Top 20 Most Popular Foods in Bhutan
Bhutan is a small Buddhist country in the Himalayan region, sandwiched between China to the north and India to the south. The most important thing to understand about the Bhutanese (as important as their GNH rating) is they have a love of cheese, chilis, and everything spicy.
The food of Bhutan is a blend of many things. The majority of people follow the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism in Tibet, so you’ll get a taste of Tibetan cuisine in some parts of the country, while the Lhotshampa community in other parts of Bhutan have their own mix of tastes.
Bhutan cuisine is, therefore, a pleasant rich mix of many different foods, giving you a uniquely Bhutanese experience. Despite the variety, one thing is constant: the Bhutanese love their chilis and spices like no other.
With agriculture as their backbone, the country is awash with fresh produce. Not only that, it is mostly organic produce. But the main staples of the Bhutanese diet are potatoes (and, again, chilis) and rice.
Let’s dive headfirst into the range of food that you could lap up (with gusto) if you ever visited Bhutan:
1. Ema Datsi
The most famous dish of them all! You can never go wrong with a plate of Ema Datsi even if you tried. Ema datsi literally means ‘chili’ and ‘cheese’. In fact, you’ll find chilis in every single dish you eat in Bhutan.
And cheese? Well, the Bhutanese are known for the variety of cheeses they produce. Cow’s milk cheeses are never eaten raw; they are used for making sauces or in cooked dishes. Zoedoe iis a cheese from the eastern districts and is much sought after for its taste. It is greenish in color, has a very strong smell, and is usually used in soups.
Ema datsi is simple to prepare. The basics are chilis, some oil, salt, garlic, onion, and ginger (if you want) thrown into a pot. After cooking well, the cheese goes in and it simmers for a while until it melts. The spice level depends on how much chili you like. No two ema datsis are ever the same because every cook swishes their own magic into the dish: it can be watery and soupy or sticky and rich, but always delicious.
2. Kewa Datsi
Bhutanese people love Kewa (potatoes) as much as they love their chilis and cheese. This is especially good for those who want to try Bhutanese food but without the spice. It is made in a similar way to ema datsi, but the potato is cut into thin slices and sautéed with butter or oil before adding cheese.
It is then simmered with water (you can choose to add a little more chili or tomatoes and onions). It’s all the potato-ey goodness with cheese that you could ever hope for.
3. Shamu Datsi
Shamu (mushrooms) are found in Bhutan in all their varieties and glory. People hike into the mountains and forests in search of them (be careful of the poisonous ones!). You will savor these mushrooms in a cheesy stew (with chilis!). The dish is a favorite for many in Bhutan.
4. Shakam Ema Datsi
Shakam is dried meat, of which there is quite a variety in Bhutan. The most common dried meat is beef, but all meat is dried here. Then it is cut into bite-sized pieces for popping in the datsi. You can either make it soupy and savory, or rich and cheesy.
Jaju is a milk and vegetable soup. The most common ingredients are local spinach or turnip leaves. The broth is made from milk, butter, and cheese (you can never go wrong with cheese here). Jaju is a mellow soup that goes right along with other dishes. It is especially nice to drink it on colder winter days.
6. Bjasha Maroo
Bhutanese spicy chicken stew is a well-loved dish among the locals. It is a combination of leeks, garlic, onions, and ginger with, of course, green chilis! The chicken stock is made by boiling chicken bone with salt. The dish itself can be topped with chili flakes and Ezay, a hot Bhutanese sauce, to give it even more of a spicy kick.
7. Lentil Soup
Also known as Dahl, this soup is comes from the Lhotshampas of Bhutan. It can be made in a myriad of ways, and every single one of them is a favorite of the people of the country. The lentils are washed and soaked in warm water. Meanwhile, onions, garlic, and chilis are sautéed in oil with salt, and other spices, especially cumin seed.
The lentils are then drained, added to the mix, and fried for a few minutes. Water is added and it is left to boil. The gooey goodness of the lentils complimented by the spices makes any meal a feast. This soup is usually served along with rice and ema datsi. The combination is a favorite for many hungry travelers.
8. Shakam Paa
Shakam Paa is a very popular dish among the Bhutanese. Dried beef is cooked with dried red chilis and sometimes radish. The chilis are usually tossed in whole, so the spicy essence seeps into the whole meat.
9. Phaksha Paa
Along with chicken, beef, and yak meat, pork is also widely popular in Bhutan. The pork is cut into slices and stir-fried with dried red chilis and other vegetables, and sometimes mushrooms. This dish is usually eaten with rice. The savory taste compliments the rice. Since this is a dry kind of dish, it can be served with jaju or dahl.
10. Sikam Paa
This dish is made from pork belly which has been dried for a long time under the piercing Bhutanese sun. Then it is cut into strips and fried with dried red chilis, garlic, onion, etc. It is commonly eaten with rice and soup.
