Bhutanese family beating rice

Bhutanese family beating rice

We talk about friendly neighbourhoods, and we talk about Bhutan. Resting peacefully in between the Indian states of Sikkim and Assam this Himalayan kingdom is a land of inimitable beauty, serenity and spirituality. Also sharing its international borders with China, Bhutan has been able to preserve its spiritual culture alive till date. The Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”

Personally speaking, food is a spiritually binding force. And I am sure many spiritualists would think like that.

For instance, Swami Vivekananda-the great philosopher would travel extensively in India to understand its people and what the cause of various sufferings is. He witnessed inequality, poverty and a discomforting disconnect with the core of spirituality, religion and the common people. Well, I am not here to discuss his philosophy today, but an instance. During his travel to Rajasthan, he spent a few days in the railway station where people had started gathering to hear his preaching. People would approach him with a volley of questions on religion and life. After three days and three nights of relentless conversation and advice, there was only one person who approached him with food and water; a low caste shoemaker. While most of the people present there protested this, and asked Swami Vivekananda to not to have food from a low caste person and in fact were rather astonished at his behaviour and approach despite being a religious person. But he went ahead and savoured that simplest of food prepared; needless to say he bonded the best with that shoemaker than innumerable people from the higher castes who had the rigidity of religion but had no idea of liberality of spiritual practice.

And once again it was food that reached the heart.

Yes, we were talking about Bhutan. The land as I said is spiritual with the augmentation and practice of Mahayana Budhhism. In Mahayan Buddhism as opposed to early Budhhism, most scholars believe that nirvana is too narrow an aspiration and that one’s aim should be to attain bodhichitta i.e.; awakened mind both for oneself and for the benefit of all other sentient beings. And one of the primary wheels of knowledge is compassion or karunya.

Bhutan, interestingly is the only country in the world to have adopted Mahayana Buddhism in its tantric form as its official religion. With the practice of Budhhist faith and karunya as a key, the Butanese lead their life with utmost compassion. Naturally, their food also contains the same affection, symplicity and mysticism.

The Bhutanese love to eat and love to feed. I must have been to Bhutan at least seven to eight times, each time hosted by various segments of people including the royalty. They are awsome hosts! You cannot escape the hospitality of the Bhutanese especially in their own land. Let me begin with what is available in that region.

Yak meat, cheese, the milk are obviously widespread. But what is the most important ingredient in any Butanese meal is chillies. Till such time one is not sweating it out while eating, they feel it is not worth the meal. In fact if you have visited Bhutan or ever get a chance to visit Bhutan, you’ll yourself notice the predominance of chillies even in the market place or people’s kitchen gradens. The national dish is of course the fiery ema datshi. It is a dish comprising of green pepper and cheese and is eaten with Bhutanese red rice as a staple diet. Any other aspice is negligible in their curries. Another staple dish is cuyred dried pork. There are several dishes which are prepared from pork including pork fing, phaksha pa, kewa phagsha, etc.

Five kilograms per head per week is the normal consumption. As this is the only crop cultivated, rice finds its way in various forms from breakfast to dinner. It’s either rice with curry or curry with rice. Two categories of rice are used in Bhutan. The urban areas including Thimpu, Paro and Phuntsholing use the white rice while the rural population use the red rice (the grained variety). This rice is grown 8000 ft above sea level. Bhutanese red rice is a red japonica rice. It is semi-milled; some of the reddish bran is left on the rice. Because of this, it cooks somewhat faster than an unmilled brown rice. When cooked, the rice is pale pink, soft and slightly sticky.

Rice based delicacies include ‘Desi’, a tasty mixture of white rice, butter, sugar, golden raisins and saffron and ‘Zow’ or fried rice mixed with sugar, butter and sometimes oilseeds. Both these are the favorite of His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuk and are served on special occasions.

In eastern Bhutan, some wheat is cultivated and the staple diet is ‘Puta’ or wheat noodles. In most families of Southern Bhutan, corn kernels are dried in bamboo shoots and then ground coarsely to make ‘Kharang’. This is then added to the leftover curry and made into a ‘Thukpa'(porridge) style breakfast.

