Among the first things most travelers wonder upon heading for an unknown country is: what am I going to eat when I get there? Will I like it? Will I recognize any of it?
As Bhutan remains a mysterious place to much of the outside world, it is unsurprising that Bhutanese cuisine is also mysterious. Bhutan is not a culinary destination like France or Italy or Japan, where travelers know exactly what to expect and may already know what they are going to order at each restaurant they plan to visit. Most travelers anticipating a tour of Bhutan likely have no idea what might be on the menu.
And the rumors are true. There is no Starbucks in Bhutan. No McDonald’s. No chain stores or franchises of any kind. On your tour of Bhutan, you certainly will not be able to find every one of the familiar things you are used to “back home.” But you may find local versions of “comfort foods” along with culinary traditions as unique as the rest of Bhutanese culture.
Bhutanese cuisine is, in a word, hot. Green and red chiles abound. The national dish is ema datsi, hot chiles in cheese. Sometimes, potatoes are added, making kewa datsi. Other times, wild mushrooms (a locally grown delicacy) are added, making shamu datsi. Azay, a sauce or relish made of hot chiles and other spices, might accompany it, just as it accompanies most dishes. To the Western palate, any of these preparations may be shockingly spicy. The rice, usually white but sometimes red, served alongside helps to temper the fire.
For those in search of an authentically Bhutanese snack, try momos, dumplings filled with cheese or beef, served with azay. Served everywhere and loved by all, momos are the quintessential Bhutanese fast food.
In Thimphu, a variety of non-Bhutanese cuisines are increasingly available. Excellent Indian food has long been a given in Bhutan, thanks to the close cultural, political and economic ties between the two countries. But now, one can also find Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican and Italian dishes served in restaurants specializing in such cuisines.
Vegetarians need not worry. Many Bhutanese practice vegetarianism and meatless options are widely available. Vegans will have a bit more challenge. Many vegetarian dishes include cheese, datsi in Bhutanese dishes, paneer in Indian dishes. Curd (yogurt), butter and eggs are also common ingredients in meatless dishes.
For those with a real interest in local food, a visit to the weekend market in any town is a unique opportunity to investigate the local produce, some of which will be totally unfamiliar to the Western eye, and to mingle with local Bhutanese. Thimphu’s Centenary Farmer’s Market is two-story wonderland of fruits, vegetables, cheese, and herbs — odds are, you won’t know how to cook at least half of the things you see for sale. Every town has its market, though those in rural areas will not feature the variety of products available in Thimphu.
... and drink
Anywhere you visit in Bhutan, you will very likely be offered tea: ja (tea) or suja (butter tea). Ja is black tea, often served with milk and sugar. Specify “black tea” if you want it without the milk or the sugar. The ja you are served might also be masala chai, an Indian-influenced milky tea spiced with cardamom and other flavors. Suja is salty and buttery and can be a perplexing beverage for non-Bhutanese. Suja is perhaps more akin to a soup than to tea as most Westerners think of it. Opinions about suja vary wildly among those not to the manner born. Try it for yourself and see where on the scale your taste falls.
If you ask for coffee in Bhutan, you are likely to get a cup of Nescafe. However, “real” coffee is increasingly available and several Western-style coffee shops have sprung up in Thimphu to meet all of your longings for an espresso or a cafe americano. These coffee shops are reliably full of tourists and members of Bhutan’s expatriate community chatting over a sandwich or a pastry and a cappuccino.
What about alcoholic beverages, chang in Dzongkha? Chang plays an important role in many social and religious events in Bhutanese life. If you are in the countryside, you might be offered one of the traditional Bhutanese home brews: ara, singchang or bangchang. All three beverages are fermented from the locally cultivated grains: barley, wheat, buckwheat or millet.
A few brands of imported beer can be purchased in Bhutan, though availability varies. What you really want to try is one of the two brands of Bhutanese beer: Druk, brewed in southern Bhutan, and Red Panda, brewed in the spectacular Bumthang region in east-central Bhutan.
Tuesdays are dry days throughout Bhutan. No alcohol is served in restaurants or sold in shops. In consequence, many bars and restaurants close on Tuesdays. Keep these restrictions in mind when making your dining and evening plans — you don’t want to plan your Bhutanese beer tasting for a Tuesday evening!
During your tour of Bhutan, expect to be surprised. Expect to see something unique. Expect to taste something you’ve never tasted before. And expect it to be hot!