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Bhutan: A peek into the Bhutanese life, cuisine and hospitality

A travelogue is never complete without a reference to the food, customs and the lifestyle of the native dwellers. A country stands out from the rest because of its people, their habits, and food peculiar only to them.

The husband and I are not extremely adventurous in the food territory but we certainly like to have a taste of the local flavour wherever we go. The husband being a foodie helps the cause, of course. At the first opportunity, we placed an order for a 'datshi' which is a gravy based dish that the Bhutanese eat with rice

The national dish is called 'Ema Datshi' and is basically green chillies in a cheese-based gravy. Kewa Datshi is similar where the chillies are replaced with potatoes. We tried Ema Datshi at our Hotel in Phuentsholing. Sadly, we could not relish it. I did not like the cheesy taste and the chillies were too hot to enjoy. We later tried the Kewa Datshi at Paro and did find it good.

Picture Courtesy: By Bhutanese_hemadatsi_and_rice.JPG: ShashiBellamkondaderivative work: Thejinan (talk) - Bhutanese_hemadatsi_and_rice.JPG, CC BY 2.0,

In my observation, the Bhutanese use a lot of cheese and butter (perhaps due to the abundance of cow's and yak's milk?) in their cuisine which by the way isn't too varied (at least for the vegetarians). There's Suja, a tea variant that's mostly butter, tea leaves, salt and a little milk. They say that such a combination is suited for higher altitudes. Hmm. We weren't gutsy enough to try it out.

Bhutanese mostly eat red rice. This, we tried at the cafeteria on the way to Tiger's Nest Monastery at Paro. Contrary to our misgivings about red rice being heavy to digest, we loved it. It was served with our usual yellow dal and it made for a perfect combination.

Bhutanese are sweet people but seems like they aren't sweet loving people. Apart from not having a native specialty, the menu cards often had just a fruit cocktail or a single flavoured ice-cream (even that was never readily available) listed under the dessert section. It can be disappointing for sweet lovers like us because we craved for desserts after our meals and found that the hotels do not stock up even on ice-creams. Even the rare ones that were offered as a part of a buffet meal are Indian sweets like rasgulla and gulab jamun, only perhaps to conform to international standard practices.

We hear that the Bhutanese, instead, are habituated to consuming betel leaves after meals. Something we observed from their red-stained teeth. The small stores along the road also sold packets of Paan that are eaten with betel nuts, and pieces of dried coconut.

The service at Hotels, in general, is pretty slow. If you're habituated to the brisk manner you're served food at Indian restaurants or elsewhere, be prepared to pull all your reserves of patience and breathe in the fresh Bhutan air while you wait. Because you'll have to wait a lot. Especially, if you prefer the Ala-carte over the buffet.

It seemed to us that they are not used to catering to a full house and aren't staffed appropriately. Each order is taken as a separate request and is prepared from scratch after the order is placed. For the record, although the buffet spread does not have a lot of variety,  the food here is quite tasty. Also, Indian food is easily available everywhere.

Tip: If there's a buffet spread, do not go for an Ala-carte, especially if you're hard pressed for time.

The Bhutanese are mostly simple, contented and soft-spoken people. Their faces radiate a sense of tranquility. As though reflecting off the benevolent Buddha who casts his abundant grace. In our limited interaction with the locals, we felt that they are a happy lot even as the younger crowd showed a keenness to visit and explore other countries.

A fun fact: The younger lot loves the Bollywood and the Hindi film music. In fact, our driver spoke good Hindi and he said he learned it all through Hindi movies. Interestingly, Bollywood films are not screened on the big screens and the youngsters rely on DVDs and the television to catch them all.

Bhutan is a clean country. Most tourist spots had toilet facilities and they were quite clean. Speaking of toilets, the hotels (barring the one at Thimpu) did not have the health faucet. If you're particular about such things, be mentally prepared.

Bhutan holds the reputation of being one of the safest countries in the world. In a place where the Gross National Happiness is considered and embodied in the constitution as the index of progress, this had to be a natural outcome, with the citizens having a high respect for the governing authorities, the laws and a reverential attitude towards their kings.

Bhutan is not yet enmeshed in the manic fad of development (a lot of which is a conscious decision on the part of the authorities) that recklessly throws away what is unique and relevant for a country and its people in pursuit of the contraptions of a more commercially developed economy. It could be seen as naive and short-sighted by some. However, in my opinion, it makes far more sense to design a roadmap that is sustainable and also relevant to the country's cultural and environmental values which may or may not be alike other economies.


Are you still with me on this journey? The more exciting parts are yet to come. So, do join me.


