What is ema datse? A guide to Bhutanese food

Bhutan’s culinary tradition is heavily influenced by Tibet, and with a diverse climate, the country is suitable for growing all sorts of crops. While the 5-star hotels (Taj, Le Meridien, Amankora, Uma) offer gourmet experiences, once outside of their restaurants, when eating more authentic, everyday dishes, you’ll find much less of a variety. Bhutan’s traditional cuisine, while fresh and filling, lacks the fusion of flavors found in other Asian countries such as India or Vietnam, but it is plentiful and certainly appetizing.

Rice and noodles are the mainstay meal starches. Bhutan is famous for its medium-grain red rice, and if time allows for an excursion to the Thimphu market, you’ll see piles of it (along with 4 or 5 other varieties). Buckwheat is the staple found mainly in the eastern part of the country, where you’ll likely be served buckwheat pancakes and noodles. You may have the opportunity to try ara, the Bhutanese rice wine—careful, it’s strong! If that’s not your thing, seek out the peach wine, which is sweet and refreshing.

It may be surprising to travelers that meat is as common as it is in this Buddhist nation. Most meat comes from India, where it is processed by non-Buddhists, which apparently makes it okay for the Bhutanese to eat. You’ll find beef, chicken, and fish—the latter two tend to be bony. Doughy and delicious, momos are dumplings filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables. Cabbage, mushrooms, and potatoes are typical vegetables, and there is also spinach, Swiss chard, cauliflower, eggplant, and broccoli. Vegetables are usually sautéed or lightly fried and often mixed with a type of sweet and sour sauce. Pumpkin soup is also common in the fall and quite tasty. 

You can’t talk about Bhutanese food without mentioning the ubiquitous chilies. The further east you go, the hotter the chilies get, or so say the Bhutanese. Those unaccustomed to the heat likely won’t be able to tell the difference! In the fall, chilies are set out to dry. The national dish is called ema datse, which is simply cooked chilies in a thin garlicky cheese sauce. This is Bhutan’s comfort food, and it is quite delicious. When eaten with rice, it’s not much different than a spicy mac n’cheese, and buckwheat pancakes are perfect for soaking up the sauce. The hosts at one of the Bumthang farmhouses at which our groups stop for lunch demonstrates how to make it.

Speaking of cheese, Bhutan isn’t huge on fresh dairy, but you’ll see dried cheese at markets and butter is used for butter tea. You must taste the tea if you can, just to say you’ve had it. Don’t think of it as English tea or you will be sorely disappointed and probably find it unpalatable. Instead, consider it a savory broth, which is more accurate. A mix of tea, butter, and salt, it has sustained the Himalayan people for centuries.

Matt Holmes is the Founder & President of Boundless Journeys. Boundless Journeys is an award-winning tour operator that goes off the beaten path for immersive and authentic travel experiences.

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