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Bhutanese Cuisine

The most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. Chilies are an essential part of nearly every dish and are considered so important that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that was not spicy.

Rice forms the main body of most Bhutanese meals. It is accompanied by one or two side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables. Pork, beef, and chicken are the meats that are eaten most often. Vegetables commonly eaten include Spinach, pumpkins, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, river weed, onions, and green beans. Grains such as rice, buckwheat, and barley are also cultivated in various regions of the country depending on the local climate.

The following is a list of some of the most popular Bhutanese dishes:
  • Ema Datshi: This is the National Dish of Bhutan. A spicy mix of chilies and the delicious local cheese is known as Datshi. This dish is a staple of nearly every meal and can be found throughout the country. Variations on Ema Datshi include adding green beans, ferns, potatoes, and mushrooms, or swapping the regular cheese for yak cheese.
  • Momos: These Tibetan-style dumplings are stuffed with pork, beef, cabbages, and cheese. Traditionally eaten during special occasions, these tasty treats are a Bhutanese favorite.
  • Phaksha Paa: Pork cooked with spicy red chilies. This dish can also include Radishes or Spinach. A popular variation uses sun-dried (known as Sikaam). Hoentoey: Aromatic buckwheat dumplings stuffed with turnip greens, datshi (cheese), spinach, and other ingredients.
  • Jasha Maru: Spicy minced chicken, tomatoes, and other ingredients that are usually served with rice.
  • Red Rice: This rice is similar to brown rice and is extremely nutritious and filling. When cooked it is pale pink, soft, and slightly sticky.
  • Goep (Tripe): Though the popularity of tripe has diminished in many countries it is still enjoyed in Bhutan. Like most other meat dishes, it is cooked with plenty of spicy chilies and chili powder.

Ema Datshi: Bhutan’s Beloved National Dish

Ema Datshi stands as Bhutan’s most cherished dish and proudly claims the title of the national cuisine. The heart of this culinary masterpiece lies in its chilies, which can be either vibrant green, freshly picked from the farm, or dried red chilies. These chilies are simmered with traditional Bhutanese cheese. The cheese, typically white, turns yellow when sun-dried, a variant that enjoys greater preference.

Every dining experience in Bhutan is incomplete without the presence of Ema Datshi. It graces the table at every meal, marking its significance in Bhutanese culture. Moreover, the finest Ema Datshi chefs, often found within your own family, advise that cooking the dish for just about 2 minutes is key. This technique ensures the chilies retain their texture, avoiding a soggy outcome.

Variations of the dish abound, influenced by factors like water levels and the quantity of cheese used. These adjustments alter the dish’s richness or gooey texture. While some recipes welcome garlic for its bold flavor, others omit it to avoid its strong aroma. Similarly, the inclusion of onions and tomatoes varies, although it’s less common due to the belief that Bhutanese cheese and tomatoes do not pair well.

The dish’s spice level largely depends on the type of chili used and its quantity. For some, it might be quite spicy, yet it remains a must-try for anyone visiting Bhutan. No journey to Bhutan is complete without savoring Ema Datshi.

In particular, locals from the eastern regions of Shar and Kheng have a preference for Zoede, a type of fermented cheese. This cheese, with its white-brown hue and potent smell, might seem off-putting at first. However, the residents of these areas will likely persuade you of its delightful taste. Ema Datshi, with its rich cultural significance and diverse interpretations, truly embodies the spirit of Bhutanese cuisine.

Momos: A Delicious Staple from The Heart of Asia

Momos, originally hailing from China, have become a beloved staple in Tibet and Nepal. These wheat-flour dumplings boast a filling of minced pork or beef, mingled with chopped onions and cabbages. For vegetarians, a delightful mix of cheese, onions, and cabbage serves as an alternative. Chefs then steam these dumplings in a momo steamer. Consequently, they are served scorching hot. Often, they come with ezay (red chilli sauce) and the so-called ‘momo soup’ found in restaurants and specific momo joints.

Interestingly, momos come in both steamed and fried variations. The latter involves steaming first, then frying to create a crust on the outside. Additionally, the thukpa-momo combo, known as Mo-thuk, has been gaining popularity recently. Despite their variety, chicken momos remain a rare find.

Undoubtedly, momos stand out as one of the most beloved street foods. From the bustling streets of India, Nepal, and Sikkim to the serene ambiance of Bhutan, momos mark their presence. They’re a common sight in local eateries, high-end hotels, and resorts. Remarkably, some even offer door-to-door service, roaming the streets with large hot cases, enticing passersby with chants of “momo… momo.”

Moreover, the skill of a momo chef is often judged by the amount of oil used. The best chefs possess the knowledge to add just the right amount of oil. This ensures that upon indulging, the oil doesn’t ooze out, maintaining the perfect taste and texture. Thus, momos not only tantalize the taste buds but also reflect a rich cultural heritage and culinary expertise.

Phaksha Paa: A Culinary Gem from Bhutan

Phaksha Paa takes center stage as a cherished Bhutanese dish. It features pork, sliced thickly and boneless, as its star ingredient. Typically, chefs cook it with dried whole red chilies. However, they can adapt by using any variety of chili. Initially, the pork is stir-fried to perfection. Following this, chefs add it to a flavorful mix of sautéed chilies, onions, and a selection of vegetables. The vegetable assortment often includes beans, spinach, radish, bok choy, or Lom (dried turnip leaves).

This dish offers versatility. One can either simmer it into a stew or reduce it to a rich gravy. Of course, it pairs best with rice, aligning with the tradition of many Bhutanese meals. Consequently, Phaksha Paa not only satiates hunger but also offers a glimpse into Bhutan’s rich culinary heritage, making it a must-try for anyone exploring the flavors of Bhutan.

