The culinary offerings in Bhutan have nothing on its impressive Southern neighbors, India and Thailand, but then who does? Maligned in the past as a cuisine of yak cheese and chilies (indeed, in 2005 Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet, wrote Bhutan had ''the world's worst cuisine"), there is nothing to fear—the few travelers who have trickled in before you have created a market for better eats and restaurants and newer hotels are delivering local dishes for international tastes and also offer Indian, Chinese and Nepali food.
Bhutan is primarily an agrarian society that features a simpler cuisine largely confined to only four variables—the kind and quantity of chillies used, the kind of meat or vegetable, if any of either (usually radish, cabbage, potato or mushroom); and the presence or absence of datse (a local cheese akin to paneer). Did we mention chilies? They are in almost everything, much like salt in Western cuisine, but prepared as entrées in their own right.
Even if you're unfamiliar with Bhutan's cuisine, you may still know of its distinctive red rice—prominent in its dishes. Bhutanese red rice is a semi-milled red japonica rice—some of the reddish bran is left on the rice. Because of this, it cooks somewhat faster than an unmilled brown rice and is similar to brown rice in texture, but with a nutty taste. It is the only variety of rice that grows at high altitude and when cooked, the rice is pale pink, soft and slightly sticky. Buckwheat, and increasingly, corn, comprise other staples of the Bhutanese agrarian diet.
Bhutanese diet also features simple dishese of chicken, yak meat, dried beef, pork, pork fat and mutton. Soups and stews of meat, rice, ferns, lentils, and dried vegetables spiced with chili peppers and cheese are a favorite meal during the cold seasons.
Zow shungo is a rice dish mixed with leftover vegetables. Ema datshi, made very spicy with cheese and chili peppers (akin to chili con queso), very well might be singled out as the national dish for its ubiquity and the pride that Bhutanese have for it. Other foods include jasha maru, a chicken dish; phaksha paa, thukpa, bathup and fried rice (top and jasha tshoem, a Bhutanese chicken curry.
Popular snacks include momo (dumplings), shakam eezay (red chilis and dried beef)and liver. Other popular non-vegetarian dishes include shakam paa (Dried Beef Curry), sikkam paa (Dried Pork Curry) and paksha paa (Pork with Vegetables). Dairy foods, particularly butter and cheese from yak and cow, are also popular, and indeed almost all milk is turned to butter and cheese. Popular beverages include butter tea, tea, locally brewed ara (rice wine) and beer. Spices include cardamom, ginger, chili peppers, thingay (Sichuan pepper), garlic, turmeric and caraway.
Dining customs and considerations in Bhutan are much like in Myanmar—don't feel awkward if someone refuses to eat with you upon invitation; when offered food, one says meshu meshu, covering one's mouth with the hands in refusal according to Bhutanese manners... but then will give in on a second or third offer, so be politely persistent with your invitation.
To begin to understand Bhutanese cuisine it is necessary to know the basic history of the people and the importance of Bhutan in regional and in Silk Road trade."
Read more on Laura Kelley's The Silk Road Gourmet (www.silkroadgourmet.com/bhutanese-cuisine/)
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