushrooms and cheese and is prepared in a similar way. All these dishes are eaten with a generous serving of red or brown or white rice.
4. Red rice – staple food in Bhutan
Except for the Bumthang region, where buckwheat foods are more popular, red rice is one of the staple foods of the Bhutanese people.
It is a medium-grain variety of rice grown in the eastern Himalayan states. It has been grown for years in the fertile soil of the Paro Valley, which benefits from mineral-rich glacial water.
It cooks faster than other varieties of rice because it is only partially milled, meaning some bran remains on the rice and gives it a reddish-brown color after cooking.
Being gluten and wheat free and rich in minerals, it is also highly nutritious. This rice is very earthy and nutty in taste and goes very well with spicy dishes.
Bhutanese often have mushroom and chili based dishes such as ima datshi, shamu datshi, kheva datshi and some other cheese-based and meat-based dishes.
5. Jasha maru or maru – spicy chicken stew or curry
Another tasty dish is jasha maru which is like a spicy stew or curry made with chicken, onion, garlic, chillies, tomatoes, ginger and coriander. Ginger gives this dish its essence.
It can be served with a generous portion of chicken broth. Beef can also be used in place of chicken.
It is usually served with red rice as is the case with most Bhutanese dishes.
6. Faksha Pa – Pork with Red Chillies
Paa is a curry with gravy or meat stew. Faksha pa highlights another Bhutanese favorite – pork.
This dish is made from chunks of pork stir-fried with whole red chilies (another spicy dish), ginger and bok choy.
Bok choy is also known as white mustard cabbage or pak choy and has a peppery flavor and celery-like stalk with dark leaves. It is used not only in stews but also in fresh salads.
Mountain vegetables like radish and spinach can also be added to fakshapa. It is often eaten with rice and savory dishes.
7. Shakam Pa
Shakam pa which is rich in protein consists of dry beef pieces cooked with dry chillies, potatoes, onions and radish.
It is usually cooked in one pot and served with a portion of rice.
8. Sikm Pa
Sicaam Paa is another version of this dish that uses sun-dried pork belly which is then fried with dry chilies.
9. Yaksha Shakam
Yaksha Shakam is a version of this dish that replaces pork with dried yak meat.
10. Suja – Bhutani Butter Tea
Tea is often drunk in Bhutan but it is a little different.
Locals mainly use butter tea, also known as suja or po cha or gor gor which is usually served after meals and is found to be very comforting in cold weather. Fermented yak butter is made from fresh yak milk.
This butter is then boiled with tea leaves and water. It’s a frothy drink that tastes more like butter than tea, and its salty taste may surprise some.
Butter tea is also enjoyed in parts of Tibet and Nepal. Suj can also be made with cow’s butter.
11. Ara – traditional alcoholic drink
Ara (or Arag) is a traditional alcoholic drink in Bhutan. It is made by fermenting or distilling rice, wheat, maize, millet, barley or buckwheat and usually appears creamy, white or clear.
It has a very strong smell and taste. Sometimes butter and eggs are also heated to make ara a more nutritious drink.
There are also other drinks like banchang and sinchang which are made by fermenting grains with homemade yeast. Sinchang is a cold drink while Banchang is a hot drink.
12. Zoe Shungo – Veggie Dish
As the word, Zo – which means magnificent, this dish is popular in Bhutanese cuisine.
It is made from leftover vegetables and red rice and can be prepared quickly and easily.
It’s a healthier option and one that ensures you don’t have to throw away leftover vegetables.
13. Jaju Soup – Traditional Bhutanese soup
Jaju is a traditional Bhutanese soup, usually served as a side dish.
It is made from green leafy vegetables such as local spinach or even turnips. Broth is prepared with milk and butter.
Sometimes, cheese is also added to make it better and tastier.
14. Jasha Tshome – Spicy stew
Jasha Tshom is a spicy Bhutanese stew made with beef and flavored with ginger-garlic, onions, chilies and sometimes mushrooms.
15. Khur-le – buckwheat pancake
Khur-le is a traditional hearty Bhutanese breakfast, ideal for cold weather. It is a pancake made from buckwheat, barley or wheat flour.
It works well as a combination with other Bhutanese dishes such as ima or shakam datshi or with eggs and sauce.
16. Puta – buckwheat noodles
Puta is a type of traditional Bhutanese noodles. They are a healthy alternative to regular noodles, as they are made from buckwheat.
They are usually served boiled, but can also be fried in oil.
It can be spiced up by adding different sauces and fried vegetables. As an alternative to rice, buckwheat noodles serve as a staple food in Bhutan.
17. Momos – All the way from Tibet
Having migrated from Tibet and Bhutan to many regions of India, particularly North India – momos have established themselves as the most popular street food and given serious competition to the likes of traditional Indian street favorites chaat and vada-pav.
Bhutan offers some very tasty options for this snack. These steamed hot dumplings contain a variety of stuffing – including ground beef, pork and other meats, as well as vegetables such as cabbage.
Spiced cheese momos are also a popular option. Apart from steamed varieties, there are also fried momos. They are eaten with a hot chili sauce called Ize.
18. Hoentay – Fried Momos
An alternative to the famous dish of momos, Hoentay comes from Bhutan’s Haa Valley. They are made from Bhutanese buckwheat and steamed or fried with different ingredients of green leafy vegetables, cheese and meat. They are also served with Bhutanese chili sauce.