Jasha Maru: Bhutan’s Spicy Take on Chicken Stew

Jasha Maru, a Bhutanese specialty, offers a spicy twist on traditional chicken stew. This dish embraces chunks of chicken, either diced or shredded, stewed with a rich blend of garlic, onions, tomatoes, ginger, and chilies. To enhance its flavor profile, chefs top it off with fresh corianders or chili sauce (ezay). The foundation of Jasha Maru’s broth stems from boiling chicken bones with salt, infusing the dish with a robust flavor.

The potent taste of this cuisine, primarily derived from ginger, makes it an ideal companion for rice. Thus, Jasha Maru not only serves as a hearty meal but also introduces the palate to the vibrant and spicy flavors that characterize Bhutanese cuisine.

Kewa Datshi: A Bhutanese Favorite for the Young and Spice-Averse

Kewa Datshi captures hearts in Bhutan, much like Ema Datshi, by blending potatoes (Kewa) with cheese (Datshi). This dish holds a special place, particularly among the younger generation, and serves as a perfect option for those who prefer milder flavors.

Potatoes, cherished nearly as much as chilies in Bhutan, emerge as a favored vegetable. The affection Bhutanese harbor for potatoes rivals the esteemed chilli’s prominence.

The preparation of Kewa Datshi remains straightforward, aligning with the simplicity of Ema Datshi and Shamu Datshi. The process involves dicing or slicing potatoes, then cooking them with local cheese and butter or oil until perfectly done. The art lies in maintaining the potatoes’ texture: not too soft to verge on mashing, yet not too hard to be unpalatable. This dish is decidedly not a version of mashed potatoes.

While some add diced tomatoes, onions, and chilies for variation, the quintessence of Kewa Datshi rests in the harmonious blend of potatoes and cheese, enriched with butter or oil, and occasionally accented with a few slices of chilies. This balance defines the unique appeal of Kewa Datshi, making it a beloved staple in Bhutanese cuisine.

Ara: Bhutan’s Beloved National Drink

Ara holds a special place in Bhutanese culture, mirroring Ema Datshi’s significance in cuisine as the national drink. This cherished beverage comes from fermenting or distilling various grains: wheat, rice, millet, barley, or buckwheat. The pivotal element in crafting Ara is the yeast. Its quality and the quantity used play a crucial role in determining the drink’s overall quality.

Typically, Ara boasts a clear appearance. However, some variations exhibit a whitish-creamy texture, adding to its unique appeal. Despite government regulations that limit its sale in restaurants and bars, some establishments do offer Ara. Yet, for those eager to experience this traditional drink authentically, opting for homestays is the best bet. Many Bhutanese families keep jars of Ara for different occasions: welcoming guests, family gatherings, celebrations, and religious events. Thus, Ara is not just a drink; it’s a vital part of Bhutan’s hospitality and cultural heritage.

FAQs on Bhutanese Cuisine

What makes Bhutanese cuisine unique?

The hallmark of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness, with chilies playing a central role in almost every dish. The Bhutanese culinary tradition places a strong emphasis on the use of fresh, local ingredients, including a variety of meats, vegetables, and grains. Rice is the staple food, forming the base of most meals.

What is Bhutan’s national dish?

Ema Datshi is Bhutan’s national dish, consisting of a spicy blend of chilies and local cheese known as Datshi. It can be found throughout the country and comes in various versions, sometimes including green beans, ferns, potatoes, mushrooms, or even yak cheese.

Are there vegetarian options in Bhutanese cuisine?

Yes, there are vegetarian options available in Bhutanese cuisine. Dishes like Ema Datshi can be made without meat, and momos (Tibetan-style dumplings) can be filled with cabbages, cheese, or other vegetables. Additionally, vegetables such as spinach, pumpkins, turnips, and green beans are commonly eaten.

What is Ara?

Ara is Bhutan’s beloved national drink, produced by fermenting or distilling various grains like wheat, rice, millet, barley, or buckwheat. It is a traditional beverage, often clear or sometimes whitish-creamy in appearance, and plays a significant role in Bhutanese culture and hospitality.

How is meat prepared in Bhutanese cuisine?

Meat, including pork, beef, and chicken, is commonly eaten in Bhutan and is often prepared with a generous amount of spicy chilies. Dishes like Phaksha Paa (pork cooked with spicy red chilies) and Jasha Maru (spicy minced chicken) are popular meat-based options.

Can Bhutanese dishes be made less spicy?

While the traditional preparation of Bhutanese dishes emphasizes spiciness, it’s possible to adjust the level of heat according to personal preference by reducing the quantity of chilies used. However, it’s essential to note that chilies are a fundamental element of Bhutanese cuisine, and most dishes are intended to be spicy.

What are some popular Bhutanese dishes?

In addition to Ema Datshi, other popular Bhutanese dishes include momos (dumplings), Phaksha Paa (pork with red chilies), Jasha Maru (spicy chicken stew), Kewa Datshi (potatoes with cheese), and various rice dishes like the nutritious red rice.

How important are chilies in Bhutanese cuisine?

Chilies are not just an ingredient but a staple in Bhutanese cuisine. They are so crucial that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that wasn’t spicy. Chilies are used fresh or dried, green or red, and contribute significantly to the cuisine’s distinctive character.

Is Bhutanese food suitable for all palates?

Bhutanese food is renowned for its bold flavors, particularly its use of spice. While it offers a unique and exciting culinary experience, those who prefer milder foods might need to specify their spice tolerance when ordering. However, the cuisine also includes dishes that can be adapted to suit less spicy tastes.