Sometimes, life just brings the unexpected – never have I ever expected myself to learn about the Bhutanese culture from the management team of DrukAir over an authentic, home-cooked meal by Chef Sonam Tshering of Chh’a Bistro & Bar in Bhutan!
Having wanted to visit Bhutan since young, I was stoked to be offered the rare opportunity to not only learn more about the country’s culture and customs, but also to try their cuisine, cooked almost entirely with ingredients brought over from Bhutan – it doesn’t get more authentic than that!
To start off, we all clinked glasses filled with natural Bhutanese honey water, a refreshing drink that cooled me down from the Singapore heat. Turns out that this would be one of the only sweet things I had throughout dinner as I came to learn that the Bhutanese didn’t favor sweetness in their diet – I found this pretty interesting (and hard to believe!) with my borderline-problematic sweet tooth.
Now to the actual meal – our first dish was the Sisi Shamu Soup, which was a Bhutanese chanterelle (a type of fungus) soup with popped rice. This made for a really light start to the meal – for a quick comparison, I would say it tasted like a diluted cream of mushroom soup with some added texture from the popped rice. Although this was more to the bland side, I found myself enjoying this as it didn’t weigh me down for the many other dishes we had throughout dinner.
Like in most Asian cultures, in Bhutan, all the dishes are typically served at the same time such that you eat everything together, creating a very ‘homey’ and intimate vibe over dinner. This Cucumber Hogay was the only one served separately, since it acted more as a cold appetizer. Once again, this was a very light dish – the unique cucumber taste was accentuated by the combination of cottage cheese and Szechuan pepper, which left your mouth with that distinct, numbing feeling.
Now onto the more flavorful dishes. One of these was the Shikam Paa, ‘shikam’ literally translating into dried pork. Here’s an interesting fact for you – because the majority of the Bhutanese population worked on fields, they required a lot of energy to sustain themselves through all the manual labor. Therefore, they intentionally bred their pigs such that their fat content reached 90%! How did they do this? They fed them marijuana such that the pigs would sleep throughout the day. This is also why their pigs are commonly termed the happiest pigs on earth – what a life, right?!
Accompanied by a bed of dried turnip leaves, the pork actually tasted really good. However, I would say that those with a more health-conscious mindset wouldn’t be able to enjoy this as much, since the 90% fat content definitely isn’t for everyone. If you could get past that, the pan-fried pork carried the essence of meat that many of us fail to acknowledge nowadays given the a strong shift towards consuming leaner meat.
Another meat dish we had was the Shakam Paa, which was dried beef cooked with dried red chillies. As you may probably have figured out already, ‘kam’ means ‘dried’ in Bhutanese, and this was a recurring theme throughout the meal. Historically, the population had to carry their own lunches to the fields using bamboo containers, which explains their inclination to cook dishes that didn’t come with that much sauce. In terms of the dish itself, this tasted a lot like beef jerky.
Even though the beef was dried up, it wasn’t tough and un-chewable at all as I initially worried. Instead, the distinct taste of beef really came through in this, and the chillies added an extra kick to this dish.
Halfway through the dinner, we were served some local Bhutanese beer, so I thought halfway through this post was a good point to introduce this drink as well! I’m no expert on beer, but I would say this beer had a sweetish undertone to it that really appealed to me. Another interesting story for you – the owner of the microbrewery that creates this beer is a Swiss national, who in creating the brand had some difficulties in choosing a name for it. Coincidentally, he saw a red panda one day, and that was how the name of the brand came along – simple!
Now back to the meal. What’s a meal without some color? The Ema Datshi, a Bhutanese chili compote with cheese, onions and tomatoes, definitely added vibrancy to the table. Sometimes, simple is the best way to go – even though I’m not a huge fan of peppers/chillies, I really enjoyed this dish, as the chillies really soaked up the flavors from the onions and tomatoes.
I would say this Kewa Datshi was the most familiar dish to our palates, since it resembled a lighter and healthier version of potato au gratin, and therefore became one of the favorites among the dinner party. Essentially, this was just simmered potatoes cooked with cheese, but unlike potato au gratin, because the dish didn’t have the cream component, it didn’t feel heavy at all.
All these dishes was served with Bhutanese Steamed Red Rice. Typically only eaten during special occasions, the medium-grain rice found exclusively in the kingdom of Bhutan carried a subtle grainy flavor that paired really well with the rest of the dishes – most of us helped ourselves to second servings!
To end the dinner, we had what was easily the most interesting dessert I’ve eaten in my life. This was Dried Yak Cheese cooked with Butter and Sugar, a dessert served in only two regions of Bhutan. Interestingly enough, the yak cheese doesn’t resemble our typical cheese at all. In terms of its texture, it was surprisingly tough – so tough that apparently it was a replacement for gum in the country.
Taste-wise, the cheese was very mild, with the focus therefore being the butter and sugar, once again proving that the Bhutanese really didn’t need that much sugar in their diets.
Throughout the meal, we had a chance to learn about the many different types of spices/chillies that the Bhutanese used in their cuisine. The gold-colored chili in the picture above is called ‘white chili,’ and in fact was originally derived from the red chili right next to it. However, because of all the processes required to give it that distinct color, it costs significantly more than its red counterpart, and is only served during special occasions.
Meanwhile, the cute little red and green chillies also pictured are considered one of the spiciest chillies in the world (don’t let looks deceive you!) – so spicy that we were offered a free trip to Bhutan if anyone could finish one chili whole. Unfortunately, I was too weak to take on that challenge.
Trying Bhutanese food undoubtedly reinforced my desires to visit Bhutan, not only because I enjoyed how simple every dish was, but also because I really admired how even their cuisine communicates the country’s fundamental goal of preserving their own unique culture and traditions amid a time of rapid globalization.
I truly hope that one day, I’ll be able to hop on the life-sized version of this cute table centerpiece and fly off into the Happiest Country in Asia.
For now though, you have the chance to learn more about this country as well (and to win a 4D3N trip to Bhutan for 2 worth S$8,600!) at the Discover Breathtaking Bhutan Travel Fair hosted by DrukAir at ION Orchard!
Featuring a photography exhibition, live demonstrations of Bhutanese loom weaving and a chance to sample some culinary delights, the travel fair will go on from now until 30 October, so head on over and get inspired for your next vacation!
Discover Breathtaking Bhutan Travel Fair
Address: Basement 4, ION Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, Singapore 238801
Telephone: +65 6338 9909