In addition to its scenic brilliance and rich culture, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has a wide cuisine that caters to varying palates. Bhutanese Cuisine- Ema Datshi, Shakam Datshi, Jasha Maru, Momos. The Bhutanese enjoy spicy food more than most South-Asian countries. They employ its iconic red chillies in most of the dishes. The cuisine is evident of traceable Chinese, Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian influences, but it still retains a distinct taste. As you’ll see, chillies are a common ingredient across most dishes. Chillies are used not as a side ingredient but as a vegetable in numerous dishes. Red, green, white, sliced, diced, whole, dried – the Bhutanese love to spice up their food.
Step into any restaurant and the most common dish you will come across is Ema Datshi. A stew made from potatoes, tomatoes, red or green chillies, some butter, and datshi, which is Bhutanese cheese, it is the staple food of Bhutan. The way ema datshi is cooked differs according to preference, some are more cheesy and sticky than others. The other variations of Ema Datshi include Kewa Datshi, Shamu Datshi, Shakam Ema Datshi. These dishes are made using alternative ingredients like potatoes, mushrooms, and beef respectively along with the common base of cheese and chillies. Shakam Shukam Datshi, another variant, is made with cheese and dried white chillies, which adds an incredible sour spice in the dish. Non vegetarian variations in Ema Datshi include those made with yak meat, beef, or chicken. Bhutanese Cuisine- Ema Datshi, Shakam Datshi, Jasha Maru, Momos.
Ema Datshi is usually served by itself or with another Bhutanese staple, Red Rice. The pale pink, soft and sticky rice is extremely nutritious and is the only product to be exported from Bhutan.
Ema Datshi with Red Rice
Though largely vegetarian, the Bhutanese also take their meat seriously, with pork, chicken, beef, and yak being used in a whole bunch of dishes. They dry yak meat in the summer months on their roofs so as to be able to use it in the winters when access to markets is virtually cut off. Jasha Maru is chicken stew made with a blend of garlic, onion, ginger, tomatoes and coriander leaves mixed with diced chicken. This too, is served with some red rice. The dish can also be made with beef instead of chicken. Bhutanese Cuisine- Ema Datshi, Shakam Datshi, Jasha Maru, Momos.
Paa is a meat stew-cum-gravy curry cooked with vegetables and/or fresh or dried whole chillies. The vegetables used are fresh, and are chosen according to whatever is available in the particular weather. Due to extreme weather conditions, vegetables are dried and stored for usage in winters when fresh vegetables are rarely available. The dried vegetables are usually soaked and rehydrated before cooking. Lom, or turnip leaves, are one of the few greens which may be preserved and eaten all year long. Lom is either sautéed and consumed by itself or cooked with meat in the form of a Paa.
Opt for Shakam Paa for a protein-rich mix of dried beef cooked with slices of radish, onions, or potatoes and of course, dried chillies. It is generally cooked in a pot and served with rice. Phaksha Paa is made with stir fried pork along with dry red chillies and vegetables like radish, onions, ginger, and bok choy. Bok Choy, also known as Pak Choi and White Mustard Cabbage, belongs to the cabbage family, and has dark leaves with a celery-like stalk which has a mildly peppery flavour. It is often used in fresh salads or stir fried for use in stews and curries.
Shikam Paa, another variant in meat-based dishes, is made with strips of dried bacon fried with dried chillies. The yak meat variant of the dish is Yaksha Shakam. Yak meat is dried into a jerky-like meat and cooked in a number of different ways, including with fermented yak cheese, turnip greens, and chillies. Bhutanese Cuisine- Ema Datshi, Shakam Datshi, Jasha Maru, Momos. Bhutanese Cuisine- Ema Datshi, Shakam Datshi, Jasha Maru, Momos.
Needless to say, a write up about food in Bhutan would remain incomplete without a mention of momos – a delicacy across Indian, Tibetan and Nepalese communities, and has also travelled across to other countries. The steamed or fried pack stuffed with either minced beef or pork or chicken with vegetables including onion, garlic and cabbage is served with a dipping sauce made from tomatoes, chillies, ginger and sesame seeds.
Momos with dipping sauce
Hoentay is a dish similar to momos, but is made with buckwheat dough wrapper stuffed with a mixture of turnip leaves, spinach or cheese, and either steamed or fried. It is served with a spicy chilli sauce called Ezay.
Other must-try Bhutanese dishes include Goep, a dish prepared with tripe stir fried with chillies, green onions and other vegetables, Juma, a meaty sausage made with minced meat, rice and spices. Gondo Datshi, described as the ultimate scrambled eggs, is made with datshi cheese, butter and dried chilli, and is consumed with some red rice.
In the slightly bigger cities of Bhutan, like Thimphu, Paro, Phuntsholing, and Punakha among others, usually in the more touristy areas, there are small cafes which sell staple urban food like pizzas, burgers and sandwiches too, if Bhutanese food doesn’t cater to a person’s palate. Bhutanese Cuisine- Ema Datshi, Shakam Datshi, Jasha Maru, Momos
The tea in Bhutan definitely requires a very special mention. Suja, or butter tea, is made with fermented yak butter that is churned from fresh yak milk. A lump of it is then boiled along with water and locally procured tea leaves. The savoury, frothy mix is served after meals, and is much healthier than most desserts. Bhutanese herbal tea is a drink for a comfortable hour on cold nights wrapped in a huge blanket. Safflower and cinnamon, Himalayan gooseberry, or a mix of spices ranging from cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, and fennel among others spice up a hot mug of water and provide delightful storm of flavours to sip.
Butter Tea, Suja