About the food of Bhutan

Monastery in Bhutan

The rugged mountain-country of Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayas, between India and China. This largely vegetarian country is known for eating chili peppers (called ema) and rice in abundance.

Photo courtesy of the CIA World Factbook

Just reading about their food made me break into a sweat. They actually treat the chili pepper as a vegetable, instead of a minor spice component to a larger dish. In other words, in many cases, the chili pepper is the meal.

To a Bhutanese, however, ema (chilli) enjoys an exalted culinary position. It isn’t just a food or a fad. It is the stuff of life. It is integral Bhutanese heritage and culture.

It’s not just the vegetable; it’s the taste. A bowl of black dhal or a cauliflower sabzi in a diner in India is likely to contain some chillies, and would be considered very hot by most people there. But that, as every Bhutanese who has studied in India would vouch, is piddling compared with the blistering fury of a highland Bhutanese chilli. But it is not raw heat that makes Bhutanese chillies distinctive. It is their incomparable sharp flavour, which some describe as succulent and earthy, with a clarity that seems to reflect the taste and smell of the skies and landscapes of Bhutan.

Bhutanese eat chilli raw or cooked, minced or roasted, but no Bhutanese dish is complete without ema. And young toddlers are initiated in the art of chilli eating early on. Parents pick meat or vegetables from the chilli dish, suck it to moderate the heat, and then feed their child, who breaks into a sweat but quickly adapts.

Ema:The fiery Bhutanese food (by Wangdi and Yeshi)

I smiled when I read the last paragraph because this is exactly how we share spicy food with Ava. I often feel like a mamma bird and, although many people probably find the habit revolting, I believe this is the simplest way to give her a variety of food that does not include bland “baby food.” I’ve often wondered if there was a better way, but am glad to learn the the technique is the same in countries like Bhutan with incredibly spicy food.

The most interesting recipe I found for chilies is from Choden’s book Chilli and Cheese. She tells the story of her father filling green chilies with butter and salt, then grilling them on skewers until tender. I find such straightforward cooking appealing because, in simplicity are pure flavors celebrated.

The most common recipe with chilies is the screaming hot Ema Datshi, the national dish. This cheesy, chili infested sauce is considered a vegetable curry that makes a complete meal with red or white rice (or, in central Bhutan, buckwheat noodles or pancakes). According to an interview with a local chef by the BBC, real Ema Dhatsi is made with just two ingredients: equal parts cheese and chili peppers. Other ingredients, such as tomatoes, onions, and cauliflower, can be added to reduce the heat (but this is usually only done for foreigners).

The curry in Bhutan is called “white” because they do not include yellow spices, like turmeric. For non-vegetarians, meats are also served in curries, often with radish or mushroom. Popular meat in Bhutan includes beef, pork, and yak (yak is also used for cheese), although chicken and fish are also consumed.

For dessert Bhutanese usually cool things off with fresh fruit such as watermelon and mango. This is sweet relief after a blazing hot meal. They also enjoy tea, especially suja, or “butter tea,” a salty mixture of black tea, butter (traditionally yak butter), and milk. In the capital, cakes, eclairs and cream puffs are becoming popular.

Photo courtesy of the CIA World Factbook


  1. Brian says

    I don’t know where you’re gonna find yak butter. It lends an incomparable flavor to the butter tea, which is more like a savory soup than a tea. I’ve never been to Bhutan but I had it in Tibet. Mecca in Brookside used to sell red rice, they don’t now but it’s worth looking for. Incomparable nutty flavor. One thing I read said the cheese dish is like Tex-Mex Chili con Queso.

    • I think I’m out of luck on the yak butter. I wonder, do you think goat’s butter would be similar?

      I found cracked red rice at the Indian market (across from the Promenade).

  2. I love to visit this beautiful country one day! It seems so beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Never thought about the food being spicy way up there in Bhutan. Would love to visit and experience it. Great post!

    • That’s the hard part about this blog – not actually tasting the food in person. My list of countries to visit is growing, not shrinking! Thanks for following along πŸ™‚

  4. I’ve dreamed of visiting this part of the world ever since I saw the film Lost Horizon. I wish i could eat this sort of food. Not sure how to approach the food issue for a traditional North American when visiting Bhutan.

    • I am amazed how beautiful Bhutan is!

      In terms of the food – there are so many types of peppers, I would adjust recipes by using the ones that are the most “tolerable” to you. For example, the poblano is pretty mild and can be substituted for very hot chilies.

      When visiting, you might have to see if “mild” translates lol

  5. amazing blog!
    I have been doing one country’s dish per month, but you made me want one per day!
    thank you for sharing this wonderfulness!

