Bhutan 10—Food

I said I wasn’t going to bother writing about food, but since a dear friend has requested it, I will.

Strangely enough, I have no memory at all of what we ate the first time I came here. Possibly because the trip was led by a Swiss-American, and the caterers knew she didn’t like spicy food? Anyway, this was all new to me, more or less.

The first thing about Bhutan’s food supply is that it’s all organic. That is, there are no pesticides used anywhere in the country. Imported food is tested for pesticide residues and banned if it isn’t clean. (More about that shortly).

The second thing to understand is that they have a lot of micro-climates here, so they grow just about everything: rice, wheat, buckwheat, apples, strawberries, oranges, peppers, potatoes, persimmons. Plenty of dairy, but there are no slaughterhouses (Buddhist compassion), so the only meat is either imported, or salvaged when an animal is killed accidentally. (I suspect that some farms have a lot of “accidents,” but you didn’t hear that from me). Also, no fishing in the rivers. Keep the ecosystem healthy, all the way from bottom to top.

At the bigger hotels, if there were other visitors, they have buffet service. This doesn’t make for great photos, so the most lavish and delicious meals are not depicted here at all. But lunches were often at small local diners or guesthouses, and the buffet was for our table only. So I have a couple of those.

Here they literally rolled out the red carpet to serve us lunch! The dark noodles are made from locally-grown buckwheat.

The “national dish” of Bhutan is chili cheese. (Spanish speakers, forgive my spelling). That is, chili peppers chopped up in soft melted cheese. This can look very different from one place to another, depending on whether there are fresh green chilis available (the best), or only dried red ones. We had this at almost every lunch and dinner.

Bhutan doesn’t grow enough chilis, most of the year, to satisfy the demand, so they are imported from India. One year, the customs office tested the imported chilies and found they had too much pesticide residue, so they were banned. This created a crisis, and a huge black market in smuggled chili peppers opened up. This may be the only time in memory that Bhutanese people defied the law, and they seem to revel in telling us about it.

Lunch at a modest guesthouse in Phobjikha, all prepared and served by the owner. Clockwise from bottom: Chili cheese, red rice, potatoes in cheese sauce, chunky crisp bacon (with lots of fat); a cup of butter tea at the top; chicken in red curry sauce, stir-fried noodles, cauliflower stir-fry, and red chili paste.

If you don’t like cheese with your chili, most places also provide red chili salsa. Not to be confused with Mexican-style salsa, with a tomato base; this is just chopped up red chilis, with a little vinegar and onion, or some variation on that. Pure fire, wonderfully refreshing.

In Western Bhutan (at least), many of the hotels are run by Indian families—and the Indian food in their dining rooms is superb. We feast, and feast some more.

Ha'a lunch
Lunch service in Ha’a, with an Indian twist or two. Dahl soup, buckwheat dumplings, rice, savory chicken stir-fry, potato fritters, mixed vegetables, mushrooms in cheese sauce, papadum. In the teacups, butter tea.

Sorry I can’t share the tastes here. Better come and try it for yourself.


I had no special plan to celebrate my birthday here; it is enough that I am here, and there are celebrations around. But our guide gets ahead of me, and surprises us with a cake. Not only that, the hotel room, which was ample but unadorned when we arrived the night before, is transformed into a place of celebration. That’s what happens when the staff at an upscale hotel has access to your passport, I suppose.

Plenty more to come! Next up…

3 thoughts on “Bhutan 10—Food

  1. Dear Mr. Alan Young (per your birthday cake!, Fascinating to learn about the food you’re eating–delicious. And I loved the bed decorated with red flowers surrounding kissing swans. (Did I get that right?) I’m looking up food from Bhutan? Restaurants close by?
    Thank you so much for this fascinating article and their vegetarian and healthy food.–Norma


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