The best thing about Bhutan, unarguably, is its natural beauty. Blessed with spectacular views of the Himalayas, lush forests, untamed rivers and expansive valleys, the Buddhist kingdom is a treat to the urban eye and balm to the weary soul. Dotted with ancient chortens, stupas, fortresses, monasteries and temples, it doesn’t take a traveller long to realise why the country is called the 'happiest place on earth’.
There’s so much to fall in love with - timeless architecture, vibrant culture, innate spirituality, content people - that Bhutanese food is, often, underrated. In fact, on my first brief visit to the landlocked country, I was rather disappointed with the bland local fare. The mattar paneers and schezwan noodles were my saviours. It was only on my second trip to Bhutan, that I truly discovered their little-known traditional gastronomic treasures. Peppered with red, green and dried chillies. And lots and lots of cheese!
You see, the local food of 'the land of the Thunder Dragon’ is supposed to be so hot that most touristy restaurants tend to err on the side of caution to appease the Western palate. So, before you pass your verdict on Bhutanese cuisine, be sure that you have tasted the authentic stuff. Speak to the chef, eat at a homestay or ask the locals. Because if there’s anything the Bhutanese love more than their food, it’s the people who are eager to try their food.
In all likelihood, the first words you’ll learn in Dzongkha - the native language of Bhutan - will be ema (chilli) and datshi (cheese). Whether you dine at an upmarket restaurant in Thimpu or a modest cottage in Phobjikha, there’s simply no escaping ema datshi, the culinary pride of The Kingdom of Bhutan. Just in case you don’t quite fancy the dish in the first attempt, try it again at another place. Because there are multiple Bhutanese variations of chilli peppers in cheesy sauce. It’s just a matter of finding what works for you!
And then, there’s kewa datshi (potatoes and cheese) and shamu datshi (mushroom and cheese). Basically, you’ll be eating quite a bit of cheese. Not the kind you are, perhaps, used to, but of a chewier variety, made of cow milk or yak milk. A must in every household in Bhutan.
As much as the Bhutanese love their chicken, yak meat, pork and lamb, every meal must have generous portions of stir-fried veggies. From beans and turnips to radish and mushrooms, there’s enough reason for vegetarians and vegans to rejoice.
If you are not a rice eater, a vacation in Bhutan will turn you into one. You’ll find nutritious red rice (much like the brown rice, only stickier) for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and every meal in between. Buckwheat and maize are good traditional substitutes for days when your body demands a break from rice.
On the side
For those wondering how the Bhutanese manage to look so lean and strong, despite all that cheese and rice, the secret lies in the high altitude and physically active lifestyle. And the dearth of desserts helps, too. The first time I was offered a bowl of cut fruits after a meal, I smiled and obliged. On the second occasion, I politely asked, "Nothing else in sweets?” It took a while for the gulab jamuns to make a grand entry!
In retrospect, I see the silver lining. There was always enough space in the tummy to try that cheese momo or zaow (like puffed rice, only less puffed and crunchier) with suja (butter tea). Not to forget, arra, the local brew distilled from rice, barley or wheat, served in beautiful wooden bowls.
If you were to ask me 'What is your favourite Bhutanese food?’ I wouldn’t have to think twice before replying, 'ezay’. It’s a traditional sauce, made of onions, cheese and hot chillies, that pairs well with every single dish in Bhutan - from thukpa (soupy noodles) to rice and momos. And the beauty of it is that no two kitchens make it alike.