Hot Stuff In Bhutan

Posted on January 04, 2017

What’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner? In Bhutan, for many it’s chilies and cheese and red rice. Bhutanese love these 3 and some eat to the exclusion of almost anything else. Bhutanese tell stories of their friends traveling outside Bhutan and bringing their own stash of this trio. True or not, it seems plausible. In my experience, a meal with Bhutanese friends almost always includes these, though many other items make it onto the table as well. The above-mentioned 3 are more the domain of rural and poorer Bhutanese, in the same manner that Irish in past times existed mostly on potatoes, more a function of economic necessity than actual desire to eat limited diet.


Spicy dishes are certainly central to Bhutanese diet; many dishes are hot, made so with chilies that range from incendiary to somewhat mild, though never actually mild. What would be the point of a chili with no fire? It’s interesting how chilies, native to the New World have made such an impact in Asia, but they figure in all Asian cuisines and are central element in Bhutanese food.


The local rice, which accompanies every meal is called ‘toh map’, translated as red rice. In truth it’s pinker in color, a whole grain rice, becoming paler when more of the hull is removed. In the USA a few specialty stores sell Bhutanese red rice, which comes closer to actually being red, it seems that the tiny amount exported to the USA has more of the hull on it, so as to conform to its name.


Though this culinary threesome figures prominently in Bhutanese cuisine, much more is regularly on offer. Get an invite to a local home for a meal and you’ll be treated to an array of foods. The same if you visit a Bhutanese restaurant, as opposed to one of the relatively few restaurants that cater to visitors. In my time leading trips to Bhutan, there seems to be an aversion on the part of guides to bring their foreign charges to Bhutanese restaurants. This reluctance is born out of the idea that the venue might not be fancy enough, and the food too hot. Both of these attributes are correct, though while not too fancy, these venues are certainly comfortable and clean, and moreover filled with friendly Bhutanese who reactions towards foreigners in one of welcome. Spicy food? True, but there are options that do not pack as much fire as others, (and some items are distinctively not spicy at all), additionally the spiciness of Bhutanese food a bit exaggerated, especially by some travel writers who portray the food as a menace to ones mouth and stomach. Hyperbole might make a good story, but it’s short on truth.


I’m very fond of the various daatses and tsoems. Daatse means cheese, which traditionally was a local cow milks cheese, crumbly with a slight tang. Feta cheese the closest thing to this, but it’s not feta, only vaguely feta like. Melted and mixed with liquid and seasonings, and then served with almost any vegetable (chilies being the most common, but mushrooms, potatoes, fiddle head ferns, broccoli, cauliflower all being possibilities), this makes for a delicious taste, and is served heaped over rice. Tsoem translates as curry, though this is not the curry as is known in India or elsewhere in Asia, but more of a stew with a smaller mix of spices than found in other curries. Slices of pork or beef (or sometimes yak, if you are lucky, yak is delicious) are given a cooking treatment that includes several spices and then are fried or sautéed. Buckwheat pancakes or noodles also common, the pancake takes the place of bread or tortilla and can be used to mop up the sauce of the other dishes. Momos, which are actually Tibetan in origin, are found everywhere, usually as snack or appetizer. These are dumplings with wheat flour wrapper and filled with chopped vegetables or meat. Momos are eaten with ezay, one of my favorite foods in Bhutan. Much like Mexican salsas, though less liquid-y, hence more of a condiment than sauce, it consists of chopped chilies, tomatoes, onions, sometimes fruit, grated cheese, salt, pepper, and pretty much anything else at hand that the preparer thinks might add taste.  Ezays are on the table at most any Bhutanese restaurant, and if not, simply ask, and often what one then hears is the methodical chop of a knife mincing the various ingredients, to moments later to appear at your table. While the traditional accompaniment to momos, ezay tastes great over anything and I frequently go through the bowl of ezay and need to request more. Often the cook will appear to greet the chilip (the affectionate term for foreigner) who is consuming so much ezay.


My Bhutanese friends appear surprised to see me consume their food with gusto. Even Bhutanese hew to the belief that chilips cannot tolerate their food. I’m not the guy who visits Indian or Thai restaurants and asks the waiter to tell the chef to make my food spicy. I simply think that the myth of the incendiary nature of Bhutanese food is overplayed. To my palate, the flavors and tastes are fine, and the bit of fire that infuses Bhutanese cuisine in almost all cases just about right.