Momo is a dish popular throughout the Himalayan region. These dumplings are a popular food in India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, where they can be found practically anywhere: in the streets, in small eateries, and in fancy high-end restaurants.
There are different momos; some are made with cheese, others with veggies, and still others are stuffed with meat. The dumplings are usually served with the Bhutanese chili sauce ezay. There are steamed momos and fried momos; there’s one for whatever your taste buds are craving.
In Tibet, laphing is a popular street food that has made its way across the Himalayan region to Bhutan. The distinct savory and spicy flavor of laphing makes it a very popular dish.
The dish is traditionally made with flour or potato starch. There are many outlets in Bhutan selling this unique snack in two ways: wet or dry. If you love spicy, tangy and savory snacks, this will not let you down.
Hoentey is another kind of dumpling, unique to the Haa Valley. Hoenteys are especially popular during the Lomba festival. The dough is made from buckwheat and the stuffing is usually of spinach, turnip leaves (lom), and cheese. They are either steamed or fried and, of course, served with ezay.
Ezay is served almost all the time with just about anything: momos, rice, noodles, etc. Ezay is the ultimate Bhutanese chili sauce and a staple part of any and every meal. Therefore, it is essential that it be given a slot of its own.
Now, no two ezays ever taste the same, but every ezay will leave you craving for more. Everyone makes their own variant of ezay in Bhutan. Dried red chilis are crushed and mixed with onions or garlic, Sichuan pepper, and a sprinkle of cheese (if you’re feeling fancy). Sometimes, the chilis are deep fried or roasted before being crushed then mixed with a variety of any other ingredient you want. The roasted or fried chilis give an extra tang of flavor.
Zaow is puffed rice that is served with tea or suja in Bhutanese homes. It is a Bhutanese snack that is common in every household and offered to any guest that enters.
Zaow can also be eaten by mixing it with a cup of tea or suja. I usually eat this combination for breakfast because it’s pretty filling. You can also mix some butter into it.
Bhutanese people love, love, and love their tea. This sweet milk tea is made from milk, sugar, and tea leaves. You can even add a pinch of ground cardamom or crushed or grated ginger for a divine taste! This sweet tea is found everywhere in the country.
Suja is a Bhutanese butter tea which holds a lot of cultural significance. You simply can’t visit Bhutan and not have suja at least once.
Suja is made with a different kind of tea leaf than that used for the sweet, milk tea. Nyashing Jurmo (Viscum articulatum) is found growing parasitically on other plants and they are harvested and dried before making into tea. Suja typically has a buttery, salty taste. It is especially enjoyed on cold winter mornings.
Thuep (Porridege) and Noodles
These delicious buckwheat noodles are especially common in the Bumthang region of Bhutan. The noodles are boiled, drained, and stir-fried with garlic, onion, chilis, and other spices. The accompanying chili sauce is made with dried red chilis and spring onions, which are fried in oil. Traditionally, this food was only prepared on special occasions.
The noodles look darkish and are often jokingly compared to worms. The dish has a very high cultural significance, especially in central Bhutan, where people prepare these noodles and eat them on the ‘day of nine evils’ with the belief that evil spirits would not bother with people gobbling up ‘worms’. Puta has become a delicacy that is a must-try when in Bhutan.
19. Thuep (Rice Porridge)
This dish is a part of every celebration in Bhutan. Thuep is particularly eaten during Losar (Bhutanese New Year) and Blessed Rainy Day as breakfast or as an appetizer.
The rice is cooked slowly on a medium heat with a lot of warm water, along with salt, Sichuan pepper, and chili flakes. Sometimes, diced fresh vegetables are added. Again, the preparation varies depending on the chef’s preference.
Some like to add beef bones to their thuep, while vegetarians opt for small chunks of cottage cheese.
Bathub is usually prepared with rice flour or wheat flour. The dough is kneaded and flattened, then cut into strips. These strips are boiled in water on a medium heat with a pinch of salt and some oil. Any veggies can be added along with diced green chilis, onions, garlic, Sichuan peppers, and spinach, giving the boiled strips of wheat a very healthy and rich flavor. They be topped with ezay to warm you up on cold mornings. This delightful dish is often made during the autumn and winter.
How do Bhutanese people eat?
Bhutanese eating etiquette is unique in itself. Traditionally, food is served in wooden bowls called dapa. The use of a dapa has diminished greatly and today they are most often found as souvenirs or gifts. But some households still keep the tradition alive, with family members having their very own dapa from which they prefer to eat.
As with many parts of Asia, Bhutanese people eat with their fingers. You might say eating in Bhutan is a hands-on experience (see what I did there?). A traditional method of eating sticky rice is to break it into small balls and use them to scoop up the scrumptious dishes. Some people like to make it more exciting by placing the rice on the palm of their hand and tossing it into their mouth (please don’t do this during dinner with your boss!). It can get messy, but the Bhutanese simply love to enjoy their food.