Bhutanese food is as much of a highlight of travelling to the mysterious Dragon Kingdom as the seeing of the sights. Internationally, few people know anything about Bhutanese cuisine.
Food in Bhutan is influenced by Tibetan, Chinese, Nepalese, and Indian food cultures. So, if you have travelled to any of these nations, you may have some idea of what to expect in Bhutan, particularly if you have spent any amount of time in the Himalayas.
Bhutanese food is flavourful and unique. Dishes are typically served with a side pairing of white or red rice and centered around meat (usually Pork or Chicken).
The majority of Bhutanese dishes are prepared with chilies and are quite spicy to taste. Even if you consider yourself as having a more adventurous palette, you may find the spice levels of Bhutanese food hard to handle.
If you travel through Bhutan with an organised tour company then chances are that they will prepare you milder versions of local foods. That is unless you specifically request otherwise and tell them you want to eat what the locals eat.
Considering how spicy Bhutanese food is, is this a good idea? Yes!
You should at least try authentic Bhutanese food cooked authentically to its full spice level once or twice. You can request that your guide take you to a local restaurant.
Alternatively, if there is a group of you traveling together, then the chef at your hotel in Bhutan may be willing to cook some special Bhutanese food especially for you. You may find that some hotels will only prepare western food at their restaurants which is not ideal if you want to experience the country and its gastronomy “like a local”.
Bhutanese Food Culture
The Bhutanese traditionally eat with their hands. Bhutanese food culture could in some ways be compared to that seen in neighbouring India.
Meals are often comprised of lots of small tapas-style dishes which are served in wooden bowls. This is nice as you get to try lots of different things at once and do not have to commit to eating a large plate of something.
Before the eating begins, it is customary for the Bhutanese to “wash” their hands using a small piece of rice. They roll this into a ball and then move it around their hands.
The stickiness of the rice is said to clear the hands and collect any dirt from them. Unique, eh?
You will find that in most hotels and restaurants catered towards international visitors, food is served western style. In other words, it is served on plates with knives and forks.
However, eating with hands is still commonplace in traditional local eateries or if eating Bhutan food at someone’s home. It is worth a try at least once. Take plenty of napkins and hand sanitizer so you don’t make a mess!
Traditional Bhutanese Foods to Try
For the best experience, you should try to experiment with everything in Bhutan. You should indulge in everything from the fermented dried yak’s cheese, to the eye-watering spicy curries.
Let’s take a look at some of the Bhutanese foods you can expect to see in Bhutan and those that you should try.
“Suja” Bhutanese Butter Tea
I first tried butter tea on my flight from Singapore to Bhutan when the air steward suggested that I try it and fell completely in love with it. Though admittedly you should try the better versions on land in Bhutan, not just the airline tea!
The tea is brewed by using tea leaves and churning them together with butter and salt. Admittedly at first, it does seem a little obscure.
It is literally like drinking a cup full of melted butter! However, Bhutanese “suja” definitely grows on you.It’s a nice warming beverage for cold days spent trekking through the Himalayas.
Sometimes Bhutanese Butter Tea is served with zaow (crispy rice) to sprinkle on top of the tea. It tasted just like rice crispy cereals and transformed the tea into a tasty snack.
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Alcohol is consumed by many Bhutanese adults and it may come as a surprise at first to see just how widely available wine and beer is here. Alcohol consumption is particularly common in the Eastern part of the country and guests are often offered a “welcome drink” as a sign of hospitality.
If you want to sample local traditional alcohol in Bhutan, try “Ara”. This is made by fermenting rice, barley, wheat, or maize.
It is usually served warm and is relatively easy to replicate. Sometimes, butter and eggs are also added to the mixture.
Jasha Maru is an incredibly flavourful chicken stew. Like many Bhutanese dishes, it is served with a generous portion of red rice.
Jasha Maru is somewhat spicy to the taste and is prepared with a diverse mixture of chilies, ginger, garlic, coriander, and fresh vegetables. That said, it is the ginger taste that really stands out and gives the dish its unique appeal.
Phaksha Paa is a melt-in-the-mouth pork stew created by slowly simmering strips of meat on high heat until tender. It is tasty and moderately spicy.
Bok Choy, ginger, radishes, and chili powder are chopped up and added to the mix are. The dish is commonly served with red rice.
If you are wary about experimenting with foreign foods and cannot cope well with spice then “momos” may be the perfect dish for you. Momos are steamed dumplings.
Momos are also found in Tibet and Nepal. They are comparable to Chinese dumplings or the Korean “mandu”.
Momos are typically served with meat inside, commonly beef or pork. Vegetarian versions are available and contain cheese, vegetables, and a blend of different spices.
You will find Bhutanese momos served by roadside street vendors at traditional masked festivals and other events, as well as in momo restaurants in the towns and villages around Bhutan. Beef momos are the most common versions.
Momos are also often served with ezay. This is a spicy chili sauce for dipping. It is the Bhutanese answer to tabasco if you will!
They are typically eaten by hand. However, they are sometimes a little greasy so it’s not the neatest thing in the world to snack on!
In some parts of Bhutan, you can also try Hoentay. These are essentially the same as momos but are prepared with buckwheat dough.
Khur-le is a Bhutanese buckwheat pancake that originated from India and is commonly served as a side dish with the majority of meals. These pancakes are tasty enough that you can eat them “as is” for breakfast or for a quick snack.
However, the Bhutanese will also use them like a tortilla-style wrap. They will add a dollop of kewa datshi or other local dishes inside. Then, they will roll them up like a tortilla.
