Bhutan is the only Buddhist kingdom in the world. Nestled in the Himalayan mountains, Bhutan has an interesting take on vegetarian food. Buddhism teaches that it is wrong to kill animals for consumption. Hence, Bhutan has a law that bans the killing of animals for meat consumption. However, most people and even Buddhist monks in Bhutan still enjoy eating meat. Almost all of the meat that is consumed in Bhutan is imported. Bhutanese like to point out that the meat being consumed in the country comes from animals which were killed outside of Bhutan.
For a vegetarian, the food in Bhutan is something to look forward to. Most of the hotels/restaurants will serve a buffet-styled meal. These buffet spreads will have plenty of vegetarian dishes. In fact, only a couple of dishes will be meat-based. Some of the staples in Bhutanese cuisine are chillies (as a vegetable and not as a spice), vegetables, cheese (locally made which looks more like a curry sauce), and red rice. All of these dishes will be vegetarian except in some rare situations.
The taste of the food might be unique, but the availability of vegetarian food is not a problem. The following is a guide on vegetarian food in Bhutan.
Try these local dishes
The following dishes are local Bhutanese preparations and they also happen to be vegetarian.
Ema Datshi – This dish is the most iconic food of Bhutan. It is a unique dish of cheese and chilly. The chillies are first sliced and cooked in oil/butter with other ingredients like onion and garlic. Then cheese is added to the mixture and the dish turns into a creamy curry. The chillies might be spicy for some people, so it is recommended that you taste Ema Datshi before going all in.
Kewa Datshi – This dish is similar to Ema Datshi but the chillies are substituted with potatoes. The potatoes are sliced and cooked first before local cheese being added to the mixture. Kewa Datshi is less spicy than Ema Datshi.
Shamu Datshi – Keeping with the Datshi theme, the third variant that is vegetarian is called Shamu Datshi. It is mushroom with cheese. Again, the process of cooking is similar to the other two datshi dishes, mushrooms are cooked with onion/garlic and then cheese is added to make the dish into a creamy curry.
Red Rice Eue Chum – This is the well-known red rice of Bhutan. It is grown in the plains and has a unique nutty flavour. The texture is a bit more chewy than other types of rice. Eue Chum has plenty of minerals and fiber which helps with the digestion and is good for the health. People consume this dish throughout the day in Bhutan. This rice is best paired with a Datshi curry.
Momo – A classic dish in north-east India and Ladakh, momos are also found in Bhutan. These steamed dumplings are made using white wheat flour. They are usually stuffed with meat, but vegetarian momos can also be found. The vegetarian version will normally contain a cabbage filling. However, Carrots, potatoes, and soy are also used as fillings for vegetarian momos. A dish of momos with some spicy dipping sauce is truly a treat.
Khuli – These are buckwheat pancakes which are usually served during breakfast. Khuli is also knowns as Khurle.
Hoentay – This dish is very similar to Momo but it has a very different color. The dark brown color comes from buckwheat, which is what this dumpling is made of. Hoentay is stuffed with turnip leaves on the inside.
Suja – The traditional butter tea of Bhutan. Expect to be served Suja whenever you visit a local home. It is made by boiling tea leaves in yak or cow butter and then churned into a black-colored tea. The use of butter gives Suja a thick soup-like texture. Suja is normally served with puffed rice or millet (similar to Muri in India).
Jaju – Jaju is a type of soup in Bhutan. It looks like buttermilk. It is made from river weed (dried algae). You might be served Jaju with a Bhutanese thali.
Ezze – A chutney made of roasted minced red chillies, onions and tomatoes. Goes great with the Khuli pancakes, momos, and even rice dishes.
Doma – Doma is the paan of Bhutan. It is a betel nut or areca nut wrapped inside a betel leaf with some lime juice sprinkled on top. Doma is chewed after a meal.
Eat at these restaurants
The following restaurants in the major cities/towns of Bhutan are well-known for their vegetarian food.
