Authentic Bhutanese food is one of the distinctive features of Bhutan’s unique culture. Although Bhutan serves a variety of Asian and Continental dishes, tasting an authentic Bhutanese food is a must while traveling to Bhutan.
Rice is the main body of food accompanied by side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables.
Eating food is more than just satisfying a hungry stomach. It is sense of pride to the family. Food brings people together and during occasions people gather just to eat together. A favourite menu is prepared in sign of love. Bhutanese cuisine is unique for its spiciness. Chili is an essential part of every dish.
Breakfast in Bhutan is usually served light. It’s either tea with snacks or rice porridge. Even if the normally-main-dish-rice is in the menu, either chili salad or one plain vegetable curry is served. The rice is not accompanied by sumptuous multiple side dishes.
1. Suja (butter tea)
Butter and salt are added onto the boiling water with tea leaves. Then, it is poured into a churning cylinder and churned. Today, hand blender is used to bring the best taste out of tea.
2. Ngaja (milk tea)
Milk tea is not native to Bhutan but introduced in the 1940s, it has become a part of Bhutanese lives now. In fact, it has become more popular than the native Suja.
Whenever available, fresh milk is added into the pot of boiling tea leaves but in its absence, milk powder is used. Desired amount of sugar is added to sweeten the tea.
Tea is never served alone during occasions but accompanied by snacks. Following are the authentic Bhutanese snacks.
1. Zaw (roasted rice)
Rice is soaked in water for a few days. Once it becomes soft, water is drained out from rice using a net. Rice is then roasted in a pan until it gets slightly burnt. It becomes a crunchy rice that can be munched alone or enjoyed with tea.
2. Sib (beaten maize)
Dried maize is soaked in water to make it soft. Fresh maize need not be soaked in water. Once the maize gets softened, water is drained out.
Maize is then roasted in a pan and beaten in mortar made of rock or wood with a long wooden pestle. With arrivals of machines, machines are used to beat the maize.
3. Jasib (beaten rice)
Jasib is a rice version of beaten maize with the same technique but beaten rice is softer compared to beaten maize snack.
4. Pop corn
Dried maize is roasted in a pan. Some uses sand in the pan to get a best pop corns. Some uses butter and salt to get its flavor in the popcorn.
To make snacks special, butter and sugar are added to give its extra flavour. In some places, roasted rice is mixed with brown sugar.
3. Thukpa (rice porridge)
The most special menu for breakfast is the rice porridge. Known as Thukpa or Thup, it’s basically a rice porridge where rice is pressure cooked. Ginger, garlic, chili powder, salt, butter and Sichuan pepper are added. Sichuan pepper is a must-add ingredient to give porridge its taste.
For vegetarians, cheese blocks are added and for non-vegetarians, beef or pork (with or without bones) are added.
Lunch and dinner
Lunch are dinner are sumptuous and heavy. The menu for lunch and dinner are interchangeable. Rice, being the main body of the dish, it be always there. During special occasions, various kinds of drinks are a part of dinner and sometimes, of lunch as well.
Following are the authentic Bhutanese side dishes served on special occasions and the dishes are esteemed high. Butter or oil, chili and salt are a must ingredients in all kinds of dishes.
An air-dried slices of pork are stir fried with whole chilies or with vegetables such as beans, potatoes, dried spinach and turnip leaves.
Sliced of dried beef is cooked with whole chili or with vegetables such as beans, potatoes, dried spinach and turnip leaves. The same kind of dish is prepared from dried yak meat with the same cooking technique.
Tradition and technique of drying and preserving beef and pork is also a part of the normal cooking style of Bhutan.
Trotters of beef or pork are chopped into small pieces and boiled until thoroughly cooked. Some amount of gravy are intentionally left for the savor and spices such as garlic, ginger, chili powder and Sichuan pepper are added. The kangchu is usually gravy and sticky and of course, mouthwatering.
Juma is Bhutanese sausage made with flour and spices filled into an intestines of beef or pork. It is dried until occasion comes. It is cooked like sikam and shakam.
Ko is a skin of a cattle. The process of preparing ko is drudging and time consuming. The skin is cut into rectangular pieces and burned in a fire to burn the hairs so that skin becomes clean. Burnt skin is then cooked for a whole night.
Once cooked, it can be fried like sikam and shakam or cooked as curry. Spices such as garlic, ginger, chili powder and Sichuan pepper are added to make it savory.
Fishing was considered lowly act in the past and even today, fishing is not allowed by the forest act. And usually, Bhutanese do not slaughter animals for day to day food.
In absence of meat, dried fish imported from India makes a special dish for guests and loved ones. It is deep fried with like sikam.
7. Fried cheese and fried egg
Cheese and egg, fried in butter or vegetable oil with other spices except Sichuan pepper are for vegetarians. Non-vegetarians can enjoy these dishes too.
Such dishes are usually served to non-vegetarians when a fridge a house runs out of meat or when a cook and a guest are in a rush, as meat items take long hours to cook.
Sometimes, cheese and eggs are mixed and fried together known as Gondo Datshi.
8. Ema Datshi
Ema Datsi is a dish prepared with chili and cheese as main ingredient. In other dishes, chili is added as a spice. Any kind of chili: fresh, dried, green, red and white can make Ema Datshi.
Hot Ema Datshi is the National Dish of Bhutan.
Jaju is a vegetable soup with not too much spices. It’s prepared from vegetable collected from will or home grown leafy vegetables. No meat is added as jaju is for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.
Ezay is a hot spicy chili sauce or salad is eaten as an appetizer. Fresh or dried but uncooked chili is chopped into pieces and mixed with leaves of vegetables such as coriander, spring onion and tomato. Salt and cheese are added to the main ingredient.
Chili powder is also used to make ezey. Sometimes, chili powder is fried with other spices to make a super delicious ezey. With ezey, Bhutanese can eat rice without other side dishes.
Ara is an alcoholic drink prepared and consumed in Bhutan. It is distilled from fermented grains such as maize, rice, wheat and barley. Ara is served chilled or warm with fried egg.
Today, ara is replaced by whisky, wine and beer.
Food in Bhutan is eaten in seated cross-legged-pose on floor and with bare fingers without spoon and chopstick. A short prayer is said before eating. However, with modernization, people eat in a European style, sitting on a chair and with spoons. But some Bhutanese continue to eat in a traditional manner.
Other popular menu
Momos are dumplings stuffed with minced pork or beef, cabbage, or fresh cheese mixed with onion. It is served with Ezay. Momos are usually steamed but deep fried ones are also served.
A dumplings filled with dried turnip leaves is called Hoentey and are popular in Haa Valley.
Puta are buckwheat noodles, a popular dish consumed in Bumthang region. The noodle is accompanied by sauce is made up of spring onions, chilies, and eggs fried in oil.
Another specialty from Bumthang region is Khuley. It is a kind of pancake made from buckwheat, wheat, or barley flour. It is served with Ema Datshi or Ezay.
Wild vegetables you can try in Bhutan
Bhutanese, just like others, harvest canes to weave baskets, carpets, ropes, hats, utensils and many more. Bhutanese also eat young, tender cane shoots. Called locally as Patsa, it is sliced into thin pieces and cooked to make a very special soup.
It is only prepared during special occasions such as New Year celebrations and annual religious ceremony and serve to important guests. It tastes bitter but is favorite of many.
Called as ‘Nakey’ in Dzongkha, fern is the most consumed wild vegetable in Bhutan. It grows in moist and shady forests but not necessarily dense forests. Stem and leaves of fern are either cooked in water or fried. Some people dry it to be consumed in winter.
3. Bamboo shoot
Lately, bamboo shoot pickle has become so popular among Bhutanese. Eating bamboo shoot is not a new trend in Bhutan. People in the central and southern Bhutan has been consuming it for centuries.
4. Banana heart
It’s not only the fruit of banana that can be consumed. The heart of banana, or banana flower as some call it, can be consumed too. The tough husks on the outside of the flower is stripped away and tender yellow and green bud-like-leaves inside are cooked. The banana heart curry becomes really yummy.
Known as Elatostema Lineolatum in the scientific community and Damru in Bhutanese, it is a plant in the nettle family native to Japan. It grows in moist and deep forests. Stem and leaved are chopped and prepared during special occasions especially religious ceremonies. It can be dried and preserved for dry.
Bhutan is home to more than a thousand species of mushroom growing all over the country. Mushrooms are prepared fresh or dried. Shitake and Masutake are some of the expensive mushrooms that fetch good price in market.
Bhutan observes Annual Matsutake Festival in Thimphu and Bumthang during its harvest season. Some mushrooms are poisonous and should not be consumed.
7. Flower of Malabar Nut
Malabar nut is used in different schools of Asian Medicine including Bhutanese Traditional Medicine. The bitter flowers are favorite of many Bhutanese.
8. Wild asparagus
Wild asparagus grows in gravelly, rocky soils high up in piedmont plains between 1,300–1,400 meters above sea level. It can be prepared in many ways. Cultivation of asparagus is not an old trend until recent times. People would collect it from wild for consumption. Because if destructive harvesting, it is now considered endangered.
Bhutan has more than 100 orchids of which flowers of Coelogyne cristata, Esmeralda cathcartii and Dendrobium hookerianum are consumed with high regard.
Orchids are added to pork curry to provide a light bitter flavor. They are also cooked with chili.