The rice is served in a special tightly woven bamboo bowl called ‘bangchung’ made in the Kheng province. Meat, especially Yak meat, is a staple food for the non-vegetarian. Yak is a common sight in every household. Not a single part of the animal is wasted, similar to the banana plants in India. Beside meat, their milk is dried and made into cheese, even the skin is fried and served as a snack with drinks.

The Yak herders come down from the highlands in autumn and sell meat, butter and cheese to villagers in exchange of rice to last them a full year. The average meat an adult Yak yields is 250 to 260 kg. It also produces 1 kg of butter and an equivalent amount of cheese in three to four days. The locals sometimes hang thin strips of yak meat in the courtyard to be dried in the hot sun and stored for use in the winter. “The dried variety is more delicious”, quipped a village woman on enquiry.

Though they appreciate the pleasure of meat, being a Buddhist country, slaughter of animals is restricted. In Bumthang, a district in eastern Bhutan, slaughter of animals is not allowed at all. But you can eat the meat if the same animal fell off a cliff. What a concession!

The common preparation of meat is ‘Pa’, a curry. Large chunks of meat are mixed with lots of vegetables and chillies and boiled for a long time to make a curry. Turmeric or other spices are not used, leaving the curry white.

‘Zhasonpa’ is prepared in the same manner, except chicken pieces (Zhason) are used instead. This specialty can be tasted … obviously without the chillies. Bhutanese also love ‘Momos’. Though a Tibetan specialty, it has occupied a permanent place in the Bhutanese culinary. Chicken or Pork Momos are favored but cheese Momo is most common.

Coming back to ‘Ema Datshi’ or churpi or yakshi we call in India—very popular in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh but in the Twang region. Here is a brief on how it is made

To make the cheese, pour boiling water to the liquid yogurt left in the butter churn after the butter is removed. Stir gently till it turns into a soft yellow paste that is fried with butter and sugar to get the ‘Datshi’. Finally, add chili, salt and cook with the Datshi to make a curry.

Sometimes the Datshi is dried for a few more days to make it hard. It is then cut into pieces, stringed and kept over fire for three to four months (yes!) and Wow! The stone hard chewing gum is ready. And this is what the Bhutanese chew all the time. They say it helps to keep the body warm. I tried it and actually liked it but my friends threw it out in no time due to its pungent odor.You just have to develop a taste for these things actually 


The Kitchen

The Kitchen

How do they wash down all these hot, spicy delicacies?The answer is simple. Either with drink or with Tea. The Bhutanese can drink ‘Suja’, butter tea or ‘Ara’, a locally made wine. Ara is made from any grain cultivated in the region, rice, wheat or Barley. In traditional feasts an unusual snack is offered. Butter is heated with egg and Ara is poured over the whole offering.

In the Northern District of Ha and Lingzhi, another queer dish is prepared from Yak haunch. The entire haunch is wrapped in a cloth and kept for two to three months and then served with chillies and wine.

In the Kheng region, raw meat is served with drinks and on special occasions, the whole village participates in the feast. In Bumthang, a rare tea is made from a parasitic plant ‘Neshing Jurma’ that grows on Oak trees while the predominantly Nepalese area of Southern Bhutan savor ‘Shel Roti’. Salt and sugar is added to rice flour and made into a paste, which is then fried, in bubbling hot oil.

These days however, the Urban Bhutanese are tilting towards the Western type of food and even the rural population is not interested in this laborious process. But in festivals, weddings and other traditional gatherings they always go for the cuisine of the land.




  1. I thought I was heading for Sikkim next.
    But. . . Bhutan, here I come!
    I love your pics, Doc. Makes your fictive that much more representative.

  2. Ash, your compilation keeps getting better. May we expect another book ??? 🙂 keep writing, its a pleasure reading your blog…

  3. almost forgot to mention… an absolutely fantastic photo that!

  4. I’ve never had bhutanese food but right now i want some!!! 🙂

  5. also i forgot to add (blame the drool) you’ve written about food so well here, great!!

  6. Hi Ashish Da, Great posts on your blog. Cheers!

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