Food & Drink in Bhutan

Bhutanese cuisines, in large, are reminiscent to those of Tibetan, Chinese, Nepalese, and Indian which probably would not be a surprise for she stands right in the middle, surrounded by the four in all directions, and moreover, shares a deep history with them.

In general, a normal Bhutanese household would go for a simple dish, rice covering the majority of the plate with only a limited number of vegetables, spices, and toppings yet to say it’s bland would be all but untrue. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” couldn't be more apt in Bhutan’s case.

Of course, you may choose to have a wide selection of dishes like in Japan, Korea, and China, and hotels and resorts often do but in all normalcy, an average Bhutanese household would just prepare one extra dish along with ema-datshi. It is even normal for them to just have ema-datshi along with rice. You could say rice is what fills their bellies and gets them through the day while spice is what keeps them wide awake.

Needless to say, the list can go on forever but for our purposes, we’ll stick to the most popular dishes in Bhutan.

Ema Datshi

Ema Datshi is the most popular dish in Bhutan as well as being the national dish of the country. Chilies, which can be both fresh-out-of-farm green or dried red chili are stewed with traditional Bhutanese cheese, white in color and usually, yellow when sun-dried. The latter is more preferred.

You can expect this cuisine to make its presence at the table pretty much all the time. That means every meal!

The best Ema Datshi chefs, which more often than not, are your own predecessors will tell you that it should be cooked just for about 2 minutes so that the chilies don’t get soggy and squishy.

There are many variations starting from water level and the amount of cheese being used which affects the overall richness or the gooeyness when completed. Some prefer to add garlic, while some would rather stay away from it (chiefly because of its pungent smell). Likewise, onions and tomatoes are preferred by some while others don’t. It is worth mentioning though that this is rare when it concerns ema-datshi, especially since the general consensus is that Bhutanese cheese and tomatoes don’t go very well together.

Depending on the spiciness of the specific chili and the amount of it being used, it might prove spicy for some but nonetheless should be included in the things-to-try-out-when-in-Bhutan bucket list for no trip would be considered a trip if you haven't tried this one out.

Some, especially, those in the eastern regions of Shar and Kheng prefer Zoede, a fermented cheese which is white-brownish in color and has a very foul smell. But don’t let this fool you -if you ask the locals of those regions, they are sure to convince you otherwise.

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Kewa Datshi

Kewa Datshi, like Ema Datshi, is a combination of potatoes as in Kewa and cheese as in Datshi. It too is extensively favored, specifically, by the younger generation, and also a great option for those who can't handle their spice.

Kewa probably is the next go-to vegetable for the Bhutanese after chilies. The love potatoes receive in Bhutan is no less than that of the mentioned chilli.

The process for preparing Kewa Datshi, is simple, much like Ema Datshi and Shamu Datshi (which we’ll be getting onto below). Potatoes are simply diced or sliced into pieces and cooked with local cheese and butter or oil until it’s ready to serve. The key here is to not let the potatoes become too soft so that it is on the verge of becoming mashed and not too hard that they are unbitable or uncooked. This is not a mashed potato dish afterall.

Some prefer to throw in diced tomatoes and onions with chilies but really it’s the combination of two (potato and cheese) with oil or butter and perhaps a few slices of chilies that makes Kewa Datshi… well a Kewa Datshi.

Shamu Datshi

By now you very well are acquainted with Datshi, so to cut to the chase we will move on to Shamu which is essentially nothing but a local term for mushrooms. Like the above two, the mushroom is cooked with cheese producing a thin watery, or creamy broth depending on the amount of Datshi thrown in.

The best Shamu Datshi are those that have a perfect cheese-to-mushroom ratio. Cheese should not be used too much for it will mask the natural taste of mushrooms. You could even say, to do that is an injustice to the hard work of those that hike into the wild to collect these mushrooms risking their life from numerous wildlife – mostly bears!


Originally from China, and also a staple in Tibet and Nepal, momos are wheat-flour dumplings stuffed with minced pork or beef with chopped onions and cabbages; for vegetarians: cheese with onions and cabbage. They are then steamed in a momo steamer and served scorching-hot usually with ezay (red chilli sauce) and also with what is commonly known as ‘momo soup’ in restaurants and specific momo joints.

