Before our trip, we did not really know much about Bhutanese food. We, of course, googled a bit about what we could eat over there, but all we found out was it would be hot. OK, good, we love chilis! – That was our thought.
Now, we went there and we ate their food. Our opinion towards it is… LOVE Bhutanese food!!! Give me more!!!!
What did we love about? Here are the reasons….
- The Heat
Yes it did not disappoint us! It was hot!
On the way from Paro airport to our first hotel, we saw something red spread on top of the houses. When we asked our guide- Nim (the cool and intelligent Bhutanese lady), she told me that they were all red chilis drying on their roof! At that point, we realised that we would face serious heat here – which made us excited.
Technically they put chilis in all of their dishes. Starting from Ema Datshi (which is chili cheese – the Bhutanese national food), chili salad (which is technically only chopped chilis, coriander and lemon- that’s it!), chili chicken (if you are not a vegetarian) and chili paste to add onto it. Probably corn soup and buckwheat pancakes were the only dishes without chilis among what we ate during our stay.
Once Nim realised that we loved chilis, she started taking us to several restaurants which served all different levels of heat. In the end, we got her approval that we could eat like the locals! YEY!
2. The Simplicity
Simple – this is the perfect word to describe Bhutanese cuisine. As Bhutan is not quite open to the whole world, what Bhutan produces is what the Bhutanese eat. For that reason, there are not many varieties in their dishes. They eat Ema Datshi every day. There are a few different variations – mushrooms, potatoes and onions, however technically, they are vegetables and cheese.
Not at all! The vegetables are produced locally and the cheese is home-made. Each restaurant and family has their own recipes. That made us eager to try Ema Datshi every day to taste each family’s secret.
We also found that they do not use seasoning much in cooking, which actually puts the emphasis on the taste of the ingredients themselves. This is a wonderful example of simplicity of cooking. You do not need many fancy condiments such as sugar, vinegar, oyster sauce or even a little bit of soy sauce (!) to make wonderful dishes out of good fresh ingredients.
In addition to their fresh produce that I have mentioned above, for winter when they cannot produce much, they dry most of their produce… well… to be honest, ALL of their produce!- chilis (of course), corn (make their own corn flour), mushrooms (nice), pork belly (!), cheese (!!) etc.
They make their own alcohol as well, which is called Ara. It is made from…. anything really. Some are made from wheat, some are from millet, some are from potatoes.
We visited 2 farm houses for dinner during our stay. Both families had their own Ara. Both Ara were quite strong! It was quite similar to Shochu or even whisky. Among the several kinds of Ara from both families, the one I remember the most is Ara infused with Matsutake (I called it “Japanese Porcini” for an easy translation – in short, it is mushroom which is famous for its fragrance. It is in season in fall and is super expensive in Japan. Bhutan produces Matsutake – not for export, of course…). A touch of Matsutake fragrance in Ara was quite nice. My husband, especially, quite enjoyed it that night.
Although each of the dishes are simple, there are normally several dishes served at the table. This is the common dinner menu:
From top right – clockwise
Rice, Spinach Soup, Potato Cheese, Ema Datshi, Stir-fried Asparagas and Carrot, Chili Chicken (in the middle)
They put all dishes in the middle (of the floor as they do not use a table) and share with their family members. Rice is served first, and then pass the dishes around each other. Mother recommends her family to eat one of the dishes more than others, as maybe it is her today’s special. Family members sit together, eat together and chat together. I just love this simple basic concept of dinner.
Sooo now, as a recipe developer (to be), I am super interested in recreating Bhutanese Food. The difficulty is that it is super simple, therefore, the favour heavily replies on the quality of ingredients. For example, Ema Datshi – it is technically stir-fried Chilis and Cheese. However, Bhutanese chili is medium size and very meaty like a capsicum, and it is hot and spicy. I have never seen the same kind in either Australia or Japan. The cheese for Ema Datshi – apparently they use their home-made cottage cheese as a base and add some different kinds of cheese (depending on each family), but it is completely different from the cottage cheese that we know here in Australia. I have tried a few different combinations of cheese to recreate Ema Datshi, but so far, it has not been successful…. That makes me more keen and eager to eat THAT Ema Datshi. Something like you know you cannot get, therefore you really want it…. Awww give me THAT Ema Datshi!
Re creating THAT Ema Datsi is my big project now. When I succeed, I will certainly let you know….