Bhutanese Food–Chili as a Staple, Except for Tourists

It is true that Bhutanese love hot spicy chili on their food. It is so hot that foreigners are generally herded into Western hotels with buffets of Bhutanese sounding dishes with dramatically toned down spice. Thus, we had little opportunity to taste what Bhutanese actually eat and had a number of pretty tasteless meals, where rice and roasted potatoes were the high point. However, we did experience some interesting food.

The nation’s most popular dish isema datse consists of cheese in a hot pepper sauce made with sautéed chili. Tom, who likes spicy food more than Joyce, convinced our guide, Lal, to let him taste a version that used the mildest chiles (instead of the hottest, which Bhutanese prefer). Even with the milder chilis, it was indeed hot for two  reasons: Bhutan uses highly concentrated, dried chiles in its dishes and cooks them with the seeds, rather than removing them.

Among the better Westernized Bhutan dishes we tasted were:

  • Vegetable Kofta, mashed potatoes with vegetables in cream sauce:;
  • Rumtang cheese, a decent cows milk cheese that tastes something between an unaged cheddar and a goat cheese;
  • Bhutan bread, more like a deep-fried croquette than a bread;
  • Potato Nadyese, pan-fried with some type of orange spice, with a bit of a tang;
  • Fried bitter gourd, which, although somewhat bitter, is not bad.

Some of the hottest dishes we tasted were at the Hotel Phuntsho Pelri. Joyce has almost a philosophical aversion to chiles and mistakenly took a bite of spicy chicken, followed by gallons of tea to cool down her mouth. While Tom likes a moderate degree of heat, he discovered that eating spicy food with a cold sore on his lip was not a good idea. So neither of us are reliable sources on whether or not spicy Bhutanese food is good or not.

while we generally try to stay away from buffets, most of the meals during our hotel stays were buffets. Our favorite buffet-style food came from Orchid Restaurant where we particularly enjoyed the buckwheat noodles, the vegetable-filled buckwheat dumplings, minced beef, lightly-spiced steamed pumpkin and the soy-braised cabbage.

The most interesting dinner, in addition to the interesting creations of our trek chef, was our last night’s dinner at a Paro-area farmhouse. This was not your average farmhouse: it was a spacious three-story affair with two large rooms devoted to prayer–one for everyday family prayer and one elaborate room for a once-per-year session led by a monk.

Dinner began with a Bhutanese butter tea (much lighter than what we experienced in Tibet as it was made with cow rather than yak butter). It was also accompanied with a combination of roasted rice and corn chips. We were also given a farm-brewed wine made from fermented rice and wheat. The meal itselff–the best we had in Bhutan–consisted of fresh (just harvested) rice on which we piled rice noodles with beef, potato with cheese, fried eggs and of course, chiles (mild for Westerners) with onion and tomato. Not only was the meal delicious, but our hostess was delightful, articulate and happy to speak about a wide range of issues. It was a great experience and got us away from yet another mediocre hotel buffet dinner.

Tom almost got to try another Bhutanese "snack"–Beetlenut. Our guide showed us how it was prepared, by spreading white lime on a Beetlenut leaf, and wrapping the nut inside. When Tom asked to try some, our guide gently said no. He felt that since Tom was not accustomed to it, he may become too intoxicated. Although Tom was willing to take the risk, he was not.

When in Bhutan, we had to try to local beers and wines, of course. For wines, we tried:

  • Raven Shiraz, easily drinkable, but certainly. It complex. But a what would you expect from a wine that sells at $2.60 retail and $14.75 at a restaurant.
  • Takin Red Wine, about $15 at one of our hotel lounges is sweet and fruity, almost like cherry-flavored children’s medicine. Not among our favorite wines.
  • Farm-fermented rice and wheat wine that was reminiscent of sake, but less subtle, nuanced and refined.

Bhutanese Beer

  • Druk 11000 "strong beer" is more hoppy than most of the Asian lagers
  • Druk Supreme, which we prefer and is less hoppy

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