    • Thank you so much! Be sure and “cook-along” with us on Wednesday’s, where you can share a link to something you’ve cooked related to that week’s country.

      Glad to have you on the adventure πŸ™‚

  6. Wow, Super beautiful place. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get to see such places in my lifetime.

  7. Sounds like Bhutan would be an incredible place to visit…I really love experiencing different foods as I travel. It seems to me something that is so central to people’s lives and culture, and should be a privilege to share with the locals. I’m afraid that I couldn’t take my partner with me though…he breaks out into a sweat at the slightest hint of chili in my cooking!

    • Oh no! Well, you’ll just have to toughen him up – my husband gradually got me to eat spicier food. It took a few years, but finally I can eat medium lol.

      We’ll have the recipes up Monday – and a new country every week – hope to see you around.


  8. Travel blogs never fails to amaze me! I am pretty sure I will like the food there as I am very big on spicy food.
    Thank you

  9. Beautiful photograph!

    I’ve never been one for food that’s too spicy, but my husband LOVES it. I consider it a personal triumph when I’ve cooked a curry that makes sweat puddle on his forehead during dinner (is that TMI?).

    On that same topic, I’ve often wondered if eating spicy foods (and the resulting sweat) helps to purify your system. Perhaps that’s just a happy side effect? Either way, tasty!…except maybe the yak. πŸ™‚



    • Hi Natina,

      Thanks for your comment. I love your name, by the way. It is so beautiful!

      I’d believe what you say about spicy food purifying the system a bit. Although too much is supposed to cause ulcers. Everything in moderation, I guess πŸ™‚

      Hope you stick around for the adventure. I promise you won’t have to eat yak. Unless you want to πŸ˜‰


  10. I love spice and I am perhaps the spiciest eater among my relatives and friends.

    I had once been to Mussourie with a friend of mine. It is a beautiful hill station in India. We asked our home care person to make a curry out of ‘Shimla Mirch’ meaning Capsicum. The curry was tasty but it was very spicy. we asked by as to ow many chillis did he put to make the curry. He said the entire curry is made out of chillis!!! He may not have heard of ‘Shimla’ part of it and he bought a few ‘Mirch’ meaning chilli, and made a curry out of it.

    I must try out the Bhutanese chilli dishes.

    • Ha! I think you would like Bhutanese food then, Rohit. I’ll have the recipes up on Monday. Let me know if you try any of them.

    • Yes, Brei. That’s a big reason why I am doing this food challenge. I wanted to experience other cultures, but didn’t have the means to go everywhere. I think eating a cultures food is one of the best ways to learn about a country. Anyway, glad you enjoyed and check back on Monday for the meal review and recipes πŸ™‚

  11. Nathan Drake says

    I was there last year. I petted thirty yaks, and won a medal.

  12. Great place to visit and thank you for introducing the local food. Hope you can take some picture of the traditional food from each country too.


    • Thank you Wendy. Check back on Monday – I’ll have recipes and photos (as well as a review of the food). Hope you enjoy πŸ™‚

    • Thank you – each week is a fun food adventure, but I always end up wanting to go visit. My travel bill is going to be huge πŸ˜€

  13. Wow, nice! Have you done entries on Japan, China, or Singapore? I think this is one of the coolest blogs I’ve been to!

    • Yes… I’m sure they can make the food mild for foreigners but if not, maybe load up on the fresh fruit and bread! Good luck πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Gealach. I’ll have all the recipes posted up on Monday, so check back and see if there are any dishes you’d like to try πŸ™‚

  14. This is a place I’d really like to be. It could be heaven in disguise – probably wouldn’t survive on chilli’s – never eat them, but oh… I’d be so slim!

    • Yes, I think you’d lose a lot of weight in Bhutan if you didn’t eat chilies. They are in almost *every* dish! πŸ˜€ At least you would have beautiful scenery to look at though!

  15. The food will prolly take a LOT of getting used to. Hotter than Indian food? Wow. I wonder if it’s as complex and flavorful.

    That said, the place looks like a Himalayan paradise. The picture caught my attention because it looked so much like a videogame! Apparently, it’s just as idyllic and untouched as it seems there. I have a Lonely Planet book that says that they once tried to put traffic lights on the streets but removed them when everyone complained they were too impersonal!

    • I’ve heard that story about the traffic lights – how amazing! All heck would break loose if we got rid of them here – whenever there is a power outage traffic falls apart… 😐

  16. I was in Sichuan for part of last summer, and their Hot Pots were pushing my culinary limits. I can’t imagine these ema dishes!

    • globaltable says

      I know! Well, in the recipe I tried I used Anaheim and Serrano chilies to cool things down a bit (although it was still very hot!) πŸ™‚

  17. Pingback: What my baby thinks about eating the world | Global Table Adventure

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