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. ◊
I enjoy your posts and am interested in the places and their food. But having lived my life in the U.S. eating U.S. food, now at 77, I can’t tolerate extremely spicy food. Our diets have much more spice and variety than when I was a boy, but I don’t think I would handle the food in Bhutan well.
I completely understand. Spicy food was not something I ate growing up in Hong Kong, and when my siblings and I were naughty young children our frustrated mother would force us to eat a spoonful of chili sauce as punishment. Living in Indonesia where people put chili sauce on just about everything (including pizza), that’s something I laugh about now.
I still remember Kinga’s face when we told him we wanted to try Bhutanese dishes from day one. It was a combination of being pleasantly surprised and wondering whether we knew what we were about to get ourselves into. I ended up enjoying most of the dishes we had during our stay in the country because of the spiciness from the chilies and the richness of the datshi. I think if someone decides to open a Bhutanese restaurant in Jakarta many people will appreciate it for there’s something familiar about the taste of Bhutanese cuisine, but at the same time the datshi is unlike anything we use here in our cooking. As for momos, they will be a perfect snack to go for busy Jakartans.
That’s a fantastic idea – maybe we should open a Bhutanese restaurant ourselves! The only dish I recall not liking was the fried bitter gourd with potatoes we had at the hotel in Punakha. And that was only because I don’t enjoy the taste of bitter gourd in general. I’ve been thinking of making shamu datshi from scratch for the longest time, but as you know I’m not experienced when it comes to cooking with wood ear mushrooms and I haven’t figured out what to use as a substitute for the Himalayan cheese. Maybe I’ll have a go in the next few weeks!
Any vegan items or selections that could easily be made vegan?
The prevalence of cheese in Bhutanese food presents a bit of a challenge for traveling vegans, but I do recall having several entirely plant-based dishes including a fantastic potato salad. I reckon the hotels and guesthouses more used to hosting visitors from the West should have no problem steering clear of meat and dairy.
You had me at “fantastic potato salad”. Even in the U.S., it isn’t easy to find vegan potato salad that could be called fantastic, and I grew up eating meat, cheese, and drinking milk and loved potato salad. I was in my 30s when I became a vegan for health reasons.
I wonder if there is any way to get the recipe for that fantastic potato salad.
When I was young I’d eat potato salad and as a side include a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a tall glass of milk. :o)
I should probably mention that the potato salad wasn’t coated in a mayo-like sauce, but resembled this one with an olive oil dressing: https://www.foodiecrush.com/no-mayo-potato-salad/
If my memory serves me correctly, it consisted of halved baby potatoes, thin slices of red onion, chopped dried red chilies, a bit of garlic, cracked black peppercorns, toasted mustard seed, and there may or may not have been finely chopped cilantro leaves (I’m not 100% sure on this one). I don’t recall there being any sour notes but a squeeze of lemon or lime could be a nice touch.
I nodded along at every one of your discoveries, until you came to shakam paa. That’s new to me. So it’s back to Bhutan in a year or three, I’m afraid.
Two local dishes we didn’t manage to try (or track down) were buckwheat pancakes and buckwheat noodles, which are specialties of the central valleys around Bumthang. I hear the cheese is fantastic there too, so it’s on my list for whenever we get to return!
In Bumthang we did get to eat buckwheat noodles in a thukpa.
I truly enjoyed being taken on your culinary journey in Bhutan. There is a certain simplicity to those dishes, it all looks so farm fresh and totally mouthwatering. I’m glad I viewed your post after having dinner. Greetings from the other side of the globe.
It’s my pleasure, Cornelia – I hope you’re keeping well and life in Southern California is getting back to normal! You are so right about Bhutanese food being farm fresh. My sense was that people there still have a deep connection to the land, and almost all the ingredients in our meals had been grown locally. At the family-run hotel we were booked into the first two nights, the owner even served us a delicious salad made with baby potatoes from her own backyard.
Thank you James for your reflection. Enjoy your week.
Your descriptions and photos make me want to pack my bags and head for Bhutan! We are preparing to return to Oaxaca, Mexico for the winter – another place with excellent food and drink.
