What is ema datse? A guide to Bhutanese food


Bhutan’s culinary tradition is heavily influenced by Tibet, and with a diverse climate, the country is suitable for growing all sorts of crops. While the 5-star hotels (Taj, Le Meridien, Amankora, Uma) offer gourmet experiences, once outside of their restaurants, when eating more authentic, everyday dishes, you’ll find much less of a variety. Bhutan’s traditional cuisine, while fresh and filling, lacks the fusion of flavors found in other Asian countries such as India or Vietnam, but it is plentiful and certainly appetizing.

Rice and noodles are the mainstay meal starches. Bhutan is famous for its medium-grain red rice, and if time allows for an excursion to the Thimphu market, you’ll see piles of it (along with 4 or 5 other varieties). Buckwheat is the staple found mainly in the eastern part of the country, where you’ll likely be served buckwheat pancakes and noodles. You may have the opportunity to try ara, the Bhutanese rice wine—careful, it’s strong! If that’s not your thing, seek out the peach wine, which is sweet and refreshing.

It may be surprising to travelers that meat is as common as it is in this Buddhist nation. Most meat comes from India, where it is processed by non-Buddhists, which apparently makes it okay for the Bhutanese to eat. You’ll find beef, chicken, and fish—the latter two tend to be bony. Doughy and delicious, momos are dumplings filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables. Cabbage, mushrooms, and potatoes are typical vegetables, and there is also spinach, Swiss chard, cauliflower, eggplant, and broccoli. Vegetables are usually sautéed or lightly fried and often mixed with a type of sweet and sour sauce. Pumpkin soup is also common in the fall and quite tasty. 

You can’t talk about Bhutanese food without mentioning the ubiquitous chilies. The further east you go, the hotter the chilies get, or so say the Bhutanese. Those unaccustomed to the heat likely won’t be able to tell the difference! In the fall, chilies are set out to dry. The national dish is called ema datse, which is simply cooked chilies in a thin garlicky cheese sauce. This is Bhutan’s comfort food, and it is quite delicious. When eaten with rice, it’s not much different than a spicy mac n’cheese, and buckwheat pancakes are perfect for soaking up the sauce. The hosts at one of the Bumthang farmhouses at which our groups stop for lunch demonstrates how to make it.

Speaking of cheese, Bhutan isn’t huge on fresh dairy, but you’ll see dried cheese at markets and butter is used for butter tea. You must taste the tea if you can, just to say you’ve had it. Don’t think of it as English tea or you will be sorely disappointed and probably find it unpalatable. Instead, consider it a savory broth, which is more accurate. A mix of tea, butter, and salt, it has sustained the Himalayan people for centuries.

Matt Holmes is the Founder & President of Boundless Journeys. Boundless Journeys is an award-winning tour operator that goes off the beaten path for immersive and authentic travel experiences.

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Comments (8)

  1. Bob says:

    What’s an ema datse? One of the great enigmatic headlines. I ain’t got a clue! Classic hook to get you to read the piece. I’m going to have to read on …

  2. Fiona says:

    Momo’s are legendary. Their fame has spread way beyond Bhutan. Without doubt they are one of their favourite Asian foods.

  3. Valerie says:

    Generally, I’ve given up expectations on my travels around the world that I’ll find anything approaching tea. Recently, I was promised, nay guaranteed, English Breakfast Tea, in North Africa only for Earl Grey to arrive.

    So, I’d just accept that Bhutan tea fortified with butter and salt is probably what the people need to see them through a day’s hard labours. When in Bhutan do as the Bhutanese do.

  4. Sam says:

    I must admit I’m totally ignorant here as I knew absolutely nothing about Bhutanese food. I never even knew there was such a thing as red rice. I do like the sound of the strong rice wine, and the sweeter peach wine. I actually really like the sound of the ema datse with rice, I imagine the chilies add a nice spicy kick while the garlic/cheese sauce tempers it down a little, I guess giving it that ‘comfort food’ appeal. I’ve never seen that on any menu in the UK, but I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled in those around-the-world type of restaurants just in case as I’d like to try it.

  5. Freya Taylor says:

    There is a lot of fresh veg in this diet and not too much diary. Also with a lot of the meat being imported I expect that it is quite expensive for the local people. Though they eat meat I expect that the portion sizes would be quite small. All in all it seems quite a healthy diet. I think I could learn a lot from the way the Bhutan people live their lives.

  6. Vernon says:

    Useful guide to Bhutanese food. No pun intended but it seems to me that Bhutan is quite the flavour of the month at the moment. I know loads of people wanting to get there soon. Interesting to see if they acquire a taste for Bhutanese food whilst they are there. Will we see Bhutanese restaurants opening up in Europe and North America?

  7. Craig says:

    I’m surprised that as far as I know there hasn’t been a celebrity chef making a TV programme on Bhutanese cuisine. I would imagine that it would make for a visually stunning programme. If it was well made it could give quite an insight into the spirituality of Bhutan life too. I can foresee that there would be quite a lot of celebrity chefs queueing up for the opportunity to work in such spectacular surroundings.

  8. Steve K. says:

    Spicy mac and cheese but on rice instead of pasta and soupy. Quite intriguing as I’ve never even tried cheese with rice even though some Asian countries do serve cheese over rice.

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