One of the quickest ways to experience any culture is by tasting it and before any of you get the idea to go around licking the various lhakhangs, chortens and maybe even the locals, I’m talking about food. Food is a quick way to experience a culture. Although, I have no doubts that there are a few locals who wouldn’t mind a good licking just as long as you ask them. Consent is important in matters of the tongue otherwise it’s just unpleasant for everyone involved. Now where was I?Ah Yes! Food. By no means am I a food expert but as a consumer of it I believe I know enough to shed some light on the topic.
If you ever randomly find yourself – as one often does – in a restaurant that claims to serve traditional Bhutanese food, here are some dishes you are guaranteed to find on the menu. Ema Datshi, the national favorite whose primary ingredients are chilies and cheese. Then we have kewa Datshi, another popular item comprising potatoes, chilies and cheese. Of course, we can’t forget Shamu Datshi which is prepared with mushrooms, chilies and cheese. Then you have your Dolom Datshi (eggplant, chilies and cheese) Saag Datshi (spinach, chilies and cheese) Semchum Datshi (beans, chilies and cheese) and in some places, Gongdo Datshi (eggs, chilies and cheese) Despite being a Buddhist country we do have some non-veg options as well. Such as Shakam Datshi, a curry made with dried beef, chilies and cheese and Sikam Datshi made with dried pork, chilies and cheese.
I’m guessing you’ve noticed a theme in our cuisine. Precisely! It’s catered towards eliminating all of you who are lactose-intolerant and if the cheese isn’t enough to leave you straining and sweating on your toilet then the sheer amount of chilies is certain to literally light a fire under you. Oh! before I forget, in some restaurants your order may also come with ezay which is a sort of salsa or paste made with, ding, ding, ding, you guessed it, chilies. However, the beauty of ezay is that everyone prepares it differently. Save for the chilies, different people use different ingredients. Some are tangy, some minty, some are extra hot and some even have fresh cheese grated over it. Burn appetit and tell your gastro-intestinal system that Bhutan says “Hi”.
I love food, in fact, I eat it often and over the years I have come across many tourists who want what they call the “authentic Bhutanese dining experience” which begs the question, what is an “authentic dining experience”? Is it authentic if you only get culturally accurate food or is it the entire experience that needs to be authentic? If it’s the latter then I’m sorry to say that you won’t get that in any fine dining establishments. I’m not saying that the food in those places are bad or culturally inaccurate, but in my experience there is an ambience that is lacking in such places. An ambience you only find in the hole in the wall, mom and pop restaurants. A truly authentic Bhutanese dining experience, for me at least, is in those small confined spaces barely large enough to fit a handful of people where the cook is also the waiter and there is a line of people waiting to get in for a quick bite. You see it during the lunch hour rush when office goers pack into their favourite eateries and the air thrums with the sound of several conversations happening at once yet everyone understands each other. It is in those fast food joints where the menu is limited but the portions are generous and the price reasonable. You find it at the end of a long night of partying and drinks when you sit on the pavement conversing with other party-goers while you munch on momos and slurp thuep (Bhutanese rice porridge) until the cops come and chase away the vendor for operating beyond the permitted hours.
Now such places are not ideal if you are a bit of a clean freak. A clean table at most of these restaurants comprise one of the wait staff clearing away the dishes of a previous customer, wiping down the table top with a damp rag and that’s about it. The next diners arrive, have their meal and the whole process repeats. Heck! In the case of the after party dining you are literally eating on the streets. Also, many of these places will have easily perishable snacks on display at the counter. I know many of you would not find such a scene hygienic let alone appetizing but you are missing out if you haven’t had one day old chili chops that have been re-heated in a microwave oven.
In my father’s hometown, and many other parts of rural Bhutan, meals are not isolated events where only the family gather. Instead, every meal sees different members of the community join in. Sometimes people would be passing through and my aunt would invite them over for a bite. However, in the “city” it is only in small restaurants where you can even glimpse a tiny portion of that communal harmony which is so abundant in our villages. The Dzongkha word for ‘family’ is zaa-tshang which can be interpreted as ‘people you eat with’ so while in Bhutan if you are dining only with your tour group at the restaurants you found while Google searching “places to eat at in Bhutan” then you are doing yourself a disservice because you are depriving yourself of what I believe is an authentic Bhutanese dining experience; sharing a meal with the locals at their usual haunts, being a part of our zaa-tshang. Then paying for the entire meal because it’s more likely that you make more money than us. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still part of the zaa-tshang, you’re just the rich uncle or aunt who visits every now and then. So pay up and thanks for the meal!
Finally, if you’re ever confused about whether or not you are at a restaurant that serves traditional Bhutanese food then have a look at the menu. If only one page of it is dedicated to Bhutanese food while the rest is full of Indian or Chinese cuisine then you’re at the right place!
He is a freelance writer who enjoys comedy, music and comedic music. Currently racked with existential dread, he also likes long walks and talking people’s ears off.