Cheese and Chilies Galore: The Food of Bhutan
“Food served in hotels and restaurants in Bhutan can often be bland. Bhutan may not be the place for a great gastronomical experience, but the Bhutanese cuisine does provide some variety, although [it may be] a bit too spicy for many visitors.”
— Pre-departure information, Bridge To Bhutan
Of everything written in an impressive reference guide sent to us months ahead of our trip to Bhutan, a 16-page document packed with valuable information and all kinds of practical tips, it was this apologetic passage that jumped out the most. To be fair, any traveler with a low tolerance for spiciness might balk at Bhutanese cuisine in general. A Canadian friend of mine who’d made the same journey a few years before described ema datshi, the national dish of chili and cheese, as being “vile”. Part of it may have been down the fact that ema datshi doesn’t score highly when it comes to presentation.
For me, one of the greatest pleasures of travel is trying the local food. Not only does it offer a window into the culture and history of a place, but doing so enriches our culinary knowledge with ingredients or flavor combinations we might not otherwise have been aware of. And so it was with ema datshi. Contrary to my friend’s scathing report, Bama and I both found this unlikely (and “unpretty”) pairing to be delicious from the very first bite. We never tired of chili or cheese throughout our weeklong sojourn in the remote Himalayan kingdom. Hearty and uncomplicated as it may be, the food of Bhutan is most definitely not boring or bland.
On the day of our arrival, we were quickly acquainted with a trifecta of culinary building blocks that give Bhutanese cuisine its unique character. The first is fiber- and mineral-rich red rice, a hardy heirloom variety that is predominantly grown in the Paro and Punakha valleys, where paddy fields are irrigated by pure mountain streams and glacial meltwaters. I am no rice connoisseur, but this high-altitude staple is something else: the rounder and plumper grains have an earthy, nutty flavor with a delicate mouthfeel.
The second keystone ingredient, of course, is chili. In Bhutan, the chili pepper is treated more like a vegetable and takes a host of different forms: green or red, fresh or air-dried, stewed, blanched, pickled, or pounded in a mortar and pestle before being fried (usually with onion and tomato) to become ezay, the spicy condiment that accompanies most meals. All that chili is tempered by the prevalent use of dairy products, specifically milk and datshi. Also known as chhurpi, datshi describes tangy Himalayan cheese made from the milk of goats, cows, or yaks. The hard variety, strung up in smallish blocks at traditional markets, is often enjoyed as a snack; the soft kind of datshi goes into a smorgasbord of savory dishes.
For instance, the local cheese is cooked with sliced potatoes, chilies, and garlic to make kewa datshi – just the kind of comfort food one would want on a cold winter’s night. With a taste and texture not unlike ricotta, soft datshi is crumbled into goen hogay, a salad featuring slices of soft, ripe cucumbers spiced with ground Sichuan peppercorn. The ingredient also stars in dishes like shamu datshi, which sees it melted over springy pieces of wood ear mushroom cooked with roughly chopped onions and green chilies. (At our hotel in Paro, the addition of rice vermicelli made shamu datshi a standalone main course.) The drink of choice to wash it all down is suja, yak-butter tea with a dash of salt.
No exposition of any Himalayan cuisine would be complete without a mention of momos. The steamed dumplings of Bhutan are closer to the Tibetan variety than the masala-spiced Nepalese kind; Bama and I preferred vegetarian momos over the meaty ones, chiefly because of their creamy cheese-and-cabbage filling. Another two Tibetan-influenced dishes we sought out were a fried meat pie called shapale, whose crispy crust, half-moon shape, and braided edges brought to mind the Latin American empanada, and bathup (or bathuk) – flat wheat-flour noodles with spinach and cubes of dried meat in a broth reddened by tomato paste. There were no chilies in this particular bathup, but we did detect the tingly, numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorn.
Nearly three years after our visit, I can vividly recall two specific occasions when our surroundings made the dining experience even more special. While in Thimphu, Bhutan’s fast-growing capital, our guide Kinga led us into a nondescript hole-in-the-wall on the second floor of a dark, near-empty commercial building. Phuntsho, our driver, arrived soon after and the four of us took up a cozy nook beside the venue’s only window, which looked out onto a quiet courtyard. In time, seven different combinations of cheese, meat, chilies, potatoes, and mushrooms came in stainless steel karahi bowls with solid brass handles; a much larger copper plated pot held a heap of red rice that could probably feed six people. In hindsight, it was this threadbare eatery in downtown Thimphu that plated up some of the tastiest food we had on the trip.
At the other end of the scale is Neyphug Heritage, a tourist-friendly complex outside Paro that’s centered on the sensitively restored ruins of a 17th-century residence. The whole operation is run as a social enterprise that supports nearby Neyphug Monastery and its religious community, employs young people from the local villages, and gives farmers a place to sell their fresh produce. Its main draw is Your Café, launched just days before our arrival and billed as the only fully-vegetarian restaurant in the area.
Bama and I eschewed the Indian and Western food on the menu for a Bhutanese set lunch of thickly sliced radish with sweet dried chili, a generous helping of rice, soup, cucumber salad, and ema datshi. Our meat-free meal was genuinely a delight, and so too was the look of Your Café’s rustic-contemporary dining room. The designers had retained the original rammed earth walls but added stonework and several modern details: spherical lamps and Edison bulbs hung from the pine-wood ceiling, while daylight flooded in through plate-glass windows framing views of the neighboring rice fields. Never mind the funny name – Your Café was so inviting we could imagine whiling away a rainy afternoon here with mugs of suja, some snacks, and a good book.
Incessant rain and mist greeted us on the morning of our final full day in Bhutan. After descending the muddy trail from Tiger’s Nest, dripping wet and soaked to the bone, we were driven the short distance to Three Brothers, a homey stone-clad restaurant just down the road. Inside, the sympathetic waitstaff greeted us warmly and had our food on the table in no time. Bama and I were just about to unzip our camera bags when we both realized we could skip the requisite picture-taking. Ravenously hungry after the hike and eternally grateful for this hot meal, we dug right into the assortment of cheesy dishes – ema datshi included – without a second thought. ◊