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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Bhutan

Historic Diet

The historic diet of Bhutan is based on the foods locally available and those foods vary greatly from one part of the small country to the next. As a country that rises quickly from plains to the Himalayas there is a combination of spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, and even animals.

Among the most important historic foods in Bhutan are onions, garlic, ginger, cilantro, lentils, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), buckwheat, and red rice. The animal life is also varied, but historically few of these animals were used for food. The most important animal has always been the yak, which is used primarily for its milk, but also for its meat. Chicken and boars are also present and have been used, in limited numbers, for their meat.

Culinary Influences

Bhutan's diet is a combination of their historic diet, Indian foods, and Tibetan foods. The Indians made the first impact with the introduction of Hinduism; this religion outlaws the consumption of beef, which slightly alters the diet. Today the people are primarily Buddhist and their sect of Buddhism has strict rules regarding the slaughter of animals, meaning many people are vegetarian and most of the meat the people eat is imported from Tibet.

As mentioned, the other great influence comes from Tibet and today the Bhutanese diet is very similar to that of Tibet. Traditional dishes in Tibet, like momos and fried rice are very common in Bhutan and the foods lack the heavy reliance on curries and pulses as they do in India. Although most foods are more similar to Tibetan foods, many sauces are heavily spiced and resemble Indian cuisine, not unlike some sauces in Tibet as well.

As the British arrived to neighboring India and the spice trade grew with Europe and North America, some new ingredients were introduced with the potato being the most important in Bhutan. Today the potato is an important ingredient in many local dishes.

Today tourism is fairly organized in Bhutan and the government is sure to have some foreign foods on the menu for their guests. This has led to a lot of restaurants catered to tourists that have an odd combination of foreign foods like hamburgers, pizza, and Chinese food along with more local dishes.

Staple Foods

Buckwheat: a common base for many meals, especially in the mountains
Rice: served as a base in many dishes and is prepared in numerous ways

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Ema Datshi: the national dish is a spicy cheese and pepper mixture with the tendency of a stew
Paa: slicked pork and beef served with red rice
Zow Shungo: an easy dish of rice with whatever vegetables are available

Dining Etiquette

Nearly every foreigner in Bhutan is on an organized tour so the places you eat will be quite lenient in their etiquette rules as they are most certainly accustomed to foreigners. However, you should still make an effort to understand local dining customs and if your tour includes a meal at a house you must do your best to conform to these etiquette rules.

Be aware that Hindus don't eat meat and many Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarian so avoid beef and if your host is vegetarian try to follow suite and order a vegetarian meal as well. You should also dress conservatively when meeting locals, meaning your arms and legs should be covered. You should also arrive on time for a meal (although food might not be served for a couple hours) and take your shoes off at the door if others do so.

You will likely be asked to wash your hands prior to eating; follow the lead of others. Let your host show you a seat, which may be on the floor. When seated, be sure to avoid pointing the bottom of your feet at anyone so keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you. Once everyone is seated, your host may toss a few grains of rice into the air as an offering.

Your host may invite you to serve yourself first; if so take more rice than other foods as rice is meant to be the base and substance of most meals. Your host will not serve him or herself until you do and will not begin eating until you have begun. You should try all the foods your host recommends, but be sure to take only a small amount of food at first as more will be offered later. When your host does offer more food, you can act like the locals by covering your mouth with your hand (but not actually touching your mouth) and say meshu meshu, only accepting food on the host's second or third offer. If you take your own food from a communal serving tray, be sure to avoid touching your plate with the serving spoons as this is considered unclean. Once you have food you may notice there are no utensils (cutlery); this is because you are expected to eat with your right hand and right hand only as the left is considered unclean. You may use naan or rice to scoop the food or to soak up the sauces.

As you finish eating, leave some food on your plate to signify your host has provided more than enough food, even if at a restaurant. Tipping is discouraged in Bhutan and you should take the government's suggestion when dining in a restaurant and leave no tip. In other situations (to guides for example) this "no tipping" policy is changing so be sure to check with your travel agency for up to date tipping recommendations.

Celebrations & Events

The greatest food celebration in Bhutan is the Matsutake Festival, which takes place at the beginning of mushroom season. This mushroom, the matsutake mushroom is considered a special treat for the people, especially in the mountains as this celebration is defined by the hunting, picking, cooking, and eating of this favored food.

Drinks

The locals in Bhutan enjoy their teas, but not in the form you may expect as heavily salted butter tea is the drink of choice and many people carry thermos of the drink with them everywhere. If you can't handle the salt there are numerous other options in the country including all the international favorites such as soft drinks, coffee, milk, and juices.

The Bhutanese don't have a wide selection of alcoholic drinks. Beer and rice wine are the two most popular, but little else is available. The best options are probably in the hotel bars and restaurants catered to tourists, where there is a limited, but somewhat diverse selection of alcohol.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Bhutan, but in limited mountainous areas it might be safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: September, 2012