How To Eat Like A Local In Bhutan

Over the last nine days, I think I have eaten more Bhutanese food than any westerner before me. The reason I say that, is that in Bhutan it’s harder than you think to eat local food.

At first, I was not really enjoying the Bhutanese food, but after cracking through the white-wash that they serve at most buffets, I’ve found an, albeit limited, but absolutely delicious cuisine.

I’ve learnt a lot about how to eat locally here and let me say that it’s a lot harder than you think. Most hotels and restaurants here are set up exclusively for foreigners as locals generally can’t afford to eat out regularly. So most of the food is whitened down imitations of the traditional dish.

Here’s everything I know about Bhutanese food and how to make sure you get the local taste when visiting the land of happiness.

What you need to know

  • Bhutanese cuisine is largely influenced by Tibetan and Indian food.
  • It isn’t an exhaustingly diverse cuisine like Vietnamese or Thai.
  • It is delicious.
  • Three words sum up Bhutanese food: chilli, cheese, and rice

Eating Bhutanese food

  • It’s hard to find local tasting food as everything is focused on tourists.
  • Unless you are international celebrity foodie Mark Wiens, you will be eating a lot of buffets, which are average to say the least.
  • You want to escape the buffets and get “a la carte”.
  • Don’t eat in the hotels, get your guide to take you to restaurants.
  • Tell your guide that you want to eat local food; local chilli levels.

Bhutanese food in a nutshell

As I said, Bhutanese food is not a diverse cuisine. Here are the main categories that pretty much all of Bhutanese food falls under.

Datshi

  • By far the star of Bhutanese food.
  • It’s basically a creamy sauce, sometimes with cheese, mostly with chilli and something else.
  • Comes in either chilli (ema), potato (kewa), mushroom (shamu), or spinach (forgot…).
  • Shamu datshi is not only my favorite Bhutanese dish, but possibly my favorite rice-sauce combination of all time.
  • Out of those, ema datshi is the local king.
  • After eating a good ema datshi, you should get a mucussy cough that I can account to nothing other than your nervous system shutting down.
  • Seriously, this stuff is spicy. Not mouth spicy, but stomach spicy.

Paa

  • Dried meat grilled with dried chilli.
  • Comes in beef (shakam), pork (sikam), or yak (yaksha shakam)
  • It’s ok. I wouldn’t sell my soul for it.

Maru

  • Bhutanese version of curry.
  • Comes in pretty much everythinh; egg, beef, yak, mushroom, etc.
  • Nice to mix in with a good datshi.

Puta

  • Bhutanese version of ramen.
  • Egg noodles with some sort of meat broth.
  • Comes in most types of meat; chicken, beef, pork.

Momo

  • Bhutanese dumplings that come either fried or steamed.
  • Comes in: cheese, vegetable, beef.
  • Cheese are the most common and compliment any datshi meal.
  • These are seriously awesome.

chilli

  • Yes this is a class of food.
  • They eat chilli in three main ways.
  • Ema – just green chillis on a plate. Bite with your food,
  • Ezay – every one is different but most have chilli, onion, tomato, and coriander. Throw this on top of anything, even just plain rice.
  • Paste/sauce – red chilli paste that you can drip on top of your rice.

Rice

  • Bhutanese red rice is very light and fluffy, meaning you can (and should) eat large quantities of it. Ordering extra rice is normal and at no charge.
  • Locals will eat 2-4 plates of rice for a meal (rarely one).
  • Locals will often just eat a plate of red rice with ezay (chilli mixed topping). While that sounds tortuous, it’s actually delicious, but possibly lacking in nutrients.
  • Red rice is less starchy and more flavorful than white rice and so even by itself can be eaten as a meal.

Drinks

  • Every restaurant will offer you either coffee or tea, as that’s free.
  • Locals drink a butter tea called suja. It’s funky, but you should try (also free).
  • The hands down winner drink of choice is dauy.
  • Dauy is a sour milk that is delicious and helps your stomach handle the vast quantities of chilli that you are throwing at it.
  • Order dauy with every meal.

What to order

Here’s what I think a good day looks like eating in Bhutan:

Breakfast:

  • This you will always eat in your hotel.
  • There will be a standard western buffet setup. Don’t touch it.
  • Most locals eat fried rice for breakfast, or just plain red rice with chilli
  • As your guide to organise with your hotel to have fried rice, with egg omelette and ezay for breakfast.

Lunch:

  • You’ve been out all morning, either hiking or visiting temples and now you are hungry.
  • Your guide will likely take you to a buffet unless you intervene.
  • Eating buffets a couple of days for lunch is okay.
  • Personally I think a datshi is the perfect lunch.
  • The perfect bhutanese lunch is: ema datshi, red rice, gauy.

Dinner:

  • This is the time when you should really be exploring bhutanese food.
  • With that being said, it’s limited so you will be eating a combination of regular dishes.
  • Order a combination of: datshis, paa, puta, maru, momo, and red rice, of course.
  • Make sure to get them to serve you gauy. This will save your stomach big time.

Location tips

  • In Thimphu go to Zombala 2 and Kalden restaurant. They are epicly good.
  • In Paro, it sucks. Do your best by getting your guide to take you to the best place he knows. I ended up loving XXX

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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