Don’t let the chillies scare you and get in the way of your chance to explore the bhutanese cuisine.
Wondering what Bhutanese Cuisine is all about? Here is a little “greetings from the Kitchen” of our cuisine.
Bhutanese cuisine to me, is basically the creation of delicacies with the most basic ingredients using the simplest method of cooking. All those savoury dishes are cooked either by boiling or stewing and it has nothing or very little to do with crafting, baking, frying, steaming, grilling, roasting or barbecuing etc.
Back in the days, they were whipped up on an open hearth using traditional kitchen utensils and now, like everywhere, either on a gas or an electric stove backed up by all kinds of modern kitchen equipments.
Cooking a bhutanese dish can be as simple as throwing all the ingredients together in a pot and boiling it until its done or (if one desires to be artistic) as complex as cooking to get the perfect crisp & firm texture of all the ingredients used.
However, the exotic regional specialties breaks my notion of bhutanese cuisine being the simplest & easiest to cook. These specialities are a culinary highlight. They are everything but easy to cook. They are prepared using special regional ingredients and the method of cooking thereby also becomes different or difficult.
“Rice, Chillies & Cheese”, are the three main protagonists in the culinary delights of the country. These three musketeers holds a permanent place in the kitchen of every bhutanese homes. One always makes sure the supplies never run out.
The local red and white rice are worth trying if you are in the country. Almost all the dishes are cooked with chillies and hardly any spices are used besides ginger, garlic and bhutanese pepper (aka Sichuan Pepper). Cilantro is the only popular herb, that is used commonly in the bhutanese cuisine.
Nearly all the vegetarian delights are cooked with the local fresh cheese (Datsi) and hence their names always ends with the term “Datsi”. The most famous and enjoyed throughout the country are Ema Datsi (Chilli with cheese), Kewa Datsi (Potato with cheese) and Saag Datsi (Mustard greens with cheese). But the real treat and the highly cherished are the fresh wild vegetables like matsutake & chanterelle mushrooms, ferns, orchids, wild asparagus, to name a few. The sight of these delicacies blanketed by the cheesy sauce is utterly appetizing.
Meat Dishes are in general, served either with the stewing liquid (the ingredients are cut into smaller chunks and cheese might also be added at times) or with little gravy which is explicitly referred to as “Paa” in our language (contains bigger chunks of meat and vegetables).
What is totally enticing and irresistible for us, are the scrumptious looking Shakam (sun dried beef) and Sikam (air dried pork belly) dishes. Shakam Paa, Sikam Paa, Shakam or Sikam stew with only chillies (dried or fresh) or with any other vegetables are the typical favourites. The thought of luscious shakam and sikam draped in green mustard leaves and long red chillies is so appetizing. Divine; salivating big time.
Something that we can never get enough of is, Momos, the tasty steamed Dumplings served with a signature “Aezey” (a typical condiment made out of chillies, also served as dips and sauce). Momos are perfect for “ I need a quick bite of something for my little hunger”. What we also love to treat ourselves to is “Thukpa” (noodle soup). The handmade noodles cooked in stock, served with either pork or beef makes a hearty meal, especially on a chilly evening. We always have space for it and gladly look forward to it.
A typical bhutanese meal comprises of a plate full of rice with a comparatively much smaller bowl of veg or a non veg dish or both. If it is served with “Aezey”, its a cherry on the top. The meal is then enjoyed either with water (mostly), butter tea (Suja) or milk tea (Nga Ja), and if at hand, butter milk and whey are also preferred.
The traditional kitchen however doesn’t include any sweet dishes and only a handful of dishes are served cold. That explains our desire for warm meals preferably rice with chillies even for breakfast.
The meals get bigger and larger than life during special occasions and celebrations like everywhere in the world. Special festive foods are then prepared and savoured during such events.
Sitting relaxed on the floor with the legs crossed, relishing the food with hand and catching up with the family, is a typical bhutanese dining set up.
When life gets busy and the traditional dining culture is taken over by devouring quick bites of fast food alongside your work, do slow down and gift yourself the luxury to enjoy at least one meal of the day at ease.
The bhutanese culinary art is simple but not boring. “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” ( I love this famous quote). Don’t let the chillies scare you and get in the way of your chance to explore the bhutanese cuisine. You might not find the best breads and cold cuts or the food that you are accustomed to, but I guarantee you that our typical traditional dishes are worth trying.
Bon Appetite (just realised that, we don’t have a dzongkha word for it).
*Any dish, be it vegetarian or non-vegetarian is colloquially referred to as “curry” by the locals.
Note: this article was a contribution that i made for the annual Magazine published by the Tourism Council of Bhutan in 2017. Hence, this article first appeared in that Magazine.