Apart from being the land of happiness, Bhutan can easily be called the land of colours; with their aesthetic architecture stealing our touristy hearts right from the time we set foot into the Royal Kingdom.
Had heard a lot about Bhutan not being a gastronomic delight. Refuse to believe it now that I’ve been there. Yes if you are looking to find your favorite cuisines cooked the way you are used to, maybe its not the place to do that. But that’s exactly what I love about the country. They do not feel the urgent need to change themselves to attune to International touristy standards. Their priority is to preserve what is their own, adaptation comes later.
And why not, when we expect to do in Rome as Romans do, we should be ready to live the Bhutanese experience while there. In an agri-rich country full of floral bounty, how can good food be far away? Although a week is hardly enough time to get into the depths of a country’s cuisine, I managed to catch the gist of what their taste buds love.
Bhutan’s national dish is ema datsi – Saying the Bhutanese love their chillies would be a royal understatement. The kingdom boasts of their variety of chillies, and if you ask for chillies at the dinner table, they are often confused as to which variety you would want with your food. Because not only they use it to season, they have both the main dish and side dish made of chilly as the primary ingredient. Ema datsi means chilly and cheese. Traditionally, large split chilly peppers cooked in a slight gravy of fresh cheese and garlic for seasoning. Tangy, hot and warm and best relished with Bhutanese red rice. I was given to understand that the best red rice comes from the Paro valley, I picked up some on my way back since that’s always what I end up doing, picking up rice from countries I visit. Just a crazy fetish I guess.
The red rice is extremely nutty, a little chewy, almost like couscous, except tastier and healthier. I’ve been using it generously in soups and salads, to add a healthy volume to them.
Other datsi favorites are the Shamu datsi (mushroom) and the Kewadatsi (potato), with me often ordering the former.
Datsi aside, one must absolutely not miss the momos in Bhutan. Usually, the beef momos are the most popular and available; in Thimpu there was a place called Momo point, I think, hidden behind the Changlam square market, which made great beef momos. I also tried the cheese momos which sadly were more of veg/cabbage momos, so stick to beef.
Also, we had read up on the internet about people raving about momos at the Zombala restaurant; we had a hearty meal of mixed meat rice, mushroom datsi, chilly pork etc there which was great and surprisingly reasonable, but the momos were okayish – I mean you could find better.
The place we were staying, Hotel Norbuling, dished out some of the best pork momos we’ve had, by the way. We could distinctly taste butter in their pork momos and while digging into them everyday of our stay there, we wondered why did it never occur to us to use flavourful butter instead fat while we make our chicken momos at home. Even their momo chutney was very different from what we usually had – it was dark red dry pasty and had other seasoning agents that kept us confused but satiated.
The Bhutanese, like us Indians, and maybe Japanese and Koreans, prefer a low seating dining environment. We had a lovely sit down traditional Bhutanese meal at the folk art museum cafeteria. The service begins with huge wooden bowls of puffed rice and corn flakes served as appetisers, followed by an elaborate main course of the Ema datsi, potato datsi, stir-fried vegetables, a meat side dish (we opted for pork), red rice and so on.
Their meals are traditionally accompanied by a hot chutney, that we came across at many places, and unlike a regular momo chutney, this one tastes strongly of fresh green schezwan peppers.Very underrated are their simple treatment of their fresh organic vegetables. Asparagus seemed a wide favorite, and we enjoyed tender asparagus stems and vegetables like broccoli and carrots stir fried simply in butter.They also have their own version of hand-made pasta called the thenthuk/ bathuk – it is similar to the Nepalese kaudi, and prepared in a similar fashion, except Bhutanese cannot keep the chilly out of dishes and hence it has a hint of spice and is very wholesome.
We managed to taste some regional dishes at the Haa summer festival – buckwheat dumplings stuffed with beef, they called it Hentey and it is only found in the Haa valley, we were told. Along with some local hooch – the feni-like Ara and this other drink which tastes like sweet fermented rice. I was told they are very strong but luckily I was standing on my own two feet at the end of the tasting sessions. The best part was that it rained heavily as the festival started, and we had to take refuge in a couple of these stalls. After a few educational stalls on biodiversity etc we landed up at the food stalls and noone wanted to leave. As we waited for the rains to stop, the temptation to try out this food and that drink was too hard to resist, but it left us happy in the end about making that trip to this seemingly least populated valley of the country.
Apart from traditional fare, Thimpu also houses a couple of very good bakeries. We were bowled over by the meat patties and swiss rolls at the legendary Swiss Bakery which is apparently an institution in itself. The swiss roll, I must say, was the best we ever had – the softest cake and fluffy cream which was not too sweet; we had to go for a second round after the first one was polished off. If pattisserie is your thing, you should also try out the chocolate eclairs at Om Bakery which we thought was fabulous. Its not easy to come by a well-made choux pastry.
This was only a glimpse of the culinary learnings of our journey; the scenic beauty, the friendly and helpful people and the marvelous traditional architecture of the country left us mesmerised. Read on for my account of sightseeing in the land of happiness.
P.S. There were a couple of heavily recommended places which we skipped for various reasons. For example, the Bhutan Kitchen was highly acclaimed for authentic Bhutanese food but the day we went there, they just had a buffet dinner and no a-la carte options. And the buffet had chicken curry (no pork no beef we weren’t excited) so we had to head out.
The Ambient Cafe came recommended for its ambience, which was indeed nice, and the food, which was vegetarian so somehow we did not stay on. Maybe next time.
Karma cafe is a place I asked the driver to take us, but he said his tourist friends have not raved about their food as much they did about their coffee. So there, that was skipped, although a good coffee for me is sometimes more than enough to make up for the food. But not when am hungry.
The Mojo Park which was one of the new nightclubs which promised live music; it was right on our alley and we passed it quite a few times but hardly saw anyone apart from the staff, so sadly we called it quits. They have a beautiful outdoor seating as well, am sure they get pretty busy in season.