Both, steamed and fried (which are done so after steaming producing a crust on the outside) variations of momo can be found. There is also a thukpa-momo combo, commonly called Mo-thuk that’s been gaining traction in recent years. Chicken momos are a rare sight, however.

Momos are certainly one of the most well-loved and the most abundant street foods of all. Much like in India, Nepal, and Sikkim, momos can be found in Bhutanese streets, local eateries, and even more typically high end hotels and resorts. There are even people who offer door-to-door service and who wait in the streets with big hot cases in their company singing: “momo… momo.”

Perhaps, a momo chef’s skills can be rated through the amount of oil used. The best chefs know (or should know) the perfect amount of oil that needs to go into a momo, so that when one munches on it the oil doesn’t ooze out.

Momos, dumplings in Bhutan

Jasha Maru

This is a Bhutanese version of chicken stew but with added spiciness. In this cuisine, chunks of chicken – diced or shredded – are stewed with garlic, onions, tomatoes, ginger, chilies and topped off with corianders or chili sauce (ezay). The stock of the dish comes from chicken bone boiled with salt.

With its strong flavor (which essentially comes from ginger) it is often best eaten with rice.

Phaksha paa

The star of this dish is Phaksha paa: pork cut in big slices; boneless; cooked with dried whole red chilies usually but any variety of chili works. The pork is stir-fried first and then later added to the mix of sauteed chilies, onions, and vegetables. The vegetable choices usually are beans, spinach, radish, bok choy or Lom (dried turnip leaves).

It can either be simmered into a stew or brought down to gravy and is of course, best eaten with rice like with many Bhutanese dishes.



Puta, identical to Japanese Soba noodles, and original to the Bumthang valley is, essentially, a buckwheat noodle.

The noodle itself is made with the help of a traditional puta (noodle) machine. They are first boiled separately using a bamboo strainer and then stir-fried with onions, chilies, scallions, and sometimes eggs and finished with sprinkles of Sichuan pepper.

Owing to the strenuous amount of time and energy required to produce this dish, it was traditionally only made on special occasions.

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Hoentays, original to Haa and Paro valley, are prepared in large numbers during Lombas: a celebration that marks the coming of a New Year and also the end of the harvest season. They are required to churn out such a quantity to share it with their friends and neighbours who are not local to the region and usually don’t take part in the preparation process. But of course, everyone loves food and celebration so anyone concerned is more than happy to receive it.

Though they share similar characteristics and outer look to momos, there lies a gaping difference. Hoenteys, unlike momos, are made with buckwheat and moreover, stuffed with spinach or turnip leaves, amaranth seeds (zimtse), ginger, onions, and cottage cheese. However, they too are generally served with ezay like momos.


Thuep, usually takes the front seat during Losar (Bhutanese New Year), Thruebab (Blessed Rainy Day), and other major events. It’s normally eaten in small quantities before breakfast during those celebrations.

Thuep, in essence, is a rice porridge. Normally, beef bones are added into the mix but of course, there are vegetarians and in this case, paneer is used.

With its strong flavor (which essentially comes from ginger) it is often best eaten with rice.

Gondo Datshi

Local Bhutanese Cheese, preferably fresh ones, along with eggs are thrown into the pool of butter spluttering up in the pan. Next, they are scrambled. That’s it. However, some go on to add extra flavor by adding chopped spring onions or a sprinkle of red chilli powder.

Its richness can be only leveled with the rice.


Ara is the equivalent of Ema Datshi in terms of drinks – it is the most common and the national drink of Bhutan.

It is made by fermenting or distilling any of the following:  wheat, rice, millet, barley or buckwheat. The yeast is said to be the key factor in the Ara-making process. The quality of it and the amount of it being used affects the overall quality of the drink.

Ara’s, for the most part, are clear in appearance but there are those that come in whitish-creamy texture too.

While it’s not that common for restaurants and bars to sell ara (owing to government regulations), some still do nonetheless. However, your best option to try out Ara would be to opt for home stays for many Bhutanese stock jars of Ara’s for various occasions – for guests, family get-togethers, celebrations, and religious events.

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