Experiencing Bhutan’s unique happiness index definitely involves trying its exotic foods, says KAVITA KANAN CHANDRA.

Visitors to Bhutan rave about the fiery ema datshi and red rice.  Accorded the honour of being Bhutan’s national dish, ema datshi is made using chillies and homemade cheese. Chillies are so ubiquitous in Bhutanese cuisine that they are more vegetable than seasoning. You find them in the weekend open markets at Paro and Thimphu and hanging over the earthen chulhas of rural kitchens. There’re chillies in almost every dish but, for keen culinary explorers, the happy country has a whole lot of other exotic foods on offer.

The love for all things natural is reflected in Bhutanese cuisine. With 84 species of wild vegetables and 100 edible varieties of mushrooms, there’s a lot on the platter for health freaks and enthusiasts of raw food, slow food and organic food.

Bhutan’s exotic vegetables have tongue-twister names like patsha, tash-gangha , gaytsho and dumroo and all come packed with nutrition. Something that looked like dried, sliced apples caught my attention but it turned out to be dried persimmon, an anytime snack. Of course, some local snacks like cow intestines and dried cow skin might turn some people off.

Strolling in Norzin Lam, the busiest thoroughfare in Thimphu, I found The Bhutanese, a restaurant with a striking red door with an embossed golden dragon. The buffet dinner at 400 Nu included red rice, buckwheat noodles ( puta ), ema datshi, kewa datshi (potato cheese), seasonal organic vegetables, river weed soup and a choice of chicken/fish/pork/beef dish. (1 Nu = 1 Re). The friendly owner Rinchen Dolma said the menu was standard Bhutanese fare that kept changing according to the availability of seasonal vegetables. Another place that’s good value for money is Tandin.

My search for authentic fare took me to The Bhutan Kitchen, with bells and prayer wheels at its entrance, traditional low seats, a showcase kitchen with mud stoves and earthen pots and pans, rows of arra palangs (local brew stored in wooden cases) and, of course, chillies hanging in bunches. If you are adventurous, try yak meat; otherwise, stay safe with cheese, mushrooms and seasonal greens.

For a really authentic experience, visit the Folk Heritage museum restaurant. It is usually buzzing with diners, so prior reservations are advisable. Run by Bhutan’s first female police officer, Kesang Choedon, who seamlessly slips into a chef’s role, it is set amid apple orchards in a four-storeyed mud and brick house that makes you feel you are in the countryside. The food comes in wooden crockery, the meal starting with butter tea and ending with desserts of fruits and jaggery.

“I am very interested in reviving old recipes that are fast disappearing from our tables,” says Kesang.  “With the advent of fast food and imported foods, we risk losing our food culture. And food is an integral part of any culture.”

The unique feature at Kesang’s restaurant is that there is no menu. The meal depends on what the farmers bring in. Diners get seasonal, organic, indigenous food served up in an unforgettable Bhutanese culinary ambience. Expect shoots, ferns, legumes, lentils, red rice, buckwheat and barley. Bhutanese cuisine uses ginger, garlic, onions and coriander along with chillies. Kesang’s spread includes pumpkin soup, tuber curry, banana flower salad, khuli or buckwheat pancake, turnip shoots, ja sha maroo or minced chicken, all cooked in healthy wild berry oil. 

On special occasions such as the Losar or Tsechu festivals, ceremonial dishes like thuep (porridge), desi (ceremonial sweetened rice) and shamday (ceremonial savoury rice with vegetables) are served. For special days or on request, they cook in earthen pots over an open fire.

Finally, don’t forget to get a little tipsy on the popular homemade local brew called arra (rice wine) or homemade Bhutanese beer. That’s part of the foodie experience too!