Culinary Bhutan is defined by simplicity, in its most primitive form. Being visitors of the government-sanctioned variety, however, we had to put up with tourist-standard fare throughout the trip. We relied on our guide to bring us to eateries that catered to tourists, and these were not always the most riveting of ventures.
Our first meal, upon touchdown in Paro, was a preface of what was to come.
Clockwise from left: Ema datshi (national chilli & cheese dish), chicken curry, fried potatoes, red rice, buttered vegetables.
Ema (chilli of a pudgier variety, looks like chilli pepper), ennobled ingredient in the Land of the Dragon. The Bhutanese love their chillies, make no mistake.
We saw Ema everywhere - on the rooftops of homes, by the road, and most extensively, in our food. I'd dare say most meals, this was the only ingredient to which our surfeited palates, used to overpowering flavours at home,
responded with gusto.
responded with gusto.
There were a couple of notable meals. At Bhutan Kitchen, a local restaurant in the heart of capital Thimphu, the standard tourist buffet is fresher and tastier than most.
Upon request, our guide goes one step further and orders us Phaksha laphu (dried pork fat slices with turnip and of course, chillies). Dried pork is a staple in Bhutan and while it requires some heavy-duty gnawing, it adds a different flavourful dimension to the meal.
Up over at Phobjika Valley, about 3,000m above, where we drove hours to catch a glimpse of the revered black-necked cranes , we were treated to a delicious, spartan home-cooked meal of white rice, red rice, Ema Datshi and a dried pork and dried/cured vegetable dish.
On our last day, en route the drive to and from Haa Valley (worth omitting from your itinerary, by the way), we stopped for a picnic which neatly wrapped up our Bhutanese food experience. A caterer had prepared mountains of rice to go with (from top left): fried hard boiled eggs, spiced potatoes, Ema Datshi and a beautiful, milky sliced pork curry.
For those hoping to visit Bhutan and eat well, here are a few tips:
- Research and figure out what's on offer. Unfortunately, there aren't that many good, visual sites (or last I checked anyway) but this is as good a place to start as any.
- Be forthcoming and vocal from the start to your guide on your food preferences and what you hope to try. The daily tariff (which is no cheap ticket by any travel standards) that covers your meals should enable your guide to work around those.
- Manage your own expectations. Bhutan is a once-in-a-lifetime journey that requires some personal effort and investment on the visitor's part. Be prepared to embrace whatever comes your way, utterly-tasteless-meal-enroute-excruciating Tiger's Nest hike or otherwise!
- If you don't like chillies or cheese, learn to deal! Both these ingredients anchor Bhutanese cuisine and you could do a lot worse than to digest them with relish!