Chillies, a spicy affair in Bhutan


The Bhutanese love it hot.

No one knows when were chillies first introduced in Bhutan. There isn't any written records, and thus, that fact is lost to the pages of history. Unlike the potatoes, which we know were introduced by Scottish adventurer George Bogle during his 18th-century expedition to Bhutan. We can only assume that Bhutan being tucked between India and China, both major trading hubs in the past, chillies might have found their way to the Bhutanese palate through the trade of goods. Whatever the history may be, chillies are now a major part of the Bhutanese diet.

Ema-Hoem, Fresh Green Chillies

A visit to the local farmer’s market in Thimphu will greet you with multicolour display of the nation’s favourite vegetable, the chilli pepper. Fresh green chillies, blanched and dried yellow chillies, and dried red chillies are seen in almost every stall. During fall, the roofs of traditional Bhutanese houses can be seen covered with the fiery red peppers set out to be dried for the oncoming winter months when fresh chillies are out of season. Even in urban areas, you will see strings of chillies being dried out in the autumn sun outside the apartment windows.

For the rest of the world, chillies are considered more of a spicing agent to add some heat to a dish, but here in Bhutan, chillies get the unique distinction of being a vegetable used to make a variety of dishes. Almost all Bhutanese dishes require chilli as an essential ingredient. With chilli being one of the main ingredients consumed daily, it would make sense that the peppers themselves are not very spicy, but one couldn’t be more wrong as some of the peppers contain serious heat. 

Ema-Kam, Dried Chillies

The national dish of Bhutan is “Ema-Datsi” which literally means “chilli with cheese”. The dish is prepared with local chillies, onions and a generous helping of some fresh cottage cheese. It is best enjoyed with a bowl of red rice or with some buckwheat pancakes if you are in central Bhutan. 

Ema datshi recipe

Many variations ema datsi exist. If you add in some mushrooms, it becomes shamu-datsi (mushroom with cheese); add in some beans, it is called Semchum-datsi (Beans with cheese); cook it with potatoes, and it becomes Kewa-Datsi (Potatoes with cheese). A non-vegetarian version can be prepared by adding some dried beef jerky to create shakam-datsi. 

If you feel that’s not enough chilli for your meal, you can rejoice as chillies are served as a side dish in the form of “ezay”. It is more of a rustic dip prepared with finely chopped raw chillies, tomatoes, and red onions and then garnished with some salt, a sprinkling of cottage cheese and some crushed Sichuan pepper. Ezay is often served with red rice and butter tea as breakfast during traditional gatherings and ceremonies.

The Bhutanese joke that good chillies burn you in three places: the mouth, the stomach and the last in an area that is best left out of polite conversation. To accommodate tourists, the hotels usually serve a milder version of Bhutanese dishes. However, every now and then, an adventurous gastro-curious visitor will request for an authentic Bhutanese food experience that ends with the unfortunate diner in tears at the local restaurant. So, remember to exercise caution while starting your journey into Bhutanese cuisine if you are not used to spicy foods.

Ema-Shukam, Blanched Dried Chillies

Apart from being consumed, chillies also used to play a role in Bhutanese rituals. Like the esoteric practice of burning sage to purify an area, chillies were burned in the house to chase away unwelcome malevolent spirits that caused illnesses and misfortune to family members. 

(Warning!) We would like to caution you to stick to sage should you ever find yourself doing a cleansing ritual as burning chillies on an open flame creates a smoke that burns the eyes and causes episodes of violent sneezing; this will cause not only the exit of spirits from your house but also your pets, spouse and everybody else. 

As per the statistics, data collected from 2016 to 2020 show that the average chilli production in Bhutan per year is around 9350 metric tonnes (MT). However, this number falls short of the country wide demand for chillies; according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests’ Vegetable Research and Development Strategy 2023 to 2017, there is a deficit of 1124 MT of chillies. This deficit is covered by importing chillies from neighbouring India. It is evident that the burning demand for chillies won’t be going away anytime soon, and Bhutanese will be locked in this spicy affair for the foreseeable future.


