Drawing its culinary culture from its neighbours, Bhutan is not famed for its cuisine, however for the curious foodie it is surprising with an interesting spin on some traditional tastes.
From the moment you descend deep into the Himalayan ranges you have a great appreciation for the uniqueness of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Catching a glimpse of Mt Everest as you land in Paro is merely the icing on the cake.
No normal tourist destination, Paro offers more than sightseeing, with an interesting food culture. Meandering the main street in Paro and you are submerged into everyday Bhutanese life; sampling some traditional fare feels like the right thing to do.
Bhutanese cuisine almost always contains chilli, in varying degrees. A lot of food is also vegetarian; being a devoutly Buddhist country, meat is not high on the culinary agenda. In saying this, some of the most creative and enjoyable dishes are made with the meagre vegetable, with fertile rich soil and a largely organic farming culture; vegetables are showcased at their finest here. Travellers who dare to try traditional Bhutanese cuisine will be rewarded; fresh, healthy and demonstrating the Tibetan, Nepali and Indian cooking techniques, all interesting and tasty.
‘Ema datse’ is a good introduction to Bhutanese food. The national dish of Bhutan, unusually perhaps, a combination of chilli “ema” and cheese “datse”. Chilli peppers, fried in oil with a combination of local cheese and Amul cheese from India, an amalgamation of spicy, melty and oozy, it is a must try. Often Indian spices are added, making a tasty alternative. Traditionally ema datse is accompanied with red rice, a rustic style rice, almost nutty tasting. You might also be lucky enough to try this dish made with potatoes, mushrooms or seasonal greens.
Another tasty experience is Tibetan delight called ‘momos’, a steamed stuffed dumpling, served with a sauce of chillies and spices. The stuffing for momos is usually yak (a long haired, large horned cow like animal found throughout the Himalayan region of south Central Asia) along with cabbage, onions and cheese. These dumplings are delicious and a traditional homage to the Tibetan culture.
Complementing virtually everything in Bhutan is very sweet milk tea called naja, made with loose tea leaves and sweetened powdered milk, strong and flavoursome spiced with ginger, cloves and cinnamon (much like the commonly known chai). If naja isn’t enough of a sweet calorie hit, try the suja tea for a more calorific hit. A butter tea (indeed a tea made with butter – surprisingly it was not the French who came up with this), it is unsurprisingly rich, and whist not being sweet it makes up for it with the buttery abundance.
Other culinary creations you will come across are curries, not the rich curries we are used to from the Punjab region (butter chicken / rogan josh style). Curries in Bhutan are dishes made with vegetables with ginger, chillies, and turmeric.
Bhutan offers more to the intrepid foodie than first meets the eye, stepping outside the usual tourist haunts will deliver more diverse and unfamiliar sensations.
Unconventional Conventions is visiting Bhutan in November 2015 as part of their Medical Conference.