Bhutanese cuisine is, basically, peasant food and owes much of its flavour to the addition of chillies and cheese in almost every dish. It varies from one region to another. Apart from chilli and cheese, Bhutanese cuisine includes a lot of meat like chicken, pork, beef, goat, mutton, fish and yak. Usually served in the form of Tshoem (curry) with it a wide variety of fresh vegetables, dried vegetables like pumpkin, eggplant, turnip leaf and many others are a delicacy. All meals are only complete with rice which is steamed or boiled. Although, there are many different types of rice consumed in Bhutan, Ha Chum (white rice) and Yue Chum (red rice) are the most popular. Besides rice, buckwheat and maize are also consumed.
We look at various culinary traditions of Bhutan. While the focus is on food, our guests also get to see all other aspects of Bhutan: culture, nature, religion, and daily lives of people.
- Haa – we sample Hoentoey, a local dumpling speciality, Habi Ruto (hardened cheese), Suja (salted butter tea), Ezey or Bhutanese salad and, of course, the famous Ema Datsi (super spicy chili-cheese dish)
- Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Wangdue – we try the popular everyday Bhutanese meals. These include the red rice, and several combinations of pork, beef, fish and chicken curries; meals prepared solely from vegetables. One speciality we ought not miss is Nya Dogsem (salted, puffed and dried local river fish)
- Bumthang – we join a local family and partake in the preparation of Khuli (buckwheat pancake) and Puta (buckwheat noodle). We also try mushroom dishes, including Matsutake.
- Eastern Bhutan – the local specialities include Kharang (ground maize), Yomri Thukpa (a broth made of maize or rice flour), fried cheese, and Khuri (dough-like food made of pumpkin or vegetables). We try alcoholic beverages as this region is legendary for drinks like Ara (home-brewed alcohol made from corn, rice or buckwheat), Singchang (a soft beer-like drink) and Bangchang which is extracted from fermented corn.
- Day 1: Arrive at Paro Fly into the Kingdom amid a breathtaking vista of the world’s highest mountains like Mt Everest, Kanchenjunga and other peaks revered by the Bhutanese as the “Abode of the Gods”. Finally, land at Paro International airport, an adrenaline-rushing experience as we take a hair-raising descent onto a narrow strip of flatland flanked by the mountains. A short respite after the landing, we begin our Bhutanese culinary adventure. At lunch, you will get your first taste of Bhutanese cuisine. The highlight of your first Bhutanese meal will be the famous Bondey rice grown in Bondey, Paro. This rice is considered to be one of the most expensive rice in the country. After lunch we will visit historical places in and around Paro valley, a scenic sojourn in Bhutan’s most beautiful valley.
- Day 2: Paro Today, we hike up to the ‘Tiger’s Nest’, a literal translation of Tak-tshang. This monastery edifice is precariously built on a sheer wall of granite cliff some 1,000 metres above the valley floor. Some say, it was built with the help of celestial nymphs in the 17th century for, otherwise, it is beyond human feat. This temple complex houses many caves, one among which is the site where the great Tantric saint – worshipped in the Himalayan Buddhist world as the “Second Buddha” – came riding on a tigress in the 8th century to destroy evil spirits and anoint the grounds to spread the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Other places of visit include the trip to the ruined fortress at Drukgyal, National Museum and Rinpung (paro) palace-fortress.
- Day 3: Paro to Haa With less than 10% of visitors making it to this district, the isolated Haa valley lies southwest of Paro valley. It is a picturesque valley that is ideal for mountain biking and hiking. Today, we will go on a road excursion up the Chelela Pass (3,810m). The drive will lead you through dense spruce and larch forests. We will visit Lhakhang Karpo and Lhakhang Nagpo built in the 7th century. A festival to appease the valley’s deity, Ap Chundu, known to be responsible to cause mystical natural disasters, takes place at Lhakhang Karpo every year. We will also visit Wangchulo Dzong built in 1895. Today, we sample Hoentoey, a local dumpling speciality, Habi Ruto (hardened cheese), Suja (salted butter tea), Eazey or Bhutanese salad and, of course, the famous Ema Datshi, today however, it will be yak cheese.