Folk Heritage Museum – The Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu has a restaurant that serves authentic Bhutanese thali. You will begin the meal with Suja (butter tea), and then enjoy a variety of local dishes served in traditional wooden bowls. This is one of the few places that has Datshi with red chillies. Most places use green chillies. Red rice and khulee pancakes are also served. Perhaps the best place for authentic and local Bhutanese food. Plenty of vegetarian food available.
Ambient Cafe – This cafe is frequented by tourists and expats and has a very global vibe to it. The menu also reflects the clientele. You can order an Indian thali, breakfast items like waffles, pizzas, sandwiches, 40 types of teas, pakoras, wraps, and burgers at this cafe. The cafe is located in central Thimphu near the Clock Tower Square. Ambient Cafe is one of the best-known restaurants in Thimphu.
Hotel Druk Restaurant – One of the most famous hotels in Thimphu is Hotel Druk. It has a restaurant which serves pretty decent Indian, Indo-Chinese, and Bhutanese food. You can order a cheese momo, chilly paneer, north Indian staples, or go for Bhutanese food. The restaurant has three types of vegetarian Datshi dishes as well as red rice. Being a high-end (four-star) hotel, prices will be a little higher than the average food joint.
Gashel – If you crave dosa while in Bhutan, then head over to the restaurant of Hotel Ghasel. It is located opposite the Clock Tower Square in central Thimphu. Besides the dosa, the idlis, momos, and chaat receive positive reviews. The food here can be best described as Bhutanised Indian food. The restaurant makes pretty good Indian food with local ingredients and limited spices that are available in Bhutan.
Sonam Trophel Restaurant – If you want to eat local Bhutanese dishes, then this is your place. It is located on the main street. Find a seating upstairs and you will get a view of Paro town. Among the foods to try here, the momos and thukpa receive positive reviews. Sonam Trophel also has four types of Datshi dishes (Ema Datshi, Kewa Datshi, Shamu Datshi, and Hentsey Datshi).
Mountain Cafe – One of the best vegetarian cafes in Paro is the Mountain Cafe. Besides the usual sandwich-pizza fare, mountain cafe has sizzlers! Yes, you can enjoy vegetarian sizzlers in a cozy atmosphere at this cafe. Mountain Cafe uses homegrown ingredients for many of their dishes.
Champaca Cafe – Located in central Paro on the main road near the shopping area, Champaca Cafe is actually a cake shop which also serves food. Interesting items on the menu include fruit and plain lassis, vegetarian pakoras, and carrot cake. The coffees are also very good here.
The Park Hotel – Cafe Enjoy Indian food with a view of the Zangto Pelri Temple at The Park restaurant. This dining joint is part of the Park Hotel in Phuentsholing. You can order a thali or momos among many vegetarian options that are available here. Indo-Chinese food is also on the menu.
Zen Restaurant – Located in Upper Market Phuentsholing, Zen Restaurant serves Bhutanese food along with Indo-Chinese dishes. The veg thukpa, momos, and Ema Datshi are all great vegetarian options to order. The restaurant is not very far from Zangto Pelri Temple as well.
Centennial Hotel 2008 Restaurant – The Centenial Hotel, located about 200 meters from Zangto Pelri temple, has a restaurant with plenty of vegetarian options. You can get north Indian food, Indo-Chinese, Thukpa, and western food like sandwiches here. Breakfast items are also available.
Head over to a local market
Local markets will have fresh fruits and produce. Visiting a market is also a great way to experience the local lifestyle. You can try purchasing apples, apricots, and other locally grown fruits at the Centennary Farmers Market in Thimphu. You can try looking for persimmons (Amar Phal in India) if you have never eaten the fruit. It is rich in potassium and iron and has a unique taste.
In Paro, you can check out Sangay Om Tshongkhang, a supermarket with daily use items. You can buy bread, fruits, snacks, etc. here.
Resources for planning
You can use the following websites to explore restaurants and pick out your choices for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Zhimmey – This website is an excellent source for exploring restaurants in Thimphu, Paro, and Phuentsholing. The website even has menus from many of the listed restaurants for viewing. You can search for restaurants by cuisine, by meal (breakfast/dinner), and in other ways.