A Bhutanese Culinary Journey

One thing Bhutan is known for is its strong sense of identity, its isolated location and an emphasis on Gross National Happiness (GNH). Food is not one of these, however, Many people have no idea what Bhutanese cuisine is like; even die-hard foodies have trouble figuring out what the most popular Bhutanese dish is.

When I visited the land of the Thunder Dragon, I was awed by the stunning natural scenery, the ancient architecture, and the lighthearted nature of its people, but it was the cuisine that left the deepest impression on my soul. I’m not sure why.

The two go hand in hand: food and contentment.

As soon as I landed at Paro International Airport, my culinary adventure began. My guide, Sangay, met me at the airport and immediately whisked me away for a traditional meal.

Sangay offered insights into Bhutan’s emphasis on preserving its cultural and natural resources over lunch. In Sangay’s view, the Buddhist culture of Bhutan has led to a deep respect for nature and tradition among its people. Inquiring as to whether or not this was also the reason for the kingdom’s moniker as “the happiest nation in the world,” I pressed him further.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders, “Maybe because we’re Buddhists… “Maybe the food is to blame!”

From spicy pork fillets fried in red chili to the heavy jasha maru chicken curry spread across the table for lunch, it looked like the Lunar New Year feast was in full swing at the restaurant. My plate was topped with a mound of red nutty rice and a dozen fragrant hoentoe, buckwheat dumplings filled with turnip greens. It was quite the feast.

Large green chilies drenched in yellow melted cheese were the final dish served. This is ema datshi,” Sangay gushed enthusiastically. Each and every one of your meals will have it on the menu. I think this dish would be Bhutanese cuisine’s national dish.”

Spices are a passion of mine.

The next day, I set out for Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and largest city. I arrived just in time for Bhutan’s largest domestic market for farmers, the Centenary Farmer’s Market.

Stacks of cheese, potatoes, and sacks of rice were piled high in the market. For the most part, the Bhutanese diet consists of crops and dairy products raised on their own land, as Sangay explained. Because red rice is the only variety that can grow at high altitudes, it is the most popular choice at every meal.

Not surprisingly, chili was the most common item on the shelves. Chilies ranged from red to green, fleshy, slender to round and dried to powdered and pickled in a variety of ways. Various species and subspecies could be found throughout Bhutan’s central and western regions.

Chilies, it turns out, are not native to Bhutan. Chili, according to Sangay, probably entered Bhutan via India and quickly established itself as a staple of the Bhutanese diet as a means of keeping warm during the cold winter months. Spicy food was a convenient option for those without access to modern heating systems in their homes back in the day.

Outside of the kitchen, Bhutanese rituals place a high value on chilies as well. In order to keep the demons at bay, “every house burns some chilies from time to time,” he said.

A round of ara, the local rice wine, was on the menu that night. Then, what do you think was floating in the clear firewater? Three fiery red piping chilies in a triangular dish.

Food customs unique to the area

Sangay took me to a farmhouse a few miles outside of Paro to join Ama Om in the kitchen. It wasn’t long before she had already started making dinner, and we found her in the kitchen whipping up beef stew and melting yak cheese. Those who entered the room were greeted by the scent of steamed rice and chili peppers.

During our conversation, Ama Om, a 60-year-old Bhutanese woman, told me that she had been eating this particular dish since she was a child. To pass down her mother’s recipes to her own children, she passed them down through her own family.

Few things have changed in Bhutan’s culinary traditions. Everything they cooked in the kitchen came from their own gardens and herds, including the vegetables and meat.

Sura, or salted butter tea, was served as we sat down to dinner with Ama Om and her family. For many people living in the Himalayas (including Tibet and Nepal), tea is an essential part of their daily diet.

Getting ready to chow down, Ama Om demonstrated to me how they normally dine at home: using nothing but their hands. Before swallowing it all, I carefully scooped up a riceball and mixed in beef and a large slice of red chili with my fingers.

In spite of the sweltering heat and the spice-induced tears streaming down my face, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Food is definitely a factor in Bhutanese happiness, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that made the people there so content.

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