- Day 4: Haa to Thimphu On the drive back to Thimphu, we will stop to visit the nunnery at Wangsisina. After that we will visit Wangsisina Heritage Home, a traditional Bhutanese house which was home to the 19th Druk Desi (Deb Raja) Druk Tenzin and built before the 17th century. Lunch will be served in earthen clay pots. A delicacy is Wang Ghi Mengay, a rice pizza topped with ginger, garlic, thingay (Sichuan pepper), Zimtsi and spinach.
- Day 5: Sightseeing in Thimphu Home to about 130,000 people from every nook and cranny of the Kingdom, Thimphu provides a rare glimpse of a large mix of culture, customs and traditions around which Bhutan has built its identity as a nation. Today, we begin the day with breakfast before we start visiting historical places in Thimphu. We will visit the Memorial Stupa built in the finest tradition of Buddhist architecture, the 12th century Changangkha monastery which blesses every Bhutanese child born in Thimphu valley, and the 17th century Tashichhodzong that serves as the seat of the central government and also houses the office of the King. Lunch at Folk Heritage Restaurant: We will have a typical Bhutanese lunch at a restored three-storey, rammed-earth and timber building replicates a traditional farmhouse and furnished as it would have been about a century ago. Serving over 60 Bhutanese vegetarian dishes, more than a 100 non-vegetarian dishes, all meals are cooked in earthen pots over an open fire or a garden barbecue. After lunch, we will see the parliament house where Bhutan’s political leaders meet and take decisions that chart out the country’s destiny. Other attractions include short trips the Textile Academy, Academy of Art and Craft, the site of the world’s largest Buddha statue, and the Thimphu viewpoint at Sangaygang. Towards late afternoon, we will take a stroll around town and, probably, also see a traditional game of archery which is popular for its accompanying taunts and merriment.
- Day 6: Thimphu to Punakha/Wangdue Today, we head to the interior, to Punakha-Wangdue valley that is famous as the ancient capital of Bhutan and where the Bhutanese agrarian rural life is best exemplified by terraced rice fields and villages teeming with traditional farm houses. The drive takes us to Dochula pass (3,100m) which is perhaps the only stopover in the entire Himalayan region that affords a stunning view of the mighty and impregnable mountains on the roof of the world. We then begin a gradual descent through roadsides filled with rhododendrons, bamboo groves, other alpine flowers of all shades and hues, besides birds and numerous other fauna species along the way.On touching the valley floor, we visit the Temple of Fertility in Lobesa which is renowned for blessing infertile couples with children, and the 17th century monastery-palace-fortress called Wangduephodrang Dzong.But our main place of interest for the day is Punakha Dzong, a huge 17th century monastery-fortress plus ancient capital on whose corridors of power walked Bhutan’s ancient leaders who shaped much of Bhutanese history. The monument is spectacularly built between two rivers. While your meals today will comprise of red rice, a medium-grained red japonica rice which is semi-milled, dried pork with radish and red dried chillies, mushroom with cheese and Bhutan’s national dish, Ema Datshi, one speciality we ought not miss is the delicacy in Punakha and Wangdue, the famous salted, puffed and dried local river fish, Nga Dogsem.
- Day 8: Bumthang Bumthang valley has innumerable legends surrounding the region. Our first trip will be to Kurje Lhakhang where Guru Padsambhava subdued a local demon and left his body imprint on a rock. Then we see Jamphel lhakhang (7th century) built by Songtsen Goembo, the Tibetan Buddhist King, and the 17th century Jakar Dzong (the Castle of the White Bird). Other places to see include Tamshing Lhakhang built in 1501 by Terton Pema Lingpa who is renowned as one of the five king tertons (religious treasure discoverers), and Kenchosum Lhakhang. We also take a short hike to Mebartsho – the Burning Lake – where legend has it that Pema Lingpa took a dive into the depth of the lake with a butter lamp placed on his head and retrieved a religious treasure hidden by Guru Padmasambhava. Today we will be take part in making Khuley, a pancake made from buckwheat and Puta, noodles made from buckwheat. You will also get to try another delicacy, matsutake with cheese and fresh green chillies.