How lucky you are! I recently read a longform article about Oaxaca’s rich culinary and mezcal-making traditions – and the photos of the various restaurants and palenques the writer visited just about made me salivate. If I do get the chance to visit Mexico in the next few years (one can dream!) I’ll have to budget at least a few days for Oaxaca alone.
The chilli cheese in Bhutan was quite something. Actually quite tasty in fact. I even asked to try their yak butter tea.
I agree – after what my Canadian friend had said about it, I was happily surprised. Ema datshi is an interesting combination that just so happens to work.
I wonder how they hung up those chilies to dry—I’m drying some at the moment and this looks like a better method.
It seems we meet someone who doesn’t like the food everywhere we go—a pity, because I agree it’s a bonus while travelling. Perhaps that Canadian was brought up on poutine! Just the thought of chips smothered in gravy sounds irksome to me. Give me chillies any day.
He wasn’t so convinced when I eventually told him how much I enjoyed the food in Bhutan! It could also be that the Aman lodges dialed down the heat for their clientele – that’s not entirely unexpected of an ultra-luxe hotel.
It all sounds so enticing except for the chilli. What would I do? I know it was difficult getting anything without chilli in Sichuan, but I did manage so I guess it would be similar. The momos look good. Your photos are wonderful. In my world sweet chilli is an oxymoron 😂
Wow – I’d assumed practically all Sichuanese dishes had chili in them! I’m super impressed you found a way around it. In Bhutan I think you’d probably be eating a lot of momos, shapales (those were delicious!), and Tibetan noodle soup. For the cheesy potato and mushroom dishes, you could conceivably fish out or avoid the chilies altogether. And if the cheese gets too much, there are some places that do serve a mix of Bhutanese, Indian, and Western food. 🙂
Some of my meals in Sichuan consisted of a lot of rice with the tiniest tiniest bit of a meat or veg dish mixed in. The rice cut the chilli to a tolerable level 😁
The only place we couldn’t handle the spice was in Chongqing, Sichuan! Our guide warned us beforehand not to pick medium spice dan dan noodles but we went “Ha, we’re Indian” and regretted not listening to him big time 🙂
I had trouble in India too 😂 but always managed to find a way around it. I love all the different rich flavours in curries as long as they’re not too hot. But generally I avoid spicy foods, and especially chilli.
Are you blogging at all. I miss your posts.
I thought I was but got sidetracked again…thank you for not forgetting me Alison🧡 New post coming up! This time I wanted to have four drafts lined up before I returned.
How can anyone not like a chili and cheese combo? I grew up eating red rice and curry. Cheese would’ve been a welcome accompaniment.
Your food posts are always impressive James. Nothing you’ve featured seems boring. Bhutanese cuisine seems influenced by Tibet quite like in Ladakh but seems more refined like the architecture. (Just adding finishing touches to a long overdue Ladakh post…not a single food shot in there!)
Love the look of the Neyphug Heritage building.
Thanks Madhu! I do remember almost drooling over the landscape shots you’d posted from your trip to Ladakh. There was one story I read a couple years ago about a chef from Mumbai who went there each year to forage for sea buckthorn and harvest apricots outside a village on the banks of the Indus (not too far from Kargil, I believe). This post was long overdue too – I actually set up the first draft back in November 2018, about a month after our trip to Bhutan. And then nothing came of it until just the other week. How time flies!
Was it Nimmu? It is apricot land! I had apples and apricots dropping on my head in the place I was acclimatising in. They use it for horse fodder and we, in the far southern plains, pay through our noses for imported apples!
I think it was Hanuthang – the story mentioned a multi-hour drive west from Leh past Nimmu. Your anecdote about the local apricots and apples made my jaw drop. The farmers could gain more income by sending at least some of that fresh produce to Delhi and Chennai and other large cities around India!
I enjoyed reading this as I do with your posts. It’s written so well. I can’t eat spicy foods although my bf can. He doesn’t like cheese especially Parmesan but tolerates the melted ones on pizza and lasagna. But I would try the foods you’ve written here. Thanks for including the pics of Your Cafe – it looks very interesting and inviting.
