All about Bhutanese food: Can you handle the heat?
Chillies, chillies, and more chillies...
************* Lucy Morgan is a freelance journalist specialising in food and wine. She writes for the Life section of South China Morning Post, contributes to top Hong Kong fine dining magazine Tasting Kitchen, and is a wine judge for Glass of Bubbly awards. *************
Bhutan is the last remaining Kingdom in the Himalayas, a beautiful, unspoilt country, where fields are nourished by powerful, roaring rivers and roadsides bloom with wild herbs and fruit trees. It remains a mysterious place – remote, landlocked and bordered by the Tibet autonomous region of China and India. Until the latter part of last century, Bhutan was closed to foreign visitors.
Today, tourism to the Kingdom of Bhutan is limited by a “high value, low impact” policy, designed to protect the environment and the culture of the people of Bhutan. It isn’t possible to travel independently: foreign visitors are required to travel on guided, prepaid package-tours and must pay a daily fee of 250 USD, which covers accommodation, food, guide and a vehicle.
Budget travel is not an option in Bhutan, but different tours can cater to individual tastes. There’s the chance to enjoy the hospitality of a local family with homestay accommodation, or high-end international hotels. Trekking, temple visits, rafting and cycling will all work up a hunger, and Bhutan has an interesting (and extremely spicy) cuisine to satisfy hungry guests.
Fields in Bhutan. Image by Lucy Morgan.
Road-side munchies of a different kind
One unusual feature of the kingdom is the presence of wild marijuana growing in clumps by the roadside and scenting the air with its distinctive fragrance. Drug laws in Bhutan are very strict – road signs counsel against recreational drug use and even the cows and horses grazing at the roadside give the weed a miss, preferring to nibble on hedges of wild mint and lush grass. Another striking rural sight is the huge number of chillies that grow across the country and they feature in nearly every dish. Bhutanese people seem to have an enormous tolerance for chilli fire and heat. Chillies of every colour: black, red, yellow, orange, green and with varying scores on the Scoville (official chilli heat scale) grow in the fertile valleys around Paro and Punakha.
A great diversity of produce grows in Bhutan. The lower altitude and milder climate of the Punakha valley allows rice, bananas, oranges and guavas to thrive; at higher altitudes, apples, rosehips, Sichuan peppercorns and vegetables flourish. But many traditional Bhutanese dishes celebrate the power and heat of the chilli, so pour a glass of milk and prepare for the burn…
Chillies at Thimphu market. Image by Lucy Morgan.
What can you eat in Bhutan?
Ema Datshi plated up. Image by Lucy Morgan.
Ema Datshi is THE National Dish of Bhutan, and its name describes the ingredients. “Ema” translates from the Bhutanese language Dzongkha as “chilli” and “Datshi” is the Dzongkha word for cheese. Ema Datshi is a simple, but powerful chilli and cheese curry.
This dish is a true celebration of the chilli, made with fresh or dried chillies of varying strengths and colours, which are stir fried with onion, garlic and tomato until tender. A hefty helping of cheese is added at the end of the cooking process, away from the flame. This melts into a rich sauce using the warmth of the chillies. The cheese used in ema datshi is made from milk curds and has a fresh, slightly acidic flavour – similar to feta but with a much softer texture.
Ema Datshi packs a very strong chilli punch and is best suited to diners with a robust constitution, although the creamy farmer’s cheese does help to quench the flames a little. The Bhutanese eat it with piles of red or white rice, which is another clever way to temper the heat.
There are variations which substitute other vegetables for the chilli – shamu datshi, made with mushrooms (which grow abundantly in the kingdom during the rainy summers) is rich and savoury, kewa datshi is a Bhutanese twist on a fondue – sliced potatoes in a creamy, cheesy sauce – which is tamer than ema datshi, but very enjoyable.
Momos. Image by Lucy Morgan.
Momos are pleated dumplings which can be found across the whole Himalayan region and are usually stuffed with minced meat, vegetables or cheese. One favourite filling in Bhutan is spinach, mixed with cheese. They are reassuringly non-spicy, often relying on ginger and garlic for seasoning.
