Eat like a king, work like a labourer.

In Bhutan, food is seen as nutrition and a way to replenish from hard work. The common notion of Bhutanese food is that is it spicy, as chili is a mainstay in many of the local cuisine.

The great thing of Bhutanese food is about knowing how organic it is, as most ingredients are homegrown, except for meat (imported from India) as killing animals is illegal in Bhutan.

With our newfound knowledge about food in Bhutan from our trip in Feb 2019, we decided to share more about some of the unique dishes Bhutanese serve.

Bhutan Snacks

When we asked our guide on what locals have as snacks and desserts, he was perplexed.

We don’t have local desserts!

At resting stops, we are commonly served with butter cookies and sugar crackers. Here are some small bites we noticed are popular with locals.

1. Betel nut

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Betel nut snack

At every corner, you can see locals chewing on betel nut, leaving their lips and teeth with a slight red stain. Sometimes you’ll see splats of red on the ground – that’s the juice being spat out. It’s usually wrapped in a betel leaf with flavourings such as cardamom, cinnamon and tobacco.

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Notice the red lip stain!

Here’s what Isabel has to say about this popular local snack:

I was apprehensive to try it initially, but I had to uncover the mystery as to why every Bhutanese would be willing to risk oral cancer and having permanently black/ red teeth for it. 

So I put the betel nut to the test. When I first sunk my teeth into it, it was as hard as a rock! Still, I continued chewing to hopefully break it down. The juice that came from the betel nut + leaf combination filled my mouth with such a strong acrid taste that no matter how much I chewed, the betel nut wouldn’t ever break down. In fact, the flavour just became more pungent and unbearable. I eventually had to spit it out. (Don’t tell my guide!)

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Bhutanese lady selling betel nut

2. Yak cheese

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Yak cheese sold in a local store

Yak cheese is a common sight in local convenience stores and markets, hanging on strings.

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Yak cheese

It is consumed by just popping it into the mouth and constantly chewing. It’s hard and difficult to bite into, so you could be chewing on hours on end (I’m not kidding). It gives a light cheesy aftertaste that’s not particularly pungent, and I found it a good substitute to chewing gum when you’re just looking for something to munch on.

Bhutan Staples

1. Red rice

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Red rice

The local love their rice, after all, Bhutan is covered with a vastness of rice fields, especially in Paro. It’s astounding how much rice our local guide and driver eat during every meal! Apart from having a nice aroma (similar to wheat rice), red rice is also more nutritious and definitely something that the locals eat for sustenance.

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Local selling rice at the market

We loved the rice so much, we even brought some back from the market!

2. Buckwheat pancake

Buckwheat pancake is also served as a side dish as an alternative staple, similar to bread or naan. While I am personally not a big fan of it because of its slight bitterness, it’s good for dipping into the sauces of the local spicy dishes.

3. Cheowmien (fried noodles)

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Cheowmien (fried noodles)

When our local guide first introduced this dish to us, I was amused that he was pronouncing the mandarin term for fried noodles, but we quickly realised it is indeed what it is.

The cheowmien we tasted indeed had a Chinese flair to it, with mixed vegetables, and chicken. It was reminiscent of homecooked noodles back in Singapore!

Bhutan Mains

1. Ema datchi (chili and cheese)

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Ema datchi

This is the national dish of Bhutan. It is a spicy stew made of chilli peppers and cheese. The locals love it and of all the meals we’ve had, this dish is almost always present. The spice is powerful and definitely packs a punch!

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Local market selling chilli

2. Kewa datshi (potato cheese)

Instead of chili, the star of kewa datshi is the potato (kewa). Because of that, it is less spicy. It like how the cheese layers over the potato slices, but not in an overpowering way. The consistency of the cheese is more similar to a stew.

3. Shamu datshi (mushroom cheese)

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Shamu datshi

Shamu is mushroom and this is yet another variation of ema datshi. This was my favourite variation of all the datshis – the dish is light, mushrooms add another flavour, and it’s great with rice.

4. Shakam Paa (dried beef)

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Shakam Paa

Shakam stands for beef and paa is sort of like a meaty stew. The beef tastes a bit like jerky and is understandably tough and chewy to bite into, but it’s a refreshing change from the usual vegetarian dishes.

5. Sikam Paa (dried pork)

Sikam is dried pork belly. The pork is stir fried with dried chili and is a hearty dish, slightly on the oily side.

6. Momo 

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Momo (dumplings)

Momos are dumplings popularly eaten in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Himalayan states of India. They were my favourite things to eat in Bhutan! You can either get them fried or steamed, filled with minced meat, vegetable and cheese.

I recommend the beef momo, but also try the vegetarian momo for an interesting variation of mixed vegetables with cheese as a filling.

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Momo with vegetable filling

Make sure to try it with the accompanying Bhutanese chili sauce – it definitely elevates the taste of the momo with a tangy kick!

Momos are also usually served with a bowl of clear pork, beef or chicken soup. This soup is made from trying to use up waste items like animal bones or vegetable shavings.

Bhutan Drinks

1. Ara

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Ara (rice wine)

Ara is Bhutan’s traditional rice wine that (understandably) tastes like sake, with 18% alcohol. It’s stored in a wine container called paling and a common sight in Bhutan homes.

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Palang, a handcrafted container with intricate designs

2. Butter tea

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Butter tea with crispy rice

Butter tea (suja) is definitely a local favourite! It is made of salt, tea leaf, butter and milk. It is usually served with crispy rice (zaow). While it basically tastes like melted butter, it kinda grows on you in the cold climate.

3. Druk 11000

This is a local beer and our guide’s personal favourite. It’s a strong beer with 8% alcohol.

Other Bhutan beer brands are Red Panda, Druk Lager and Druk Supreme.

4. Peach wine

peach wine, bhutan souvenirPeach wine is similar to the typical white wine, with a peachy aroma and sweeter than usual. If you’re into dessert wines, this is a good choice! It is voted as one of the best souvenirs to take back from Bhutan!


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Pigging out at a local food joint – so cheap!

Most of the hotels serve International cuisines, as well as several Indian dishes. If you would like a taste of authentic Bhutanese food, do request it from your tour guide, or head to local joints in the city.

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Having a meal at our homestay!

That said, one of the best meals I’ve tasted was during our homestay experience when we got to try home cooked Bhutanese dishes!


jingxin headshot, what to eat in bhutanHi, I’m Jingxin! I’m a designer by day, and letterer/ illustrator/ photographer by night. My favourite travels involve nature spots, incredible sights and amazing food. There’s nothing like the sound of sea waves washing up against the shore. I love to explore hidden gems, and you can often find me checking out a vintage store or local speakeasy.

Special thanks to DrukAsia for this experience! All opinions remain my own.

14 – 20 Feb 2019, Thu – Wed

Isabel Leong

Isabel Leong

An explorer at heart, the world is Isabel's playground. She enjoys seizing every moment exploring every hideout and doing the unimaginable, like bungee jumping in Phuket and couchsurfing in Europe. If she had wings, she’d definitely be soaring right now. Also a fitness trainer, if she’s not at the gym, you can find her doing yoga or rock climbing! Read more about her on belaroundtheworld.com/about.