Related Posts

In the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, are Bhutanese mostly...

Many foreigners perceive Bhutanese to be mostly vegetarians owing to its status as a Buddhist kingdom.

Apr 14, 2021 14:30

Relish Your Taste Buds With 8 Delectable Bhutanese Staple Food

One of the best places to try authentic Bhutanese cuisine is through a homestay, where you will get to sample what most...

Jan 19, 2020 21:08

Chunipa Losar: Bhutan's Timeless Celebration of Traditions and...

Chunipa Losar is a day of offerings, a moment when communities come together to express gratitude, seek blessings, and...

Jan 12, 2024 12:31

Bhutan's Time-Honored Tradition: Exploring the Nyilo Season and...

Approximately 750 children recently took part in the traditional practice known as "lolay" in Bhutan, marking the...

Jan 04, 2024 14:18

Balancing Dreams and Realities: An Attempt of a Bhutanese To Live...

Australia has long held an equally special allure for Bhutanese with a tantalizing prospect of the ‘Australian Dream’...

Oct 26, 2023 11:51

Crafting dreams in Laya: The carpenter settlers of the highlands

Laya, nestled in the Bhutanese highlands, is known for its stunning natural beauty and unique cultural heritage.

Sep 12, 2023 11:28



His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Visited Singapore And Shared About Gelephu Mindfulness City

On the 5th April 2024, Opera Gallery, an international gallery specializing in modern and contemporary art celebrated its 25th anniversary...

Apr 09, 2024 10:17

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Historic Visit to Bhutan: Strengthening Bonds and Building Partnerships

India's Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, arrived at Paro Airport for a two-day State Visit to Bhutan from March 22nd to 23rd, 2024.

Mar 24, 2024 10:20


Rifles and Rituals: Satire and Societal Shifts in Bhutan as Portrayed in 'The Monk and The Gun

Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose film "The Monk and the Gun" offers insight into the Himalayan nation's modernization process.

Feb 20, 2024 11:04

All You Need to Know About Gelephu Mindfulness City

The kingdom of Bhutan is planning to develop a "mindfulness city" covering about 2.5% of its land, which is larger than the size of...

Feb 08, 2024 10:42


Brand Bhutan: Karma Yangchen

Karma Yangchen, a distinguished artisan from Bhutan exemplifies a profound commitment to the art of handwoven textiles.

Dec 14, 2023 10:22

Brand Bhutan: Bhutan Herbal Tea

Bhutan Herbal Tea is the brainchild of two Bhutanese individuals who first crossed paths in New York during a Bhutanese New Year gathering...

Nov 25, 2023 13:56


Bhutan Cricket's New Milestone: The Inaugural Indoor Cricket Academy

The Bhutan Cricket Council Board (BCCB) inaugurated its inaugural indoor cricket academy on 20th December, with the objective of ensuring...

Dec 21, 2023 14:57

Paro FC Clinches Third Consecutive Victory in BOB Bhutan Premier League

Paro FC has once again claimed the BOB Bhutan Premier League championship, marking their third consecutive title victory during the season's...

Dec 12, 2023 10:26


Alii Palau Airlines Inaugural Flight From Singapore to Palau via Drukair

On November 23, 2023, Alii Palau Airlines made history with its inaugural flight to Palau.

Dec 04, 2023 10:32

Singapore to Palau: Alii Palau Airlines Launches Historic Route With Drukair

You can now visit the Palau Paradise directly from Singapore!

Oct 27, 2023 16:17


Chunipa Losar: Bhutan's Timeless Celebration of Traditions and Offerings

Chunipa Losar is a day of offerings, a moment when communities come together to express gratitude, seek blessings, and strengthen bonds.

Jan 12, 2024 12:31

Bhutan's Time-Honored Tradition: Exploring the Nyilo Season and the Lolay Ritual

Approximately 750 children recently took part in the traditional practice known as "lolay" in Bhutan, marking the beginning of the Nyilo...

Jan 04, 2024 14:18

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!