FOOD IN BHUTAN
A typical family in Bhutan spends 16 percent of its income on food. Amount of calories consumed each day: 2,555, compared to 1,590 in Eritrea and 3,800 in the United States. [Source: U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization]
Many families have traditionally relied almost totally on food they grew themselves. Bhutanese grow bitter gourd and ground tomatoes, similar to small tomatillos. Many houses have chilies drying on their roofs.
Still there are no McDonald’s and no Starbucks in Bhutan. But in Thimphu you can restaurants that serves yak burgers and pizza with yak meat and cheese. The coronation for King Jigme Khesar Namgyel in 1974 was the first time many Bhutanese tried popcorn and ice cream cones.
Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Although nonviolence and compassion are fundamental to Bhutanese Buddhism, and most people are strongly opposed to taking life, meat is a common part of the Bhutanese diet. This is because much meat eating does not involve killing, as people eat the meat of dead animals from their herds. Since the 1990s a controversial regulation banning the sale of meat during holy months has been enforced. Rice, wheat, maize, and buckwheat are the main staple foods, and Bhutanese are known for their consumption of chilies. Bhutan's best-known dishes are phagsha pah, a pork dish, and ema datshi, chili with cheese...Religious influence, however, has led many to give up meat, eggs, and fish and also to observe fasts during holy days and weeks. [Source: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
What local people eat is often determined by their religion, ethnic group and home region. Some groups have prohibitions against certain spices, meats and vegetables. Most Nepalese don’t eat beef and some are vegetarians in accordance with Hindu and caste rules. Some don’t eat pork out of respect to Muslims back in Nepal. Among nomads like the Brokpa and lowlanders who abstain from animal meat or fish due to the religious belief, cheese and butter are important sources of protein. Many Bhutanese eat pork although some don’t eat chicken. Religious celebrations often feature red rice, spicy pork, ema datshi (the national dish, a stew made with chilies and yak cheese), and momos (pork dumplings) downed with large amounts of ara (traditional rice wine). [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Food Consumed in Bhutan
Although adherents of Buddhism, Bhutanese are not vegetarians and occasionally eat beef, especially in western Bhutan. Pork, poultry, goat, eggs and yak meat, and fish are consumed to varying degrees. Rice — often round and red — and increasingly corn are staples. Red rice is similar to brown rice and is extremely nutritious and filling. When cooked it is pale pink, soft and slightly sticky. Despite a scarcity of milk, dairy products, such as yak cheese and yak cheese byproducts, are part of the diet of upland people. Meat soups, rice or corn, and curries spiced with chilies comprise daily menus; beverages include buttered tea and beer distilled from cereals. Wild vegetation, such as young ferns, also is harvested for table food. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
A typical meal in Bhutan consists of red rice, chilies with potatoes, eggs, cheese and butter tea. A typical breakfast consists of sweet, thick rice soup. Bhutan's national dish ema datshi is made with red rice, green chili peppers with yak cheese. Among the other common dishes are thugpa, a meat soup prepared with herbs, rice and a meat curry or omelet. Sweet rice (white rice cooked in milk and sugar) is served on special occasions. At high elevation barley, corn and buckwheat — not rice — are grown. The cereals are ground, then roasted or fried, and stored and future use. Bhutanese eat fried corn powder the same way Tibetans consume tsampa (roasted ground barley). Hard cheese is made from yak milk. Cow milk is harder to get. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
Mushrooms, apricots, asparagus, a variety of chilies and numerous spices are grown in in nearly all the valleys in Bhutan. Before vegetables began arriving in quantity from India a few decades ago, many locally-eaten vegetables came from the rain forest and included things like fiddlehead fern, bamboo shoots, Cymbidium orchid buds and chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms and truffle-like Matsutake mushrooms (highly valued in Japan). They also have traditionally eaten wild honey, dried riverweed, rhododendron tea and fried hornet grubs. Lentils are an important protein source.
Chilies in Bhutan
Bhutanese are very fond of chilies and a lot their dishes are very spicy. Chilies are treated almost as a staple rather than a spice. They are made into a sauces that are placed on everything from breakfast eggs to yak cheese. An average family consumes three dozen chilies a day. Toddlers chew on raw chile pods dipped in salt. Stringed chilies are hung from Bhutanese house’s windows and huge pile of chilies are placed on the roofs for drying. Bhutanese consume chilies as a vegetable. Bhutanese compare the green peppers used to spice Indian dishes with cucumbers and like to say that eating is no fun unless you sweat.
