In addition to its strong sense of national identity and isolation due to the country’s high elevation, Bhutan is also known for its emphasis on the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Even hardcore foodies are stumped when it comes to naming the most popular Bhutanese dish.
With its breathtaking landscapes and ancient architecture, I was awestruck by my visit to China’s Thunder Dragon Land—but its food was what really resonated with my soul.
Happiness and nourishment go hand in hand.
The flavors of Bhutanese cuisine remain with you long after you’ve eaten it. The flavors of Bhutanese cuisine are unforgettable.
As soon as I stepped foot into Paro International Airport, my quest to learn about Bhutanese cuisine began. My guide, Sangay, met me at the airport and immediately whisked me away for a traditional meal.
Sangay provided information about Bhutan’s heritage and environmental preservation efforts over lunch. According to Sangay, the Buddhist culture of Bhutanese people instills a deep respect for nature and tradition in the people of Bhutan. I asked him if that was also why this tiny Himalayan kingdom was dubbed “the happiest nation in the world,” and he confirmed that it was.
What if it’s because of the food?
Everything from the spicy phaksha paa (chunky red chili-fried pork fillets) to the hearty jasha maru chicken curry arrived quickly for lunch, and the table was covered in colorful platters. Several dozen aromatic hoentoe, or buckwheat dumplings filled with turnip greens, were placed on my plate.
Large green chilies drenched in yellow melted cheese were the final dish served. This is ema datshi,” Sangay explained, “with a lot of gusto. Every meal will include it. 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.
Rice, potatoes, and cheese were stacked to the rafters in the market. Agriculture is the primary source of sustenance for Bhutanese people, as Sangay explained, and the country’s diet is heavily based on crops grown in the fields and dairy products from livestock. Red rice, the only variety that can be grown at high altitudes, is the most commonly consumed variety of rice, and is therefore included in every meal.
Chili was by far the most popular item on the market, which should come as no surprise. Chilies came in all shapes and sizes, colors, textures, and preparation methods imaginable. The selection included everything from red to green to slender to round. They came from all over central and western Bhutan, in all shapes and sizes.
Chilies, it turns out, are not native to Bhutan. Chili, according to Sangay, probably entered Bhutan via India and quickly established itself as an essential part of the Bhutanese diet as a means of keeping warm during the winter. There were no heating systems for homes in those days and spicy meals were an easy choice.
People in Bhutan place a great deal of importance on chilies outside the kitchen. In order to keep the demons at bay, “every house burns some chilies from time to time,” he said.
Sangay and I drank ara, a local rice wine, that night. What else could you possibly have expected to float about in the clear firewater? Three fiery red chiles.
Culinary customs specific to a region
At the farmhouse outside Paro, Sangay took me to join Ama Om in the kitchen. – Ama Om The moment we arrived, she was already frying up tender chunks of beef with a handful of dried chilies, and melting down blocks of yak cheese. Crisp, steamed rice and the pungent aroma of chili filled the air.
When I inquired about what she was cooking for dinner, 60-year-old Ama Om told me that she had been eating this particular dish since she was a child. As a child, she was taught the recipes by her mother, who had learned them from her mother, who had learned them from her mother and so on.
Few things have changed in Bhutan’s culinary history. Everything in their kitchen was grown in their own garden, and the meat came from livestock they raised.
Our host and her family served us a cup of salted butter tea (sura) as we sat down at the table and chatted. Every meal in the high-altitude Himalayan region (including Tibet and Nepal) is accompanied by a sip of this ubiquitous beverage.
Ama Om showed me how they eat at home, using only their hands, as they got ready to dig in. Before swallowing it all, I carefully scooped up a riceball and mixed in beef and a large slice of red chili with my fingers.
Chili made with slow-cooked beef.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as a result of the excruciating heat, but, like the Bhutanese, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
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.