Bhutan –the land leaves you speechless with its simplicity and pure approach towards life and the food here is an exact reflection of these traits that this beautiful Himalayan country exhibits.
The country lays high emphasis on procuring as far as possible, organic and low on pesticides / fertilizer grown produce. Most of the crops grown in Bhutan are usually organic in nature. The country produces a good quantity of red rice.
This approach towards healthy produce is reflected in their food as well.
I always say that the “Local food of any region is a reflection of its culture” and this was beautifully witnessed in Bhutan.
I traveled to this beautiful country last week with an amazing group of ladies via a tour organized by an Indian Experiential tour company “Byond travel”. One of the afternoons, we decided to try our luck with an authentic Bhutanese lunch.
Now, usually, when I travel, I always make it a point to eat and learn a bit of the local cuisine. In fact, on this trip as well, I learnt cooking some key local dishes and even got myself a cookbook for Bhutanese cuisine. So, when the local lunch decision was made, I was quite over the moon.
We headed to this restaurant in Thimpu, the name of which, unfortunately skips my mind. I guess, I was so excited to just eat there that I didn’t even bother reading the complete name of the restaurant.
It was a chilly afternoon and we were enthusiastic just with the idea of eating food in a warm place. The restaurant was a beautiful setting – seemed more like a personal homely area. Made us feel immediately comfortable. A furry dog welcomed us inside and we were requested to climb a rather steep line of stairs that would lead us to our lunch area (Mind it – most of the places in Bhutan, be it restaurants, or monastery’s have rather steep stairs).
The setting immediately warmed my heart. It was exactly the kind of area that appeals to my comfort zone…large windows, wooden floors, dark warm natural colored walls, soft cuddly rugs and low seating area (No Chairs). Makes one feel at home without much pretense that you find in most of the fine-dine restaurants these days anywhere globally.
We took our places around a large table and seated ourselves on the soft rug on the floor, legs crossed and awaited our very first Bhutanese Food Experience.
The gentle ladies walked in and passed us our plates and cutlery – all made of wood. Even the spoons.
Next came in Su-Ja or known in English as “Butter tea”. Butter tea, as explained to us is made using special local tea leaves (Not the usual Darjeeling or other green tea leaves), some milk and with butter (Sometimes Yak butter) added to it. The tea is churned in a tea churner traditionally.
Now, the tea actually looks quite pretty with a faint pink color but I couldn’t quite get used to its taste (Believe me, I tried a few times to set aside my mental block of having butter in my tea). It tastes a bit salty and feels a bit oily in your mouth when you try and taste the flavors.
Next came in the seaweed soup called “Juru Jaju”. Seaweed in Bhutanese is called “Juru” and soup is called “Jaju”.
Now this…am not too sure if it was something traditional considering sea weed wasn’t really a part of Bhutanese cuisine but I was told that the sea weed was used in its dried form. Well, it probably is a part. The soup had a bit of umami flavor to it. It was rather nice and since it was hot, it proved to be quite comforting in the chilly weather.
Along with the soup and tea, we were served some toasted rice. These were placed in woven cane boxes in bulk and you could either eat them as they were as a crunchy snack or sprinkle them on the soup or tea for an added texture. There weren’t any added flavors or even salt to this…just red rice in the toasted version I think but they tasted just as good.
This rice is widely available all over Bhutan. In fact, if you happen to visit the local markets, these would be available in bulk. Shows the “Rice love” Bhutan has.
An array of pots and dishes followed once the Soup course was done, filled with some amazing examples of Bhutanese cuisine.
Let me run you through the dishes here –
KOPI DATSI – This was the most loved dish by all. (Of course, it was…it had oodles of cheese).
So, Datsi in Bhutanese means “Cheese” and it is usually used in their cuisine in combination with Fiery chillies…I was told Bhutanese women love chillies…The hotter, the better. We ladies were probably served the “Tourist version” of these chilliies that were rather toned down in their heat content.
When Datsi is combined with chillies, it is called “Ema Datsi”.
Similarly, there are dishes where Datsi is combined with other ingredients too..
KEWA DATSI is “Potatoes and Cheese”…I learnt making this in one of my cooking sessions there and a recipe will be updated pretty soon. This, again has loads of chillies.
Basically, any of these kind of recipes are never made without chillies. The hotter, the better.
KOPI DATSI – is “Cabbage and Cheese”…Now, I usually dislike cabbage the way it is made at my home (the plain Indian style) but this made me fall in love with this humble vegetable.
Fried Turnip leaves came next…This dish was called “LOM FRY”. “Lom” means turnip leaves and since they were fried and crispy, the dish was named so.
