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A WALK THROUGH BHUTAN’S CUISINE – FOOD YOU MUST TRY

Food is an important part of travel. In fact, for me, it is one of the most important things that contribute to the experience of a certain destination.

And it’s true. A traveler can actually delve deep into the cultures and traditions of a certain region or know more about it through the unique flavors the place has to offer.

Before going to Bhutan with Chal Kabira, I had no clue what Bhutanese food was.

Shrouded in mystery, the great Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is an important cultural ambassador to the east. Its fluttering prayer flags ornamenting its landscape make a defining image of belief, evoking a sense of wonder into the heart of a traveler. Furthermore, the nation is known to be a forerunner of environment protection. Dubbed as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” Bhutan’s cultural identity lies in its wrathful deities protecting the little kingdom and of course, in its unique cuisine.

In a land seeped in magic and spirituality, food has its own sense of awakening.

The tongue-tingling cuisine of Bhutan adds to the country’s scenic appeal, it’s age-old charm, vibrant cultures, and traditions since the country has opened itself to the outside world. The quaint country known for its authenticity is also known for its bizarre methods it adopts not only in spirituality but also in their food habits. Bhutan is the only country in the world where the rice is red, and tea is richly buttered, and chilies are not just the ingredient but the main dish.

Upon introduction to Bhutanese food, one realizes that it has a lot to do with spice; so, the food of Bhutan is as thunderous as its majestic dragon emblem. Chilies are treated as vegetables (even though they’re technically a fruit) rather than spices and are eaten whole, or used as the principal ingredient in a dish. So loved are chilies in Bhutan, they can be given as gifts, offered as compensation when damage has been done by family pets and even used as currency to reward a job well done.

So without further ado, let us jump into the most important dishes of Bhutan.

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1) EMA DATSHI – STEW MADE OF CHILLIES AND CHEESE

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If there is one national dish to eat when touring Bhutan, this is it. It’s so ubiquitous that some say if you haven’t eaten ema datshi, you haven’t been to Bhutan. The locals eat the stew, which is similar to a curry, daily along with red rice.

‘Datshi’ in the Bhutanese language of Dzongkha means ‘cheese’, which is what they use in a number of dishes, the most popular being Ema Datshi which is a stew made from chillies and cheese (‘Ema’ meaning chillies) and might prove to be too spicy for some. Being the national dish of Bhutan, it is unarguably the most popular dish in the country, and any discussion about Bhutanese food cannot go without the mention of Ema Datshi.

It’s made of green, yellow or red chilies, yak or cow’s milk cheese, onions, and tomatoes. The chilies are split lengthwise with their seeds and ribs removed and are mixed with cheese, garlic, water, and some oil. This is a special kind of farmer’s cheese which doesn’t dissolve in water and is hardly found outside this nation. Onions and tomatoes are also added sometimes. Yak cheese might also be used. There might be small variations in the preparation of Ema Datshi throughout the nation, but the ultimate essence remains.

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2) CHICKEN PAA – MEATY CHICKEN STEW

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Chicken is a much used meat in Bhutanese cuisine, and if you like it, you should try chicken paa. This delicious dish of Bhutan is cooked with spicy red chillies, along with radish, and bok choy. The meat is absolutely succulent, and the curry is spicy and aromatic. All you need is a plate of steaming red rice to eat this incredible dish with.

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3) SHAMU DATSI – FOR ALL THE MUSHROOM LOVERS

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This flavorful Bhutanese stew is my personal favorite. You’ll eat ema datshi not only everyday when you’re in Bhutan, but likely for just about every meal throughout your time here. Made with cheese and mushroom this dish is something that you can’t afford to miss. 

You will find cheese and a whole lot of it, veggies and Himalayan mushrooms all cooked in a stew with cheese and butter that melts slowly with the ingredients.

Just heavenly! I mean absolute foodgasm !!

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4) BATHUK – WHEAT FLOUR NOODLES SOUP

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The term “Bathuk’ is similar to the Tibetan noodle soup called ‘Thenthuk” which means pull noodles. Basically a creamy soup enriched with wheat pasta and dried meat. It is a favorite amongst Bhutanese especially in winter when the weather is cold and people try to keep themselves warm. The secret ingredient to Bathup is the Sichuan Flower Pepper, which adds an aromatic note through the soup and masks a little of the chili.

