Far-Flung Asia: Bhutan, Myanmar, and More

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
May 1, 2014

We took a broad look at the list of 2014 James Beard Nominees to see if there were larger trends afoot in the food world. Turns out there were. Here, we present What’s Happening In Food Right Now. Yesterday: Midwestern food gets its moment in the sun. Today: There’s more to Asian cuisine than pad thai.

Red peppers in morning street market, Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo credit: Hiroshi Uzu / Getty Images

There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald’s and Burger Kings put together. The Walgreens across from our offices has a sushi bar in it. And every city—major or minor—has its local Thai joint. But what about the cuisines of Asian countries beyond China, Japan and Thailand? They’re gaining more popularity, that’s for sure. Here’s a rundown of some of the major flavors and ingredients in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, and Laos. 

Still exempt from McDonald’s and Starbucks, “things are so simple” in Bhutan, says chef Vikas Khanna, whose cookbook Return to the Rivers: Recipes and Memories of the Himalayan River Valleys is nominated for a James Beard Award.

Bhutanese tends towards yak cheese, which Khanna says is an acquired taste. “It’s so strong.” And when writing a recipe that originally included yak cheese, “I had to combine blue, gorgonzola, and Gruyere—nothing matched it.” The national dish, emadashi, is fondue-like melted yak cheese with chilis. Lots of chilis. “They see chilis as a vegetable, not a condiment or spice.”

That’s the first thing Khanna noticed about Bhutan: the chilis. We know them as Sichuan peppers, but in Bhutan they call it timur. “You’ve had it, and associate it with China, but I swear to God there’s nothing so fragrant [as timur in Bhutan].”

Bhutanese red rice is expensive outside of Bhutan but so worth it that he serves it at his New York City restaurant Junoon. “It’s peculiar smelling—almost floral, and also like the first rain on a dry sand.” And they’ve been making buckwheat noodles for centuries. “They have a huge communal press, much like a garlic press, in the middle of the village and they put the dough inside the machine and press it.”

Finally, almost every house has an apple tree. “You just go steal from your neighbor’s tree if you want; everyone does it.”

Nepal overlaps with Indian cuisine so much that Khanna trekked himself to the far northwest region in search of uniquely Nepalese food.

“The use of greens is phenomenal,” he says. Fermented greens called ghundruk are very popular: “When you go to someone’s house, you take homemade ghundruk with you.”

Also preserved: meat. “They have a big concept of preserving meat, and make it in large quantities” all together in the center of town. (There’s less energy above the tree lines and cooks need to capitalize on its rare use.) The main way to do this, a dish they call bhutuwa massu, is to cook the meat low and slow and with lots of chilis and vinegar. “It’s totally not Indian,” says Khanna.

It’s a misconception, says Khanna, that being Buddhist means you are also a vegetarian. “His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] isn’t even a vegetarian!” Tibetans eat a lot of beef, he says, which they primarily cook alongside daikon and potatoes and season with timur. “Now that the Chinese are trading, they have more options, but daikon and potatoes are still the two most important vegetables there.”

“The heart and soul of Tibet” is butter tea, says Khanna, which is almost exactly what it sounds like: tea, brewed normally, and then served with a float of yak butter and Himalayan salt. “It is hard to drink initially—it’s so strong!—but it’s the best thing Tibet taught me.”

Finally: tsampa. “They live on this,” says Khanna. It’s roasted and ground barley, and it makes a dark flour that Tibetans mix with water and eat with their hands. “This really is their lifeline,” says Khanna. “If you ever visit a Buddhist country, the first ritual begins with a pinch of tsampa, thrown into the air. It’s that sacred of an ingredient.”

Khanna says Myanmar is rich in seafood. “In Tibet, I had fish maybe twice in three months—imagine that. In Burma, though, fishing is a very big thing.” And fishermen, he says, make stock with the bones that they sometimes eat three times a day: for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As far as the meat of the fish, Khanna saw it mostly fried, using rice flour to get a good crust, and served with “very sophisticated” toppings. “If you are sitting on the street side trying to have breakfast, they give you so many toppings!” he said. “You get peanuts, sprouts, pickles, cabbages, chilis… I was very impressed.”

Meat was most often cooked on the bone—“it very much tastes like [meat in] India, but lighter”—and almost everything gets a dose of lime juice or a smattering of leaves. Durian, though, Khanna couldn’t stomach. ”I still haven’t found my love for durian.”

"The food in northern Laos is unlike anything I have encountered. It’s not Chinese, nor Thai, nor Vietnamese, nor French—though it reminds you somewhat of all those things," writes Elizabeth Gilbert in her article on Luang Prabang in Outside magazine, which is nominated for a James Beard journalism award for best personal essay. “Laos has a different geography than the rest of Southeast Asia, and so they eat differently there.”

"Luang Prabang is mountainous, isolated, rugged, and the food reflects that—venison and wild boar, river fish and mysterious herbs. We had a stew…" "It was a slow-cooked potage of buffalo meat and local vegetables with the oddest and most surprising ingredient—a sizable chunk of wood, like a small piece of kindling, boiled right into the mix. We asked our waiter about this strange addition, and he told us that the wood was a chip of bark from a local tree whose flesh was permeated by a strong, mentholated oil. We were instructed to suck on the wood when our stew was finished, and to trust… and so we did. The long-boiled wood released a spicy explosion into our mouths—something sort of pepperminty, sort of cinnamony, sort of pine-pitchy…"