Since most travel in Bhutan is via an all-inclusive package, most of your meals will be in the shape of a hotel or trekking-camp buffet, with a mix of continental, Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese dishes, plus vegetarian options and rice. The food is fine but is specifically created to not offend anyone, so it can be bland. Small groups can often order from the menu, though the buffet meals offer a wider selection. If you find the tourist food bland, request some of what your guide is eating. It will be much tastier, if you can take the heat.
Your guide will arrange all your meals in advance, whether that's a roadside restaurant or at your accommodation. However, your guide should be able to suggest a new venue if you are staying in the same hotel for several days.
- Hotel restaurants Most of your meals, especially breakfast and dinner, will be a buffet at your place of accommodation.
- Roadside restaurants Well organised with pre-arranged buffets but if you turn up unannounced the pickings may be slim.
- Local hotels and restaurants Not always as hygienic as they should be, these places will test your chilli tolerance.
- Cafes Espresso and cream cakes are slowly making inroads into Bhutan
On long day drives or hikes you will not return to your hotel for lunch, and most tour operators arrange a packed lunch. This is usually delicious and can even be a hot lunch packed inside a series of metal containers packed inside a wide insulated flask.
The food in hotels is often the best in town, but if you want to sample local restaurants, especially in Thimphu or Paro, your guide can arrange it. Your tour operator should pay for your restaurant meals, with the exception of a few upper-end restaurants in Thimphu and casual visits to cafes for snacks. In almost all restaurants it's a good idea to order an hour or more in advance, or expect to wait forever. If you are ordering from a menu, don't be surprised if many of the offerings are not available.
Due to the unique nature of travel in Bhutan, restaurant opening hours have little meaning. Almost all tourists will have breakfast in their hotel and guides will pre-arrange lunch and dinner in restaurants or hotels, which will normally offer a buffet or set meal at whatever time your guide determines.
Staples & Specialities
The Bhutanese love chillies, so much in fact that some dishes consist entirely of chillies, accompanied by chilli-infused condiments. The mouth-scorching meals will bring tears of joy to the eyes of chilli lovers, and tears of pain to everyone else! Although chillies are ubiquitous, don't expect the aromatically spiced dishes typical of the subcontinent. These can only be found in the Nepali-influenced south of Bhutan or in an Indian restaurant.
Bhutan's national dish is ema datse, large green (sometimes red, but always very hot) chillies, prepared as a vegetable, not as a seasoning, in a cheese sauce. Hotel and trekking cooks make some excellent nonspicy dishes, such as kewa datse (potatoes with cheese sauce) and shamu datse (mushrooms with cheese sauce). More seasonal are the delicious asparagus and unusual nakey (fern fronds), the latter typically smothered in the ever-present datse.
Beef and fish come from India or Thailand, usually flown in frozen and safe. During the summer you may be limited to chicken, or a vegetarian diet in more remote parts of the country. Yak meat is available, but only in winter. Dessert is most often a modest presentation of fruit – apple, banana, pineapple or orange, depending on the season.
Foremost among several Tibetan-influenced snacks are momos, small steamed dumplings that may be filled with meat or cheese – delicious when dipped in a chilli sauce. Fried cheese momos are a speciality of several Thimphu restaurants. Look for the strings of rock-hard, dried yak cheese, chugo, hanging from shop rafters, but be careful of your teeth.
Although there is plenty of white rice, the Bhutanese prefer a locally produced red variety, which has a slightly nutty flavour. At high altitudes wheat and buckwheat are the staples. In Bumthang, khule (buckwheat pancakes) and puta (buckwheat noodles) replace rice as the foundation of many meals.
Drinks in Bhutan
Avoid drinking tap water anywhere in Bhutan. Bottled water is widely available and most hotel rooms have kettles.
Indian-style sweet milky tea (ngad-ja) is widely available and often referred to as either masala tea or 'ready-made' tea. Less satisfying is the tourist equivalent, a tea bag that you only get some flavour from after endless prodding. Bhutanese frequently drink sud-ja, Tibetan-style tea with salt and butter, which is more like soup than tea, and surprisingly tasty and warming on a cold day. Filter coffee and espresso is available in top-end hotels and a few cafes in Thimphu and Paro, but elsewhere 'coffee' is invariably of the instant variety.
The best beer brewed in Bhutan is the very good Red Panda weissbier, a tangy unfiltered wheat beer bottled in Bumthang. Bhutan Brewery produces Druk Lager, Druk Supreme and the high-alcohol (8%) Druk 11000. Imported beers, such as Singha and Tiger, are available, but the well-priced locally brewed products dominate the shelves.
There are several brands of Bhutanese whisky but the most common local brew is bang chhang, a warm beer-like drink made from wheat. The favourite hard drinks are arra, a spirit distilled from rice, and sinchhang, which is made from millet, wheat or rice.
Drinks, including bottled water, are usually charged as extras, and payment is collected at the end of the meal or the following morning when you check out of the hotel.
Chewing the Nut
One of the great Bhutanese vices is chewing doma nut, also known by its Indian name, paan. The nut (from an Areca palm) is mixed with lime powder (the ash, not the fruit), and the whole collection is rolled up in a heart-shaped betel leaf and chewed slowly. It's a bittersweet, mildly intoxicating concoction and it stains the mouth bright red. The blood-like stains you see on Bhutanese pavements are the result of spat out doma effluent. Or they're just bloodstains…