Bhutanese cuisine is as diverse as its landscape and people. The reason being is that the Bhutanese people have different backgrounds and this multitude is reflected within the country’s cuisine. The different varieties of gastronomic history in the country can be divided along the country’s geographical regions namely – Western, Eastern, Southern and Central.
While there are common cuisines such as ema datshi, noodles, dumplings and butter tea (suja) found in all the regions, still, each region has its own distinct tastes and specialties. From the famous Puta noodles and Kule in the center to the spicy chili flavors of the west, you’re sure to find something unique and delicious to try in every corner of the country.
The western region
In Bhutan’s west, the meals tend to be heavier due to the colder weather, with the most common ingredients being chili, meat and dairy products. Of course, rice is a staple in all the regions but in the west, red rice is hugely popular. There is also a huge influence from Tibet, and dishes such as momos and thukpas, dried meat (yak, pork and beef) are widely eaten together with fried or steamed vegetables and butter milk. The popular sikam, shakam or yaksha pa is a must-try for anyone visiting.
The most notable food in Thimphu and other regions is the signature dish – Ema Datshi. Usually made of chilies and cottage cheese, it can also be prepared with potatoes, mushrooms and meat. Ema Datshi as the national dish is famously delicious and the most authentic versions will be served with mostly chilies of all hue and flavor and fermented cheese.
The eastern region
Eastern Bhutan to say the least is huge and widespread. The east has the biggest district of the kingdom and some of its borders skirt up to the edge of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. As maize, potatoes and other vegetables are widely grown in the region, it reflects in its cuisine. But while the food in the east borrows a lot from the west, it has its own distinct flavors. Food can be simpler here and cured and smoked hams and beef often accompany wheat noodles together with a local brew of eggs and butter known as ara.
The ranges of ingredients found in any given dish in the eastern region vary widely but it will definitely not disappoint. From ferns, dumplings and the various pas to corn kernels called kharang you can get them all. Pork, poultry, fungi, bamboo shoots and other legumes are also widely eaten, cooked usually by stir frying or steaming.
The southern region
The southern region of Bhutan does take heavy influences from its closest geographical companions such as India and Nepal. The food in the south is simple, subtle and satisfying. Lentils rotis (bread) and rice form the base of most southern meals, with herbs, vegetables and meats – adding a mix of fresh and smoky flavors. Meat is often marinated, grilled and served in skewer form and served with pickles and rice or sel roti. Mutton and lamb is widely used throughout the region with a mix of vegetables and achars (pickles).
The central region
Central cuisine in Bhutan is traditionally characterized by the use of buckwheat and wheat. As rice couldn’t be grown in the region especially in Bumthang till the early 2000s the staple of the people there was buckwheat along with dried meats and dairy products.
Some signature dishes include buckwheat pancakes (kule/kepthang), buckwheat polenta (chogdan), buckwheat noodles (puta), wheat flat noodles (jambuli), fresh water algae (churu) made into soup, as well as dairy products such as butter and whey. The central region is always famous for its cottage cheese and western types like Cheddar and Gouda.
‘It’s difficult to choose just one favorite dish in Bhutan, but I would definitely go for the Ema Datshi, the Shakam Pa, and the steaming momos. So far, during my visit, I have never had a lousy meal in Thimphu and Paro.’ – Ms. Rebecca, Tourist.