A conventional mix vegetable dish of potatoes and carrots was served which seemed to be tossed in some red chilli powder and salt. Extremely basic seasoning.
All of these were served with huge pot of “Red Rice” called as “CHUMAP”.
Next came in accompaniments to these wonderful dishes –
FRIED “DATSI” which was a beautiful dish. Datsi, as I mentioned is Cheese in Bhutanese. We weren’t too sure how this dish was made but I got to know from another chef that it was basically made by frying cheese in butter and a bit of salt and eggs added to it. The cheese is usually made of Cows milk.
“EAZAY” – a beautiful chilli paste made using pound red chillies. I am not too sure of the exact recipe but I am definitely going to find out now.
HOW TO EAT IT ALL?
Well, you basically take a bit of everything in your wooden plate and eat them together.
What I realized here was that all of these dishes held their own in their individual flavor parts – like the fried cheese had a creamy and salty taste, the chilli paste was hot and fiery, the red rice was rather tasteless, the fried turnip leaves were crunchy and a bit green-salty while the cabbage- cheese was beautifully creamy as well.
When all of them came together on the dish, it was rather a wonderful flavor explosion. Spice, Salt, Creamy, bland and more..It was a bit of everything.
This meal was an experience like no other. Homely, simple food with minimal treatment and additives and made using all natural, high quality produce.
Me and the other ladies still gush today when we speak of that meal we had almost 2 weeks ago now. It is definitely a meal that we will hold high in standards for years to come.
Truly, food is memories.
Bhutanese food isn’t just limited to the above. We have had so many other wonderful experiences such as
LEMON TEA – Now this isn’t really traditional but somehow, all the places that we have had this tea made us fall in love with it. A simple brew of tea with a bit of sweetness and oodles of Lemony tang.
THUKPA – This beautiful soup dish is made with ginger garlic, coriander, chillies and stock and topped with smooth noodles. I had the vegetarian version on my first day in this country and I knew this was heaven. I had basically frozen from the chill outside and craved a hot soup and this dish was a life saver. It was accompanied by the red chilli paste.
Thukpa is also available in its Egg, Chicken and Beef variants.
BATHUP: This is kind of similar to Thukpa, we we were told but it was more with vegetables and no noodles. Didn’t try it so cannot say much about it.
This again, can be with vegetables or beef or pork.
MOMOS – You cannot come to Bhutan and not have momos. These beautiful balls are available in the steamed as well as fried version and believe me, they all come stuffed with local cheese (even if you have just ordered the vegetarian version).
I had the fried momos at one point and although I had just had lunch, I was tempted to buy another plate and take back with me to the hotel to eat later. They were steaming hot, crunchy on the outside and filled with the delicate flavor of vegetables and some local cheese that gave it a slightly salty and creamy touch.
Some regions serve you Buckwheat momos too..I couldn’t find them around where I was staying.
Another local dish that I couldn’t get around to trying was a dish made with local fiddlehead ferns. I was told this was a local Bhutanese delicacy.
Well, as they say, you need to leave a little so that you have something to come back to the next time.
In terms of alcoholic drinks, “K5” is the local brand of Whiskey that is quite famous. I did try it but I guess my taste buds aren’t exactly tuned to whiskey sampling.
At another place, we were given some local “RICE WINE” to sample. It was more as a gesture of them welcoming us but again, it didn’t quiet appeal to me. (Someone told me the flavor resembled castor oil and I guess it probably stuck into my brain).
PEACH WINE is another drink quite famous there but believe me, one taste and I stopped. It seemed to have some artificial flavoring added to it and the back note was quite bitter too. I think I’ll stick to my grape wines.
Local Beer is quite famous, specially DRUK BEER but sadly, I am not a beer person, so didn’t experiment with that.
Call me crazy but I even picked up a bunch of local red chilies, some vegetables (I don’t know what are they called but I was told they were bitter in taste and needed to be fried before eating), the local tea used for making Butter tea (No..I am not making butter tea but I can always try making something interesting from the tea leaves) and some dried Matsutake mushrooms. I will find a recipe to make these mushrooms but a dear friend who also picked them up from there shared her recipe for “Miso Matsutake Mushroom noodles” and they are drool-worthy.
The hotel in Paro was kind enough to attend to my request of learning some local dishes and these shall be updated soon in another post.
In the meanwhile, I will be experimenting on more Bhutanese food from the cook-book I got from there.
All in all, Bhutan has been a wonderful food experience and something that I will hold deep in my heart for years to come.
Photo Credits: Most of the above images have been taken by me but some images have been generously contributed by the ladies traveling with me in the group.
This post is dedicated to them all.