It is said that Bhutan is the world’s biggest per-capita consumer of chilies. Tshering Denkar wrote in the Daily Bhutan: “Several varieties are grown and used in different parts of the country On average, a household consumes more than 1 kilo of chili in a week. In Bhutanese homes and restaurants, it is customary to order ‘ezay’ Bhutanese version of chili sauce or pickles as an accompaniment to the main course [Source: Tshering Denkar, Daily Bhutan, September 26, 2020]
“Since chili is the main ingredient in almost all the curries, Bhutanese has learned to preserve seasonal chilies for all seasons. Bhutanese farmers in the western part of Bhutan smoke-dry chilies. A kilo of sun-dried chili, which can cost more than Nu 1500, is considered one of the best delicacies from the west.
Dalle Khursani, consumed and grown in Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal and known as the fireball, is one of the hottest chilies in the world. One or two of these blazing red balls is enough to set your mouth on fire. Living up to its name and fame, the chili is super-hot and is not for the faint-hearted. When fully ripen, this bright-red, round, cherry-sized ball ignites all the taste buds it comes in contact with. If you are looking for some firework in your mouth, the Dalle Khursani is your go-to chili.
In addition to its addictive taste, Dalley Chili is known for its medical properties. Vendors from Tsirang and Wangdue district are the main suppliers of Dalle pickles. In some places use burning chili peppers are used to drive away evil spirits. People in the cold mountains eat chilies to stay warm.
Meat in Bhutan
In Bhutan, eating the meat of donkeys, horses and dogs is an absolute taboo. People in some regions also do not eat fish. Otherwise, many Tibetans eat a lot of meat, particularly yak meat. This a bit surprising in that Buddhism discourages the killing of animals and Buddhists are encouraged to be vegetarians. One reason for this is that in some areas there is not much land that is good for agriculture. Grazing land for animals such as yaks and sheep is more plentiful.
Bhutanese occasionally eat beef, especially in western Bhutan, as well as pork, poultry, goat and yak meat, and fish are consumed on a limited scale. Tibetan Buddhists have traditionally not eaten fish. Hindus don't eat beef, many don’t eat fish or eggs. Ordinary Bhutanese have traditionally had meat once or twice a week at most or at special festivals or celebrations. One of the main reason meat was not eaten is the lack of refrigeration..
Choi Wangmo wrote: “Though Bhutanese people consume meat, the country has no slaughterhouse of its own. The meats are imported from its neighboring countries like India and Nepal. Due to its Buddhist beliefs, almost 40% of its population is vegetarian and killing is strongly prohibited in the country. Unless the animals die of natural causes, its owners are not allowed to kill them. Also, the sale of meat during holy months and auspicious days are banned. Don’t be surprised if you see cows wandering on the streets very happily. [Source: Choi Wangmo, Book My Tour, July 27, 2018]
The Mangdeps (Makheps) speak Mangdepkha and inhabit the central areas of Bhutan. They were classified as butchers in Tibet before they fled to Bhutan from the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. Buddhists are not allowed to kill animals. Butchering in Bhutan is done by the Mangdeps, who have have been regarded as a kind of caste. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
The Bhutanese have traditionally believed that chickens are sacred animals and pigs are evil. "For judgement in the period between death and rebirth," John Scofield wrote in National Geographic, "a chickens will put white pebbles onto a scale to represent their good deeds, while a pig shovels on black pebbles to signify the evil one has done." Bhutanese have traditionally eaten pork but not chicken. In the old days travelers used to carry live roosters in their knapsacks to ensure safety. [Source: John Scofield, National Geographic, October 1974]
Bhutanese food has some similarities with Tibetan food but is quite different and has been influenced by the cuisines of India and Nepal. The Bhutanese prefer food cooked over a wood fire. Because Buddhism has such a strong hold on the country, people tend to eat a lot of vegetarian dishes Even so many Bhutanese eat grayish dried yak cheese, dried yak meat, fatty pork. Fish, traditionally frowned upon by Buddhists, and chicken are becoming more popular—in Thimphu anyway.
The most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. Chilies are an essential part of nearly every dish that if they are present Bhutanese feel unsatisfied. Rice forms the main body of most Bhutanese meals. It is accompanied by one or two side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables. Pork, beef and chicken are the meats that are eaten most often. Commonly-eaten vegetables include spinach, pumpkins, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, river weed, onions and green beans. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Bhutanese cuisine has been described northern Indian cuisine incorporating the chilies of the Tibetan area. Fruits, spices and vegetables are cooked with beef, chicken, pork, and dried yak meat. Traditionally dishes were cooked in earthenware, but with the easy availability of modern goods, pots and pans have largely replaced their use. A typical Bhutanese meal consists of rice and ema datshi, the country’s favourite dish of chili and cheese, pork, beef curry or lentils Dried beef or pork and chilies are sometimes cooked with soft, white cheese.
Bhutani Dishes are very hot as we said before. The national dish ema datsi is made with cheese sauce with hot chiles often served over vegetables. A favorite dish served at special occasions is yak lung stuffed with chilies and cheese. A daily staple is hot chilies served over sticky red rice. Other common dishes include rice and curried vegetables, dahl bat (curried stew with rice, lentils and sometimes potatoes), chopped up fish mixed with hot chilies, mutton, fried potatoes, chapatis (flat bread), spiced potatoes, stews, pancakes, momos (Tibetan dumplings), noodles, porridge, fried barley, fried green bread, eggs, buckwheat pancakes, apples and oranges. Fresh or dried yak meat is considered a delicacy.
Ema Datshi is a spicy mix of chilies and delicious local cheese known as Datshi. This dish is a staple of nearly every meal and can be found throughout the country. Variations on Ema Datshi include adding green beans, ferns, potatoes, mushrooms or swapping the regular cheese for yak cheese. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Momos — Tibetan-style dumplings — are stuffed with pork, beef or cabbages and cheese. Traditionally eaten during special occasions, these tasty treats are a Bhutanese favourite. Hoentoe are aromatic buckwheat dumplings stuffed with turnip greens, datshi (cheese), spinach and other ingredients.
Phaksha paa is pork cooked with spicy red chilies. This dish can also include Radishes or Spinach. A popular variation uses sun-dried pork (sicaam). Jasha maru is a dish made with spicy minced chicken, tomatoes and other ingredients that is usually served with rice. Goep (tripe) is popular. Though tripe — the first or second stomach of a cow or similar animal — is not in many countries any more it is still enjoyed in Bhutan. Like most other meat dishes, it is cooked with plenty of spicy chilies and chili powder.
Foreign tourists are usually fed buffet-style at their hotels as part of their US$250-a-day package. They are served things like fish in garlic sauce, greens with fresh ginger, beef stewed with turnips, chicken masala and hot spiced canned tuna, canned fruit cocktail with custard sauce, Indian bread, fried rice, curried eggplant, homemade potato chips, yak meat and dried fish. For breakfast you can get oatmeal with raisins, eggs and toast , corn flakes, various baked breads and cakes, with tea, cocoa, instant coffee or filtered coffee.
Restaurants serves things like fried potatoes, dahl bat, chapatis (flat bread), spiced potatoes, stews, pancakes, momos (steamed Tibetan meat- or vegetable-filled dumplings), kothe (fried Tibetan dumplings), thukpa (vegetable noodle soup), noodles with rice, porridge, rice, barley, fried bread, eggs, buckwheat porridge, apples and chilies. Indian and Nepalese dishes include maasu (meat marinated in spices and yogurt and the fried in ghee), sokuti (dried, spiced meat cooked in oil), tama surwa (bamboo shoot soup), sekuwa (kebabs made with marinated meat), dahi chiura (yogurt and mashed rice), spicy stews, curries and rice. Dough or paste made by mixing water with corn, wheat or potato flour is a staple among some people. Roti (Indian-style bread) is a common food. Tomatoes and spinach are used in many dishes. Spinach puree is widely consumed. Ghee (clarified butter) is an ingredient for many dishes and is served on lentils, curries and breads. Ghee is very high in saturated fat. It is also highly flammable, and is used to light funeral pyres.
Promoting Better Nutrition in Bhutan: the World Bank
Izabela Leao and Tenzin Lhaden of the World Bank wrote: Bhutanese living in isolated rural areas can’t access a reliable diverse diet throughout the year. "Many families in rural Bhutan practice two meals rather than three meals a day," reports Ms. Kinley Bidha, Tarayana Foundation Field Officer in Samtse Dzongkhag. "Some for cultural reasons, others due to a shortage of food, others due to a shortage of land too farm," she adds. Overall socio-economic development in the last three decades has led to a rapid improvement in health and nutrition outcomes in Bhutan – the country’s infant mortality rate declined to 30 per 1,000 live births in 2012 down from 90 per 1,000 in 1990; while the rate of stunting in children under 5 years declined 24 percent from 1986 levels. [Source: Izabela Leao and Tenzin Lhaden, World Bank, May 14, 2018]
“Nonetheless, the lack of variety of foods in diet remains a key concern, especially for pregnant and nursing women as well as young children. And while most families feed their children complementary food, fewer than a quarter of parents provide them nutritious meals essential to their health. In addition, 67 percent of Bhutanese adults consume less than the recommended five servings (or 400 grams) of fruits and/or vegetables per person a day [National Nutrition Survey (NNS) 2015].When consumed, vegetables consist for the most part of two national staples, potatoes and chilies, which hardly provide essential vitamins and minerals.