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5) RED RICE

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Regardless of where you eat – from the lavish restaurants to street food stalls, you will get red rice. That’s because the rice paddies of Bhutan’s Paro Valley where the red rice is grown are irrigated with mineral-rich glacier water. Just one serving of Bhutanese red rice will give you 80 percent of your daily requirement for manganese and 20 percent of your need for phosphorus.

The red color of the uncooked rice comes from the cancer-fighting antioxidant, the flavonoid anthocyanin. As it cooks, the color fades to a paler red or pink and the texture becomes soft and sticky.

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6) JASHA MARU – SPICY CHICKEN STEW

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This dish – a spicy Bhutanese style stew is cooked with diced chicken, onion, garlic, chillies, tomato, ginger and coriander leaves. Ginger gives this dish its essence. It may be served with a generous portion of chicken broth. This is usually served with red rice as it is in case of most Bhutanese dishes.

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7) SUJA – BUTTER TEA

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Tea is frequently consumed in Bhutan but is a little different. What the locals mostly indulge in is butter tea, also known as Suja or Po Cha or Goor Goor which is usually served after meals and is found to be quite comforting in the cold weather. Fermented yak butter is made from fresh yak milk. This butter is then boiled along with tea leaves and water. It is a frothy drink that tastes more like butter than tea, and its salty taste might surprise some. Butter tea is also relished in Tibet and parts of Nepal as well. Suja can also be made with cow’s butter.

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8) MOMOS – DUMPLINGS

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Bhutan serves some extremely tasty options for this snack. These are the original momos that are prevalent in the Eastern Himalayan region. These steaming hot dumplings have a variety of stuffings – including minced beef, pork and other meats, as well as vegetables like cabbage. Cheese momos, mixed with spices, are also a popular option. Apart from the steamed varieties, there are deeply fried momos as well. These beautiful, little, steamed delights are traditionally eaten with spicy chutney called ‘Ezay’ and often served with a clear soup.

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9) NOODLES

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No matter what recipe they’re used in, rice noodles are a proven crowd-pleaser.  A classic from the Chinese cuisine, chicken fried noodles is one of the most sought after non-vegetarian dishes in Bhutan. A sumptuous dish, this chicken recipe is prepared by stir-frying chicken breast and then sauteing in soya sauce and red chilli sauce.

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10) ARA – TRADITIONAL ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE

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With your meal, you will be offered a variety of drinks–black and green tea, beer, and wine. But if you’re very lucky, you may be offered a glass of locally brewed ‘Ara’. Do not forget to try this Bhutan’s very own local alcohol which is made by fermenting or distilling rice, wheat, maize, millet, barley or buckwheat and is usually creamy, whitish or clear in appearance. The drink is usually consumed hot. Then again, if you are craving for a cold one, do try the local Druk beer.

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Some other food items to sample when in Bhutan would include 

Khur-le – buckwheat pancake

Puta – buckwheat noodles

Phaksha paa – pork with red chilies

Jaju – traditional Bhutanese soup

Jasha Tshoem – spicy stew

Hoentay – fried momos

The list doesn’t stop at that. As one explores more, one will come across more exotic dishes (probably not any less spicy) and leave with an overall wonderful experience of tingling taste buds.

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When you travel to Bhutan, take a list of these restaurants that offer authentic Bhutanese foods that you must sample at least once.

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Places to eat in Paro
1) Dantak Canteen

Cheese momos

Samosas

Dal vada

Puri Sabji

Dosa

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Places to eat in Thimphu
1) Hotel Zombala 2

Chicken cripsy

Jasha Maru

Shamu Datsi

Chicken sausage

Chicken Manchow Soup

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2. Noodles and momos

Chicken curry and rice

Shamu Datsi

Chicken fried rice

Chicken Datsi

Chicken Paa

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3) Burger Point

Chicken cheeseburger

Veg cheeseburger

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4) Hotel Foodball

Chicken fried rice

Chicken curry

Chicken noodles

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Places to eat in Phuentsholing
1) Hotel Khendrup Chen

Rice and Chicken curry

Chilly Chicken

Chicken Noodles

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2) Hotel Zomkey

Chicken Paa

Shamu Datsi (Mushroom and chili curry)

Puri Bhaji

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These are just some of the famous dishes in Bhutan that are savoured by travelers and locals alike. Tempted to enjoy these dishes? I bet your stomach is already growling. 

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