Dried Yak’s Cheese (“chogo/chhurpi”)
Dried Yak’s cheese is an acquired taste and it isn’t for everyone. Regardless, this is a Bhutanese food worth trying, if only for the experience.
You will find dried yak cheese hanging from a string in marketplaces and general stores around Bhutan. If you visit the Centenary farmer’s market in Thimphu, you can have the joy of purchasing and haggling for it there.
The most challenging thing about dried yak’s cheese is the texture. The little chunks are rock hard and you cannot bite or chew them until you’ve given them a lot of time to dissolve in your mouth.
Related Article: Bhutan Travel Guide
Looking for the signature dish of Bhutan? It’s ema datshi.
This dish is so well-loved that it is served as a side to virtually every meal in Bhutan, every single day. Locals will serve ema datshi to accompany breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
This is essentially Bhutanese chili cheese. Ema datshi consists of chillis (either red or green) sliced and cooked with Bhutanese cheese (“datshi”) and butter.
Traditionally, ema datshi is prepared with yaks cheese, but cows’ cheese can also be used. Each restaurant and chef has their own recipe for ema datshi and the tastes and texture can vary significantly. Some are incredibly spicy, and others are much milder.
Like ema datshi, red rice is served with practically everything in Bhutan and is a staple for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Visit any restaurant in Bhutan and you will see that the Bhutanese pile their plates high with red rice.
Then, they will add just a small dash of curry or whatever “main” dish they are eating. Locals will joke that the Bhutanese should always eat two mountains of red rice with every single meal.
The majority of Bhutan’s red rice is grown in the rice paddies of Paro valley where it is irrigated with glacier water. So, it is far healthier and of a much higher quality than your average bowl of rice.
Zow Shungo is another popular Bhutanese food and one that makes a common appearance at the dinner table as a meze dish. It is a vegetarian-friendly dish and is usually made from leftover vegetables and rice from previous meals.
Zow Shungo is a perfect representation of the Bhutaneses’ strong Buddhist ethics and their mantra of never wasting anything. It is quick and easy to prepare and is made frequently in Bhutanese homes.
Shamu Datshi is one more dish to mention from the “datshi” family of Bhutanese food, This is cheese served with mushrooms.
There are rumored to be over 300 different varieties of mushrooms that are native to Bhutan. Just like Ema Datshi, Shamu Datshi can vary significantly from one place to another since any kind of mushroom can be used to prepare the dish.
Kewa Datshi is another Bhutanese food favourite. This dish consists of cheese (“datshi”) and potatoes (“kewa”).
Like ema datshi, kewa datshi is also served with chilies. However, the dish is typically far milder to the taste than ema datshi. So, if you like a little kick and pizazz to your food, but you can’t handle super spicy then Kewa Datshi is for you.
Jaju is a Bhutanese soup prepared with milk and vegetables. It is typically made with spinach or turnip leaves.
You will often find that Bhutanese restaurant owners serve you soup as a starter before your main dish, much like in the west and jaju is a popular starter choice.
Sometimes a little cheese (“datshi” – remember?) Is added to the soup to add a kick of flavor. On the whole, jaju is mild in taste
Shakam is Bhutan’s answer to beef jerky.. sort of. This is dried, preserved beef which is thicker and chewier to the taste than the traditional American style beef jerky.
To create Shakam Paa, the dried beef (shakam) is cooked with chilies and radish.
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Goen Hogay is a light and refreshing Bhutanese cucumber salad that makes a nice change from some of the heavier dishes of melted cheeses and meat curries that prevail in Bhutanese cuisine. Slices of cucumber are drizzled with oil and served with yaks cheese, chili flakes, onions, and coriander.
Himalayan countries like Bhutan see harsh, bitter winters. At these times, fresh fruit and vegetables are in short supply and so, the Bhutanese will dry and preserve a lot of vegetables during the summer.
Lom is a popular side dish in Bhutan, particularly when the weather becomes cooler. To make it, turnip leaves are dried, preserved, and then served sauteed.
Khatem is an Indian bitter gourd that is often sliced and fried before being served. It is often eaten for breakfast.
The taste is quite bitter and unique. It is quite a stark contrast to what you typically expect to taste when eating fruit but it works.
Bhutan Food Information
A few additional considerations for exploring Bhutan and sampling Bhutanese food are provided below.
- You should not drink the water in Bhutan and as such, bottles of cold mineral water are typically served at your table with each meal.
- You should avoid eating salads or other foods that have been washed in water where you cannot be sure of the source (good practice wherever you go)
- In Bhutanese Buddhist culture, desserts are not typically eaten. Some of the hotels will put on a dessert for Western guests but this is often just fruit.
- Teas are often served in accompaniment of food. You can try traditional black tea, or opt for herbal blends like ginger.
- As a Buddhist nation, killing in any form is illegal in Bhutan (including the slaughter of animals for meat). As such, all of the meat that you consume in Bhutan has been imported from neighbouring India.
As my Bhutan trip drew to a close, I felt sad about leaving Bhutanese food behind and knowing that since this country is so mysterious and isolated from the rest of the world I may never have the opportunity to eat it again. That is, at least not until I return to Bhutan.
Before I left, I took the recipe for ema datshi from my guide who assured me that it would work just fine with cows cheese in place of Yak’s cheese but I have yet to give it a try…
What Bhutanese dishes tickle your fancy the most? If you have traveled to Bhutan already, what was your favourite Bhutanese food?