“Keeping regional variations in mind, between 16 and 34 percent of children under 5 are stunted—or too short for their age—seven percent of children are underweight, 35 percent of children of age 6-59 months and 44 percent of women of reproductive age are either anemic or iron deficient. Exclusive breastfeeding rates for six-month-old children remain at a low 50 percent (NNS, 2015). Damages caused by malnutrition during pregnancy and the first years of a child’s life are irreversible and contribute to stunting and lower immunological and cognitive development , and predispose to adult-onset diseases (including metabolic syndrome).
“The 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday offer a unique window of opportunity to prevent malnutrition, reduce stunting, and optimize a child’s cognitive and physical development. A 2014 World Bank report on Nutrition in Bhutan points out that the most important causes of stunting are poor nutrition and care of women before and during pregnancy as reflected in the profound female anemia rates.
“Ongoing efforts are being made to cover these shortcomings and to further improve maternal nutrition, child feeding, and household sanitation. To that end, Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests with the collaboration of the Ministry of Health recently started a pilot project to improve nutrition during the 1,000-day window of opportunity in rural households. With support from the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), the project will identify change agents and drivers of food habits and engage target groups in exploring innovative behavior change communication interventions in Samtse Dzongkhag – one of the twenty districts in Bhutan.
“Tarayana Foundation, a local civil society organization will mainly implement the project in collaboration with the government. “Story-telling will play a central role in promoting care practices and changing healthy and dietary habits and practices. Testimonials, life stories, and images will help convey positive messages—rather than disapprove of bad customs—and thus encourage changes in behavior and practices. Improvement in knowledge, attitudes, and practices amongst project area beneficiaries will be assessed as measures of success.
In Bhutan, food is eaten with the hands. In a traditional Bhutanese home, family members eat while sitting cross legged on the wooden floor, often around a fire, with food first being served to the head of the household first. It is usually women who serve the food and in most cases, the mother. Before eating, a short prayer is offered and a small morsel is placed on the floor as an offering to the local spirits and deities. A family often makes a pot of red rice large enough for many people in case people come by unannounced. With modernization, eating habits have changed and in urban areas, people usually eat with spoons, forks and knives while seated at a regular dining table. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
When eating with their hands, Bhutanese generally place food in a bowl or plate of rice and eat with their fingers. They and other Tibetan people are expected to eat and drink quietly and not eat too much in one bite. When eating tsampa — a staple food of Tibetan people made from parched barley — place some flour with salted butter tea in a bowl, rotate the bowl with the left hand and mix the food with your fingers of your right hand. Then roll it into small lumps and squeeze it into your mouth with your fingers.
According to rules of driglam namzha described by Passang Lhamo in the Daily Bhutan: “Eating behaviour includes maintaining decorum while having a meal, be it with high officials or with family. Before eating we should pray to god. While eating, the sound of chewing the food shouldn't be made. We should always take the right amount of food to satisfy our hunger thus not wasting any. We should also not be making facial expressions of good or bad tastes while eating. Under driglam namzha, we should not start eating before high officials and eldest in the family eat. And also, one should not sit with crossed legs if one is seated on a chair.” [Source: Passang Lhamo, Daily Bhutan, April 2, 2019]
If you are invited into a home, remember that it is considered rude to ask for tea or food directly. You must wait to be offered food. Additionally, it is considered rude to request seconds. If there is additional food, you are offered food. Use only the fingers of your RIGHT hand when touching food. [Source: Catherine Go, tibetravel.org]
Most Bhutanese have breakfast early, around 6:30-7:30am People often take a tea break or have lunch between 11:00am and 1:00pm. Bhutanese tend to eat dinner between 6:30pm and 8:00pm. A typical meal in Bhutan consists of red rice, chilies with potatoes, eggs, and cheese. A typical breakfast consists of sweet, thick rice soup. The $200 a day fee paid by travelers includes food, usually breakfasts, lunches or dinners at the hotels and snacks from a cooler in the back of the Land Cruiser transporting travelers around. Set or buffet-style meals are often served at the hotels.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022