Taste of the thunder dragon: An authentic Bhutanese meal

Seasonality and sustainability are operational words; the ingredients of all meals come from the restaurant’s local garden and family-owned livestock

author_img Rupali Dean Published :  19th February 2023 04:30 PM   |   Published :   |  19th February 2023 04:30 PM
Bhutanese dishes; Babesa signboard

Bhutanese dishes; Babesa signboard

It’s not food that comes to mind at the mention of Bhutan. Instead, it’s the trek up Tigers Nest and Dochu La. Or the many monasteries that dot the landscape and national parks teeming with wildlife. Tasting the national dish ema datshi, a chilli stew in a cheesy broth is hardly ever on the agenda. But an authentic Bhutanese meal is a must-have experience in this tiny Himalayan country; the Bhutanese take their eating seriously—lunch breaks are long and savoured. Like at Babesa, a popular restaurant on the outskirts of Thimphu, patronised by visitors and locals alike.

Reservations are not a thing in Bhutan. But at Babesa, book a table before the visit. Pre-ordering food will ensure you don’t have to wait too long for your order to arrive. Seasonality and sustainability are operational words; the ingredients of all meals come from the restaurant’s local garden and family-owned livestock.

On the menu are assortments of datshi (cheese). Given that even mildly spiced curries can leave many eaters gasping for air, Bhutan’s de facto national dish, ema datshi is an adventure in itself. The piquancy of the dish changes according to the season, but the umami-laden brew is worth tasting. The less adventurous diner can opt for the scrumptious kewa datshi with potatoes, chillies, cheese and onions. Sikam paa (air-dried pork), Nakey paa (boiled fiddlehead ferns), mengay (the first harvest rice mixed with egg, butter, perilla seeds and garlic) and gondu (crispy fried egg with local greens) are exotic fare not known outside the kingdom. Bhutanese food is heavily cheese-oriented, but a meal is never complete without some vegetables on the side. The chilli cheese noodles and fried spinach are recommended. Slow eating is appreciated in this land where the rhythm of life is unhurried—lingering over your food won’t invite any looks from the waiter.

The ambience is a sufficient reason to visit Babesa. The bane of greedy builders tearing down ancient buildings to make ‘modern’ ones has infected Bhutan too. The owner of Babesa, Tashi Wangchuk,
however, is having none of that. The restaurant is his family house, which has been refurbished. The aesthetic of this three-storey century-old farmhouse has been retained while adding modern conveniences such as restrooms and glass windows to let in natural light. Babesa’s interiors resemble a museum. Its pastoral theme with vintage displays gives travellers the experience of dining in a traditional farmhouse. After the meal, walking off the cheese by strolling around the Norzim Lam, Thimpu’s commercial district is recommended for losing some currency calories.

The restaurant focuses on customary Bhutanese cuisine and its forte is augmented by serving their food in traditional wooden bowls, plates and woven baskets as you sit around the long low tables with cushions on the floor that encourage communal plating (chair seating is available as well). But panache does not herald substance here. The wooden bowls designed for partaking are as beautiful in presentation. If you would like to dig deep into the artefacts, you can pre-book a tour with the owner.

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