Bhutanese Cuisine


My Bhutanese alter ego :)

Bhutan, the last true Himalayan Kingdom, has worked hard to retain every aspect of its cultural identity. Every home that is built must conform to guidelines that mandate traditional woodwork and craftsmanship on the facade. Whenever a Bhutanese citizen sets foot on the  premises of a government office, a school, or a college, they are required by law to don traditional attire – the gho (for men) and the kira (for women). The Kingdom of Bhutan not only keeps its traditions alive from within – it also takes active steps to limit outside influence while reaping the economic benefits of tourism. Only 21,000 foreign tourists are allowed to visit each year, and each of these tourists is required by law to a) book all travel through a licensed Bhutanese or international travel agency; b) spend a minimum of US$ 200 per day, paid in advance, for food, transport, sightseeing and accommodation; and c) enter the country via air, thereby filling the coffers of DrukAir, Bhutan’s state-owned monopoly airline (as of August, Buddha Air, a Nepalese airline, is also being allowed to operate flights into Bhutan).

Happily, thanks to the bonhomie between our two countries, none of these strictures apply to Indian citizens. Indians are allowed to enter Bhutan by road, without a visa (you need a permit-on-arrival, though); make their own travel arrangements; and spend however much (or however little :) ) moolah they choose.

Bhutanese Food: hot, hotter, hottest

Jaigaon: gateway to Bhutan

Bhutan was the final destination on our Great Indian Family Road Trip. Driving into the country is surreal. One minute, you’re in Jaigaon, a dirty little West Bengal highway town; the next, you’re passing through an elaborate archway, erected to mark that imaginary line we call a national border. Suddenly, you find yourself in another country… and the fact that it is another country is unmistakable. It’s cleaner – far cleaner. The people are dressed differently. The buildings are distinctly Bhutanese. And the food – well, that’s the first thing we checked out, even before getting our permits.

Balls of datse, or local cheese

Bhutanese cuisine is… well, unusual. For one thing, the country has an obsession with chillies, treating them as a vegetable rather than a spice, and cooking and eating them as entrées in their own right. For another, the range of the cuisine seems to be confined to just four variables:

  • the kind and quantity of chillies used;
  • the kind of meat, if any, preferred;
  • the addition or omission of a vegetable (usually radish, cabbage, potato or mushroom); and
  • the presence or absence of datse (a local cheese akin to paneer).

A dish called phing was the only thing we tried that added a fifth dimension to this simple culinary algorithm: glass noodles. Otherwise, the combinations are limited only by your preference. No spices, seasonings, or herbs are added – just salt, leaving your taste buds to discern which of the three categories (hot, hotter, hottest) each dish belongs to.

Phing, the only variation... and the chillies (red AND green) are still there!

Buttered baby asparagus

Bhutan’s cool climes are perfect for growing asparagus, and the Bhutanese like to eat copious quantities of young asparagus spears boiled in water that’s been generously laced with butter.

If boiled asparagus isn’t your thing, though, you could begin your exploration of the Bhutanese culinary landscape with ema datse, popularly known as Bhutan’s ‘national dish’. Ema datse consists of a quarter of a kilo  of slit green chillies (ema), cooked with chopped onion, and smothered in a sauce made from datse. If you like meat, you can add add a small amount of phagsa (pork), norsha (fresh beef) or shakam (dried beef) to the mix.

Ema datse with eue chhum

This is consumed as a sort of curry-dip with eue chhum, a local red rice with a distinctly nutty aroma. Yes, you eat the chillies whole. Yes, with the seeds still in. No, postprandial life support is usually not necessary.

Eezay - chopped chillies with onions

What’s that? You’re going to want a side dish? Sure, help yourself to some eezay – finely chopped fresh red chillies and raw onion, seasoned with salt and lime juice.

Phagsha paa

Oh. You aren’t exactly keen on chillies as a side dish. In that case, would you care for some paa, meat pan fried with fiery red chillies until its fat is infused with their heat? Paa is available in phagsa, norsha and shakam (dried beef) versions. You’re vegetarian? No problem, Try kewa (potato) or shamu (mushroom) ema datse… yes, you’re right, that’s just ema datse with a veggie thrown in.

Front to rear: Wild ginger rice, beef ema datse, ema roast pork

The only time we tasted anything other than eue chhum, paa, phing, and various avatars of  ema datse, was in a tiny little restaurant in Thimphu. We got a delicately flavored ginger rice in place of the red rice, and sliced ema roast pork (yes, it was spicy)… and a beef ema datse, without which we were told that our meal would have been incomplete.

Too hot to handle?