Momo dough can be made from either wheat or buckwheat flour. Buckwheat momos are also known as Hoentays. Their flecked, brown exteriors have a little more texture than plain wheat, and deliver a pleasing, nutty flavour. Buckwheat can grow at higher altitude than wheat, so in the Haa valley, situated at 2670m, Hoentays are a local speciality. Sometimes a mixture of both flours is used, giving a good balance between the glutinous texture of the wheat and the savoury taste of buckwheat.
Momos are steamed and then served with a searingly hot chilli paste called Ezay (see following), which is a vicious, fiery dipping sauce. They can also be fried in a pan, a little like Chinese pot sticker dumplings. Momos are a popular street food snack, but can also be found in smart hotel restaurants in the main tourist cities. Wherever you choose to eat them, they make a filling and delicious treat.
Making Ezay. Image by Lucy Morgan.
Ezay is a smoky, fiery sauce made from scorched, dried chillies. It is eaten with rice and used as a dipping sauce for momos. To get the best flavour out of the chillies, they are first scorched over charcoal or a flame until the skins blister and blacken, to intensify the rich and powerful flavour. The most fearless cooks leave the seeds in the chillies, but to be honest, even if the seeds are removed, this is a powerful and pungent dish.
Ezay is traditionally made in a large wooden pestle and mortar called a “tshome”. The scorched chillies are pounded together with onion, tomato, garlic, ginger and salt. Fresh coriander adds fragrance; Sichuan peppercorns – which grow wild across the kingdom – give the paste a tingling texture and a touch of citrus flavour. It takes a while to combine the ingredients into a smooth and glossy paste, but it is worth the effort, although it can also be made in a blender.
As well as being a delicious flavourful dish, the chilli in Ezay serves to stimulate the appetite and encourages people to eat more rice to temper the powerful heat. Although terrifyingly hot, the combination of chilli heat and numbing Sichuan pepper is addictive.
Goen Hogay. Image by Lucy Morgan.
Summertime sees a real abundance of salad vegetables in Bhutan, given flavour by the sun and firm, juicy texture from seasonal rains. Yellow cucumbers flourish in the kingdom – a crunchy, delicious varietal, slightly sweeter than their green siblings. Cucumbers form the base of another famous Bhutanese dish: a refreshing salad named Goen Hogay.
The main ingredients echo those of a Greek salad – chunks of juicy tomatoes, sliced sweet onions and hunks of crispy cucumber teamed with a salty “farmer’s cheese” which has a similar flavour to feta.
Although this is one of Bhutan’s milder-tasting recipes, it does, nonetheless feature chilli – usually in the form of dried flakes, which along with some ground Sichuan peppercorns and salt are mixed with the cut vegetables to provide some zing. Coriander seems to be optional: it can add a pleasant gust of perfume to the dish, but it isn’t necessary. The chilli and Sichuan pepper do the main job of livening the mild salad vegetables and turning them into something exciting.
The refreshing qualities of Goen Hogay make it a popular choice both for simple family meals and more complicated banquets. It complements stewed spicy dishes like Ema Datshi perfectly, with its light, palate-cleansing flavours and crunchy texture.
Dried yak skins. Image by Lucy Morgan.
A traditional Bhutanese technique for preserving food is air drying, making use of the Himalayan sun and wind to ensure that pork, yak skin, sausages and fish can be stored and saved for months when food is less plentiful. One very popular street snack uses this technique: a cheesy chewing gum known as Chogo or Chhurpi.
Yak buttermilk is first compressed and dried until it solidifies. It is then cut into cubes and threaded onto strings and dried until hard. The individual cubes make delicious treats, although they take a bit of work to eat. Drying makes the cubes so solid, that they need to be sucked for a long time until soft enough to chew. This gives the snack appeal of being like a hand candy and chewing gum. The flavour is savoury and lingers – a cube of chhurpi can last as long as two hours – good for strengthening the jaw bone and a nice way to get a bit of calcium.