  1. I am also not adventurous with food choices when traveling. And being a vegetarian I sometimes am also limited with choices at some places. I think I would also not enjoy too much cheesy/buttery type dishes that you mention. But I do sometimes cook red rice at home, though my preference is for brown rice instead. Red rice with yellow dal - the combination will look nice and I am sure will taste good too :) Thanks for sharing a bit about your experience/observations during your time at Bhutan. I agree with you, there is a lot of wisdom in being mindful of the sustainability when preparing a development roadmap. I hope rest of the world will learn some lessons from places like Bhutan, but then perhaps many other countries are also limited by their own pressures (for example, in India it could be argued that we need aggressive development because we have such a huge population pressure!!!)

    1. Yes, Bhutan not being such a populated country such as ours has some advantage there but even then, our growth has been skewed and a result of certain individuals and sections of the society rather than the result of a vision and collected efforts. Hoping it will change, slowly but surely.
      Thank you, Beloo, for leaving a thoughtful comment as always :)

  2. Aha, this was one post I was waiting for. Being a vegetarian, food does become an issue on overseas travel. Bhutan doesn't seem to be having too much of variety for us! And really sad their desserts are so limited! That said, I think I'll carry enough ammunition on the food front to satiate those pampered taste buds when I visit Bhutan.

    1. Haha, yes, maybe you can carry dry snacks to satiate your sweet buds. We did carry a whole of stuff for the kids. Although, I suspect that's half the reason they choose to fill their stomach only partly so they could eat the more 'interesting' stuff like biscuits and cake. Still, whatever Indian food we had was certainly tasty, so nothing to worry.

    2. Uma and Kala, Bhutan is a paradise for veg food lovers. Our guide had requested us to place our food orders at least 45 minutes in advance, before each meal, and we did. We enjoyed the local Bhutanese fare throughout our week long stay. The freshest of vegetables, Thukpa (noodle and vegetable soup) and more.
      For our sweet tooth we found bakeries that sold the most delicious cakes, tarts and eclairs.
      We developed a fondness for the local chilly cheese and Suja too:))

    3. Lovely to hear about your experience, Mayuri! And, yes, we also tried Thukpa and loved it. Whatever Indian food we had was quite tasty. We sampled a few baked goodies at the Dochula cafeteria but those had some coconut fillings and we did not quite like it. Well, each one has a different palate :)

  3. I love cheese :D I may actually like the cuisine then. But you're right about options for vegetarians being limited when we travel. Slowly losing my appetite for sweets these days so I hope the lack of desserts won't be too much of a problem. Oh and we cook red rice at home regularly, so another thumbs up for that!

    When you say there is no health faucet, do you mean that there are only toilet rolls? I think that's standard when we travel even to Europe and USA. One thing I never got comfy with, by the way ;)

    1. Oh, then you're set for Bhutan!
      Yes, there are rolls and of course the bucket and mug too ;-)

  4. I love trying out new cuisines. It doesn't work everytime though �� Didn't know that butter could be added in tea. That's very interesting. Enjoyed reading about your Thimpu adventures and loved how informative you have made this post.

    1. I know, butter in tea did not sound appealing at all. Thanks a lot, Raji. I'm glad to hear this.

  5. Thanks. This is honestly more than I ever knew about Bhutan. Had heard of the buttery tea though recently :)

    1. Oh, is it? That's flattering to hear, Roshan. Thank you!

  6. I am relatively non-experimental when it comes to food, more so when travelling. But I think I can handle all the cheese. :D Also, if you can believe it, I had never heard of red rice :O Now that is something I would be interested in trying.

    1. Haha, I don't like too much of cheese in my food. And, I was skeptical about red rice but surprisingly I enjoyed it :)

  7. This is one thing I really wanted to know, and lo behold got to read this post!! I would be planning it out woth two young chldren who could be very fussy eaters... IS there an option of bread/ Roti?? What about availbility of yoghurt/curd? If they are milk consumers this should be available.

    1. Oh, yes, Ramya. Rice, roti for lunch/dinner and bread for breakfast, all this is easily available. As I said, Indian food is easily available. Just that maybe you won't find a lot of choice there. But whatever we ate was definitely more than just palatable, so no worries at all. Additionally, we had take dry snacks like biscuits, cornflakes, savouries to munch on the way, so kids were more than set and happy. Food shouldn't be a worry, Ramya!

    2. We did not find curd at all places and it didn't taste quite good at the one/two places we add, so I won't advise banking on that factor.

  8. That last paragraph made me like Bhutan. I mean why should we run after all that the world's running after?
    The Kewa definitely sounds better than the Ema. I do like cheese but I'm not sure I'd like it in all my gravies. I prefer it on the pizza or in my sandwich. As for butter in my tea - no thank you.

    1. Ditto my thoughts and my kind of food taste, Tulika :)

  9. One of my friends just visited BHUTAN and he has being going ga ga ga over the place .. saw some pics its beautiful. foood yummmyyyyyyyyyy


    1. Hey Bikram, it's definitely worth going ga ga over. A very scenic place!

  10. Quite an enlightening piece on Bhutan. Feel like visiting.

    1. Thanks a lot, Onkar. Yes, you must surely visit when you get a chance.


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