Why the chilli mania? Because it’s extremely cold up there! In a concession to those who are not blessed with a fireproof palate, some eateries in Bhutan thoughtfully deseed the chillies. In my usual bid to eat like a local, however, we stuck to the more fiery versions. Surprisingly, the excessive use of chilli does not kill all flavor – rather, it acts as a counterfoil to the creaminess of the cheese and the plain-Jane treatment of the meat. I especially enjoyed the kick it added to the otherwise bland datse sauce.

Mr. Small and I are chilli-heads; although my own palate soon tired of the lack of variety in flavor, Mr. Small couldn’t get enough. And although Giant  Vacuum Cleaner couldn’t consume his usual awe-inspiring quantities at each meal, he loved eezay (we brought a jar each of beef and fish eezay back with us). As for The Spouse,who is a self-confessed chilli-wimp, suffice it to say that he ate mountains of asparagus over the duration of our stay. Don’t waste a minute of your time feeling sorry for him, though – every plate of asparagus was washed down with ara, the local liquor – a somewhat smoother version of the rice-based raksi of Sikkim. Asparagus and ara – now that’s what I call a healthy meal!

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12 thoughts on “Bhutanese Cuisine

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was always under the impression that spicy food (not regular spices, but chillies) is a feature of places where the weather is hot as opposed to cold – the chillies make you sweat, which when evaporates makes you feel cool. I’m pretty certain about this funda, so I’m a little flummoxed as to why a Himalayan country would love chillies the way they do. Unless of course there’s some chemistry that I haven’t figured out yet when it comes to red chillies vs green. But then again there are dishes here that use green as well as red. Fully confused now!

    • Hey huduga,

      You are absolutely right. Yes, the capsaicin in the chilli peppers does make you sweat and therefore cools you down. However, before you actually start sweating, the capsaicin, much like alcohol, causes your blood vessels to dilate. This increases blood flow to the surface of the skin, where your nerve endings are more sensitive to changes in temperature. You feel warmer, because the blood is rushing to the surface. However, this effect is short-lived, especially when the air around you is cold – rapid heat transfer takes place (your body to the atmosphere) and you cool down. Perhaps that’s why they eat the chillies nonstop – not giving the body a chance to cool down! I swear to god, their stomachs have GOT to be made of cast iron.

  2. Hi Suman,

    Good stuff my girl!!

    I love asparagus but it is quite expensive around where I live. I wondered if it was the same in that part of the world?

    Much love,

    Kanti.

    • Hey Aunty K,

      I am so pleased to see you on here! Oddly enough, asparagus requires cold weather to grow well. So in India, it’s only grown up in Himachal and Uttaranchal, as well as hill stations like Ooty. It is expensive here in Bangalore, but not hideously so. The reason asparagus is expensive is that it isn’t an easy veg to grow commercially. It needs to root itself for three years before it yields a crop, and it has to be harvested by hand. We in India have adequate labor to harvest it, while you don’t – so that probably explains why it is expensive where you are.

  3. Hi suman

    Got time today to sit down and read various articles. Thanks for letting me know about your blog. Fascinating. No, I did not know that you wrote a blog nor that it was so interesting. Bhutan is a place I have wanted to explore for ages and you seem very lucky to have experienced that whole area of india. Quite unexplored I guess.
    Hope goa is lovely and you can continue your love for chillies there too!
    Happy new year and looking forward to the next blog.
    Bubloo.

  4. Hello,

    I have several neighbors that are Bhutanese and it is beyond imagination the smell that comes from their cooking. It’s absolutely horrid! Reading your article did not help me discern what it could be. From your article, the ingrediants are simple enough. Did you experience the horrible smell of the food also or maybe they have other stinky dishes not mentioned here. Just wondering enough to search out their cuisine habits.

    • Nope, not very smelly at all… unlike the Thai, they do not use fish sauce or shrimp paste. They do, however dry some of their meats, and that may be the smell you find so distasteful. My guess though is that the smell is that of the chillies that are used in abundance – dried, roasted, fried… It can be overpowering. Not unpleasant though! Since they are your neighbors, why don’t you ask them about what they cook on a daily basis?

    • When “Dhachi” or “datse” is allowed to ferment for a long time, we get “sheden” which is horribly stinky. A kilo of “dhachi” is reduced to about 125gms. It is used in the similar way to make “ema dhachi”. A teaspoonful is sufficient to flavour 500gms of “ema dhachi”. It must be this which makes the stink from their cooking. Fermented soya beans may be another culprit. However, if you get used to the stink, it is absolutely delicious.

  5. Hi,
    stumbled upon your blog since I am also about to embark on trip to Bhutan. Fascinating. But tell me, is there anything at all sans chillies? coz my threshold is very low.

    • Hiya

      There is very little that is not fiery hot with chillies. Boiled asparagus, lots of it. You can request other boiled vegetables too. In places like Thimphu, you can get a little variety, and they are geared to “tone it down” for tourists. However, in other parts of Bhutan – forget it!

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