Popular Traditional Bhutanese Foods
As a visitor to Bhutan, don’t fall prey to the culinary dangers that eating only at hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists will bring. Although some are excellent and have tempered the spices to appeal to foreign palates, we encourage travelers to venture beyond their comfort zone at least a few times and take their taste buds on a truly unique journey.
Traditional Bhutanese food has been influenced by its neighbors, especially China, Tibet, and India. But like the country itself, the local cuisine has been able to maintain its unique character. It’s less oily than Chinese or Indian food and spicier than most Tibetan dishes.
When you travel to Bhutan, take this list of our six must-taste foods to sample at least once.
1. Ema Datshi – (chilies and cheese)
If there is one national dish of 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. It’s made of green, yellow or red chilies, yak or cow’s milk cheese, onions and tomatoes. Taste very carefully, though. The chilies of Bhutan are high up on the Scoville Heat Scale and are meant to make you warm enough to sweat.
2. Jasha Maroo or Maru – (spicy chicken)
Although this mix of chilies, onion, tomato, garlic, coriander leaves and ginger is usually made with finely diced chicken, you will occasionally find it made with beef. Though often called a stew, there’s actually a hefty portion of liquid (chicken broth) in the finished dish. Like most Bhutanese food, it is served with red rice.
3. Phaksha Paa – (Pork with Red Chilies)
A classic Bhutanese stew of strips of boneless pork shoulder simmered slowly until tender with mooli (daikon radish), ginger, bok choy, and–you guessed it–chili powder. When finished, the stew is topped with dried pork and fresh green chili strips and served with rice.
4. Momos – (Dumplings)
This is one food that Western travelers may have sampled, since the momo has immigrated to India and is quite similar to the Chinese dumpling. Throughout the Himalayas–from Nepal and Tibet to Bhutan– these steamed buns are eaten as treats. They may be stuffed with almost anything, but the typical fillings are minced pork or beef, cabbage, or fresh cheese mixed with spices such as garlic, ginger and coriander.
5. Red Rice
Regardless of where you eat–from the elegant Aman and Uma resorts to an outdoor village festival, you will get red rice. Red rice is to Bhutanese food as bread is to the American table, but the rice is probably healthier. 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.
6. Drink Specialties
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 (or arag), a fermented drink made from rice, maize, millet, or wheat. Ara tastes a bit like extremely, extremely strong sake. Cheers!
Best Places to Eat in Bhutan
There are many restaurants that offer authentic Bhutanese foods and a great experience. In Thimphu, you might try ZaSa, literally meaning “a place to eat,” offering a gourmet array of foods.
If your budget allows, you can make a reservation at one of the Aman or Uma hotel restaurants in Paro, Thimphu, Punakha or Bumthang. These luxury hotels cook with fresh, local and organic ingredients while serving Bhutanese specialties.
Trekking with a group? You’ll find that your cook will adore preparing special Bhutanese dishes for you. Ask for something with mushrooms, as Bhutan has a wide variety — more than 400 have been identified — from which to choose. There’s even a festival celebrating the Matsutake.
Ready to Travel to Bhutan?
Now that you have our guide of all the Bhutanese foods to try, it’s time to book your travel with Myths and Mountains! Check out our variety of Bhutan travel experiences!