Just before my pregnancy (my daughter is now 18 months old to give some perspective of how hairy life got!) we went on a 10 day trip to Bhutan to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Bhutan is India’s land locked neighbor and is supposed to be one of the happiest countries in the world – they actually have a “Gross National Happiness” measurement. Whether this is really true and practical is unknown to me, but the people we encountered in our travels were very friendly, unfailingly polite and smiling faces were aplenty. I had done my due diligence before heading over there and was really happy in terms of the foods we could eat.
We visited Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital city), Paro and Punakha (the cultural capital). The short duration of our visit did not allow us the luxury to visit the central highlands, which were very reportedly very beautiful.
Bhutan is famous for being in the foothills of the Himalayas amidst lush green mountains and valleys. Further upland are gorgeous snow capped peaks, but they cannot usually be seen during summer or foggy days. Also well known are their red and white monasteries, easy to spot amidst verdant scenery, always evoking a sense of calm when you encounter a Buddhist monk. Until a few years back, Bhutan was closed off to foreign visitors and only recently opened up her gates. Indians however, have always been able to visit for free due to close trade relations between the two countries.
Cheese and chillies – Bhutanese people simply love these items. Their spice tolerance levels are insanely high, for how else would they be able to consume spicy whole chillies smothered in a cheesy sauce? This dish is called Ema Datsi, Bhutan’s national dish. I didnt get a chance to try this dish and did get to try a different chilli dish, but I doubt I would have been able to stand the heat.
Thanks to Bhutan’s proximity to India, vegetarian food is easily available – a standard plate would include Bhutanese Red Rice, Dal, Vegetables and chili-based-condiments. Bhutanese red rice has a nutty, chewy quality and is exotic in the rest of the world! Contrary to what one may think, Bhutanese people aren’t vegetarians despite the overwhelming Buddhist presence. I doubt anyone besides the monks are religiously obligated to eschew meat. Beef dishes were widely sold, but a vegetarian & vegan can eat pretty well.
At the point, I would be remiss if I didnt talk about momos. Momos are dumplings are a favorite snack in northeast India, Nepal and Bhutan – ask for the vegetarian version, its usually vegan too. We had the crazy idea to go on a bus from India to Bhutan – my husband loves land crossings! It was a hot and humid day and we were packed in a tiny bus with half the legroom of a US domestic flight! It felt like an endless journey in an oven while the driver finally stopped for a lunch break on the Indian side – they had clean restrooms, fresh water to splash on ourselves and amazing momo’s – we quickly packed away three plates!
We wanted to replicate this momo experience in Bhutan proper, so one evening in Thimphu we walked around the busy downtown area and finally spotted a small hole in the wall restaurant open and bustling with life. We walked in, unsure of what we’d find and a bit conscious of being the only tourists. They had community tables and were mostly full. While we looked lost, two locals enjoying momos warmly invited us to share their table. They helped us order momos and we stuck up a conversation – one was an engineer and one was a football coach at a school. Over the next couple of days, they joined us for a mini sight seeing trip around Thimphu, gave us pointers on where to stay at Paro and Phuentsholing (border town with India) and took us to another hole in the wall favorite for more momos! Sadly, this time around I did not take notes on where we ate, but overall it was very accessible to find good veg food.
We absolutely loved our stay in Bhutan – our hike up the Tiger’s nest monastery was the highlight of our trip. So I leave you with this parting picture: