An Unexplored cuisine +Authentic local ingredients, discovering a Bhutanese culture through food
Bhutan an ethereal country geographically located between India & China, was closed to the world till the 70s, before people from other countries could travel there, it is still a largely undiscovered place, traveling there means that you sometimes don’t see a soul for hours, you can disappear in to it’s remote valleys and deep forests. And eat simple food organically grown, pure and untouched with recipes that are unchanged & original with almost no influence, made with foraged ingredients and with .
Read here: My Travel guide to Bhutan
The Lébu Supper: Bhutanese Table in association with Openout was inspired from my travels to probably one of the most unexplored countries on earth, the breathtaking beauty, the remote valleys were all part of the inspiration. Guests were taken on a journey to discover new flavours, taste chillies and cheese brought in all the way from Bhutan, unlock new tastes and most of all to understand an ancient culture through food.
An unique food experience in Bangalore that uncovered the unexplored cuisine of Bhutan created with local ingredients from Bhutan & India. The menu was inspired by traditional recipes passed down generations of local Bhutanese families & small family run restaurants.
On my first day in Bhutan, in the capital city of Thimpu, I found myself sitting in a very small restaurant trying to interpret images & words in an unknown language. I was trying to write down my lunch order in a small notebook that the waitress had set down in front of me grudgingly, probably because I had hesitated to order even after 15 minutes of sitting down unlike the other patrons who casually strolled in and seem to know what to order almost immediately.
I looked at the short laminated menu in front of me with pixelated images that would never make it to a food magazine, and nothing looked familiar. The lack of access to the internet and the fact that the waitress was y hovering over me did not give me much chance to decide. The small obscure restaurant nestled between a house entrance and a pharmacy is called ‘Kalden’ ,and had been highly recommended by the distinguished man who manages Hotel Druk at the centre of the town. It's a place where only locals go , where he and his employees eat at least thrice a week. It’s perfect, it’s the kind of place which I actively seek out, it look likes someone’s living room, with fewer than six seatings. A curtain at the end of the room opens and closes for the waitress to bring over the food from the kitchen. The other patrons were dressed neatly & rather formally, most in the national dress of Gho (for men) & Kira (for women) whereas I was still in my airplane clothes, tired and very hungry.
Other people looked like they had stopped for lunch between work, but the most amusing thing for me is was that no one was rushed. I had spent the last decade of my life living a fast paced life in Bombay and in Bangalore, so this was new for me; enjoying a meal at a leisurely pace without any need to be anywhere else. I started looking at the menu and tried to remember from my online search what each dish name meant but could remember nothing.
I gestured to the guy sitting behind an old wooden desk, taking payments and asked him to recommend a beef based dish. In that exact moment I remember a dish called “Shakam Paa”-, which is dried beef with red chillies dunked in butter and cow milk cheese. I ordered some ‘Ema Datshi’ to go with it; which is red or green chillies cooked with cheese , all of this is accompanied by red rice ,organically grown. Almost everything in Bhutan is organically grown, every piece of produce or plant.
The food comes to my table with a generous helping of buttermilk , not unlike what we have in India. The beef in the ‘Shakam Paa” is chewy and soft at the same time, it tastes like beef jerky, a little spicy & all swimming in a rich concoction of butter & heavy cheese. And so my first bite in Bhutan tastes like nothing that I have ever tasted before , I have no reference , my palate is refreshed , locks in a new taste, to be stored away as a blissful memory. I was not one to cook with cheese much at that point of my life and a lot of my forays are limited to sandwiches, pizzas and pasta sometimes. How was I to know that cheese can enhance the taste of a protein. The second bite , I smeared with well more chillies and cheese that is ‘Ema Datshi’ which is unofficially the national dish of Bhutan, and the Bhutanese eat it with every single meal and in my limited time there whether in restaurants or homes of locals, and it was made fresh every time. The smell was heavenly, the cheese is almost always home made made with cow’s milk as I found. I am in love, I took out my phone to take a less than perfect picture of the dish , it’s hard to care about a photo when your meal tastes like that. I liked beef for the first time in my life.
As I sat in that small two person table with the sunlight streaming in I felt satiated and exhausted. My soul felt good which is exactly what I needed. My first meal in Bhutan, was the perfect precursor to the 4 hour long nap that I took, back in my Hotel room. I got up late, the sun had gone down long ago. I wandered the streets of Thimpu , not really hungry, wandered into a quite coffee shop, order a vietnamese coffee and felt like a tourist , I talked to my husband for sometime, I felt a tug in my heart , and missed him a lot. I came out, took out my guide book and read about a small eating place where alcohol was available. I walked, not knowing where to go, I saw what looks like an old style mall with lots of shops , a sign with the restaurant lead to a basement, I walked in. I sat down and order a beer and another life changing pork based dish this time called ‘.Phaksha Paa’. My first night in Bhutan came to an end. I felt like I belonged.
Bhutan left a very strong impression on me both for its natural beauty and with its food. The food is simple and most of it is organically grown. So, I went to the local market, amongst the heaps of beautifully coloured vegetables, dried fish, lots of lots of dried vegetables, cheese and giant mounds of blood sausages hanging from the ceiling. Amongst this hustle bustle, and knowing not even one word of the language I haggled with the sellers and brought back one of the most underrated types of chillies, red and green, yak milk cheese, fresh fat bulbs of pink garlic and dried vegetables. After coming back home to Bangalore I immediately pickled most of the ingredients to preserve them.
I knew that I had to share the incredible food from this beautiful little known country , with other people. So, I created my first ‘Bhutanese Table’ - a food pop-up where people could taste the incredibly simple but delicious dishes from this region. I drew from my taste memories and re-created recipes from my time living with a family in a remote village in the Haa valley in Bhutan and from all the eating I did in small family restaurants in my time there. I couldn’t bring all the produce from Bhutan of course like the Beef or Pork but I used the chillies, the cheese, garlic and the dried vegetables.
I created my favourite dishes and 12 people came to our home to share a lunch with my husband & I. We enjoyed a beautiful meal and appreciated the new flavours and I took them through what travelling in Bhutan really meant, how it is one of those place that ends up changing a little bit in you.
Menu for the Lébu Suppers: Bhutanese Table
1. Ema Datshi
Local Bhutanese red or green chillies with local cheese from Bhutan's Haa valley(the most fav)
Thinly sliced potatoes cooked with cheese & butter
4.Shakam Shukam Datshi:
Beef cooked with local bhutanese dried white chillies & cheese and local organic dried vegetables from Bhutan
Bhutanese chicken stew made with locally grown organic garlic
Bhutanese chilli sauce made with pickled hot red chillies
Butter tea, made with boiling tea leaves with butter & salt
Ever had Bhutanese food? It is an unexplored cuisine from an largely unexplored country. Bhutanese cuisine is characterised by chillies, oh such beautiful, aromatic, flavourful chillies.
Look out for other Lébu Suppers.
Lébu suppers are a series of pop-up suppers often inspired by travels, inspired by local & international cuisines but always made with local & often indigenously grown ingredients, all in intimate settings. To be invited to the next one, subscribe to the mailing list here or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Invite to suppers’.