Thanks so much for the kind words, Matt. You could say that chili is not really a feature of Cantonese cuisine – I only really started to eat it more regularly nine years ago. Now that I’m in Indonesia, hardly a day goes by when I don’t have chili incorporated into a meal somehow. It’s gotten to the point where certain Hong Kong dishes now taste a little bland!
Thanks for the exotic culinary journey, James. I too love trying out local fare while traveling. The Bhutanese cuisine sounds appealing to me. It’s a cold, gloomy day in Vancouver and that comfort food dish with the cheese, garlic, potatoes and chilies sure would hit the spot! It’s like a variation on my Swiss/German comfort food favourites like raclette and roesti (minus the chilies).
It’s great that Kinga took you to authentic, local places like the “hole-in-the-wall”. All too often guides drop off clients at establishments geared more to tourist palates.
Wonderful food photography, as usual.
It’s my pleasure, Caroline – I’m a little surprised to read that summer is well and truly over in Vancouver! The similarities with hearty Swiss/German food never occurred to me while on the trip, but I can totally see it now. I did have slices of air-dried beef the last time I was in Switzerland so that’s pretty much the non-spicy version of shakam paa.
Because my dad spent decades working for a Swiss engineering company (including some time living outside Zürich in his younger years), I ate quite a lot of raclette, roesti, and leberwurst growing up. Leberwurst is one of my favorite breakfast ingredients – I particularly love spreading it over a hot slab of toast!
This looked like quite the foodie trip in Bhutan, James. Cheese and chillis, who would have thought that that would be quite the popular combo food over there. Personally I love cheese and eat it at every opportunity I can, so I read your post with a lot of interest. Sounds like cheese is a versatile ingredient over there.
Like Lloyd in the comments mentioned, I was pleased to see you had cheese with potatoes over there. The kewa datshi does sound like a cold winter’s night comfort food, something you could serve hot. The momos look so appetising and interesting to hear you and Bama preferred the vegetarian one fr its creamy cheese and cabbage feeling. I’ve never had that kind of momo before and I think I would need to try it to find out if I’d really like it. I do know some people aren’t a fan of creamy texture and it can be a reason why some people don’t like cheese.
The Tibetan-style fried meat pies looked like curry puffs to me 🙂
Hope all is well with you James and you get to travel again soon.
Thank you for the well-wishes, Mabel. 🙂 I suspect quarantine-free overseas travel will not be happening until next year, perhaps April at the very earliest. In the meantime we’ll have to be content with domestic road trips and the like. Hope you’re staying sane and thriving despite the months-long lockdown in Melbourne!
I also think quarantine-free travel won’t happen until quite some time in the future. Looking forward to seeing more of your domestic trips. I’m doing alright here. Lockdown in Melbourne looks to be ending soon, so hopefully we can all go out and enjoy summer 🙂
Bhutan has been one of those trips that I placed in my ‘must do’ files at least one if not two decades ago… and you are bringing those dreams back 🙂 Enjoyed your experiences and also such a wonderful look at the culture and food, and like you I always see the two interlinked and if you are to enjoy the area you are visiting it is important to embrace the food ~ and based on your photos you and Bama did just that. Perfect.
Glad to hear this, Randall – of all the countries I’ve been to so far, Bhutan is one of my favorites. Fingers crossed your dream of visiting will be fulfilled not too long after borders reopen. 🙂
The photos and your descriptions of the food is making my mouth water, James. I’m delighted to learn that chillies is such an important ingredient in Bhutan’s cuisine. I love spicy food, and am always delighted when I travel to a country where it features prominently.
Jolandi, it’s great to hear about how much you love eating spicy food. For me, learning to embrace chilies and incorporate them into my diet has been a gradual process, though things have accelerated since I moved to Indonesia in 2016! Had I gone to Bhutan a decade ago, I’m sure I would not have enjoyed the local cuisine as much as I did.
Very interesting about the cheese overlays .and with chili at times.
Chili and cheese was not a combination I would have anticipated (or imagined) back when I lived in Hong Kong – but it really does work!