- Day 9 : Bumthang-Mongar The best culinary experience waits for you in eastern Bhutan. Today, we take a beautiful drive across farms and villages, and gentle undulating valleys to Thrumshingla pass (3,750m). This place is part of a protected area that is dubbed as the “Crown Jewel” of conservation in the eastern Himalayas. Here we have an in situ rhododendrion garden, some 30 species in all, not to speak of numerous varieties of other plant species. For birders, this area is the ultimate destination, with some 600 species sighted, some of which are extremely rare and localized. The descent from Thrumshingla to Lingmethang is another exhilarating experience. In less than two hours we witness an altitude drop from 3,800 meters to 650 meters, as a result of which we enter from the sub-alpine to the temperate to the sub-tropics. We can also see the ruins of Zhongar Dzong which was, once upon a time, the palace and fortress of a powerful regional chieftain but is now preserved as a showpiece of Bhutan’s yesteryears. Kharang, ground maize, is a delicacy in Mongar and is cooked with white rice. Asham Tengma, fried and flattened corn grit, and Asham Bokpi (powdered maize) are another delicacy.
- Day 10: Mongar-Trashigang From Mongar onward we are in the Tshangla (local language) speaking belt of Bhutan. The customs, traditions and lifestyles are all slightly different from western and central Bhutan. Our drive from Mongar to Trashigang takes us through several villages with the highest point being Korila Pass (2,450m). Here on, we descend all the way to Dangmechu (the largest river system in Bhutan), through a mid-way town called Yadhi, finally winding down a series of thrilling zig zags (road bends). Near the riverbank, we see the remains of an iron chain bridge built in the 14th century. From here, another 12 kilometers uphill is Tashigang dzong, the most powerful power centre in medieval eastern Bhutan. We visit the Dzong and take a stroll in Trashigang town. Today, you will get to taste Yomri Thukpa. It is a broth made from maize and rice flour. With it, you will also eat fresh fried cheese and and Khuri (dough-like food made of pumpkin or vegetables). Another delicacy is a snack called Handa Tengma (hardened sticky rice). Zoedoe or Yeedpa known in eastern Bhutan is another type of cheese added in soups and curries to enhance the taste of cheese. It is greenish in colour and has a strong pungent smell.
- Day 11: Trashigang–Samdrup Jongkhar This is the last stretch of our culinary tour in Bhutan. The drive is long but not so monotonous as there is so much to see enroute. A short drive from Trashigang town takes us to Kanglung where Bhutan’s first degree college is located. From here, we pass by an ancient temple at Yonphu (famed for its unique mask dances), the monastery complex at Yongphula, and the Zangtopelri temple in Barshong (in the olden times, the people here mined iron and made steel implements like traditional Bhutanese sword). A little further away is the village of Khaling where Bhutan’s only “School for the Blind” is located. We will stop here awhile and have a heart-warming interaction with the students before heading further down to our destination in Samdrup Jomngkhar via Wamrong, Narphung and Dewathang. Dewathang is the site where the British and Bhutanese forces fought a battle in the 19th century over territorial dispute. A common site along this way is the dwellings raised on stilts and roofed with bamboo mats. Today you will eat dried fish cooked with spring onions and dried red chillies. These are dried fish bought into Bhutan from Jagiroad, about 200km from Samdrup Jongkhar, the largest dried fish market in Asia.
- Day 12: Samdrup Jongkhar to Guwahati and fly out After breakfast, we drive 154km in three hours to Gawahati Airport through the beautiful plains of Assam (India). Adios! Sayonara! Arrivederci! Ciao! Auf Wiedersehen! Bon voyage! Zàijiàn! Farewell Bhutan, farewell Happy Kingdom.