Authentic farm-to-table cuisine along the Trans-Bhutan Trail

Midway through the morning, Singay Dradul, my tour guide, and I made our way to Wangdue Phodrang’s lush valley. We had traveled from Pele La, one of Bhutan’s highest crossings at 3,407 meters, which divides the Buddhist Kingdom’s western and central regions. With the exception of a group of semi-nomadic yak herders who had just descended to lower elevations for the winter, we had hardly encountered anyone during the previous two hours of hiking.

The farmer waved at us as we passed by. “The Kuzuzangpo La (hello). Do you recognize my calf?” He questioned in Dzongkha, the indigenous tongue. It had vanished earlier in the day, and he worried that a pack of foxes had attacked it. or, worst still, a tiger.

For the previous few months, a female Bengal tiger had been prowling the area and attacking cattle, which had the local farmers on high alert. She had not been seen in the specific region where we were trekking, but I was still worried. Was she ready to pounce somewhere in the dense forest cover?

Fortunately, it was just a 30-minute drive to the village of Rukubji, where we would stop for a hearty farmhouse lunch. Thankfully, we left the forest behind as we walked through the open plains. I knew I was in good hands when I started my second day of hiking the 500-year-old Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) with Dradul.

The TBT was first used in the 16th century to carry kings, pilgrims, monks, traders, and legendary trail runners known as “garps,” who carried political messages to the dzongs (fortresses) all over the nation. The TBT, which at its height united villages into a country, had immense socioeconomic, political, and spiritual significance. The TBT, which spans 403 kilometers between the towns of Haa in the extreme west and Trashigang in the east, passes through 27 gewogs and nine dzongkhags in Bhutan.

Dechen Zangmo, the host, leads Singay Dradul on a hike close to a Bumthang farmhouse (Credit: Nicole Melancon)
Dechen Zangmo, the host, leads Singay Dradul on a hike close to a Bumthang farmhouse (Credit: Nicole Melancon)

The trail was abandoned as the primary route of travel in 1962 when Bhutan’s first national highway was built. Over time, due to poor trail maintenance, bridges, pathways, and stairways crumbled. His Majesty the King had the vision to revive the ancient trail after it had been neglected for 60 years in order to protect Bhutan’s distinctive past from the growing threat of modernization, which has all but forgotten the old trail’s heritage.

Dradul compared the TBT to a “living, walking museum” in his comment. “It is chock-full of tales, myths, and legends. If we don’t safeguard it, I’m afraid it’ll vanish soon.” It is hoped that locals, visitors, and future generations will use the TBT to go hiking, mountain biking, trail running, and, most importantly, connect with rural Bhutanese culture and history.


After 60 years, the Trans Bhutan Trail reopens.
Before the Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) opened in September 2022, Dradul was one of only two guides to travel the entire trail. He did this while serving as a trail inspector for the Trans Bhutan Trail organization, a non-profit social enterprise. Along the way, Dradul started building a network of farmhouses that invite visitors into their homes for meals and lodging, providing travelers with a unique view into rural life in Bhutan. Dradul and other tour guides are establishing a Trans Bhutan Trail Passport program with the help of the Trans Bhutan Trail organization, where travelers can get their trail passports stamped when stopping at participating farmhouses along the way. Currently, the kingdom has more than 60 “Passport Ambassadors” who welcome guests; the majority of them are women and are dispersed around the realm.

Local farmers share their history and traditions with tourists while serving them a traditional dinner as part of the Passport Ambassador program. Some entertain visitors with historic hot stone baths, while others do cooking demonstrations. Travelers can even spend the night for a more complete experience. In addition to empowering women to work in the tourism industry and earn a living wage, this grassroots cooperation gives visitors a rich cultural appreciation of some of Bhutan’s most isolated towns and people.

A hearty farmhouse meal in the community of Rukubji (Credit: Nicole Melancon)
A hearty farmhouse meal in the community of Rukubji (Credit: Nicole Melancon)

We were welcomed by Rinchen Dema, the owner, who lives in the traditional mud-rammed farmhouse in Rukubji with eight other members of her extended family. She has traditionally been in control of the household since her mother’s passing because she is the eldest daughter.

Dema poured us a hot cup of hot suja, a traditional butter tea that dates back to the 7th Century, and added, “It is excellent that you are here.” “The tiger just butchered a second cow in a nearby pasture. You should finish your hike for the day here.”

I slowly sipped my suja, allowing the strangely comforting flavor of yak butter, salt, and tea to warm my heart and allay any remaining tiger-related concerns. A short while later, Dema and her sisters arrived with plates overflowing with food and a giant bowl of red rice, laying them on the floor next to us. This is organically farmed food from our farm, including buckwheat pancakes, chicken curry, and jaju (a traditional Bhutanese soup made with spinach and milk). Dema stated.

The Bhutanese Forest Service actively tracks and monitors the positions of tigers along the TBT to maintain the safety of trekkers and communities. They shut down that part if there is a tiger nearby (like there was in Chendebji).

Dema gave me a fork as we sat on big, colorful floor cushions. To clean their hands, Dradul and the others took a little bit of rice and rubbed it between their fingers before starting to eat. I quickly learned that nobody eats in Bhutan with silverware other than tourists. I took a piece of the chicken curry and was astounded by how delicious and spicy it was. My appetite after our morning climb was satisfied by the robust and sumptuous lunch.

Our driver, Dorjee, took us on a tour of the Rukubji’s communal farm before taking us to our next destination, the town of Trongsa, where we would be spending the night. We weren’t going to climb on that day to the next village of Chendebji, nor was Dema going to visit her married sister, who lives 30 minutes away. “Living next to tigers poses a concern to farmers, especially now that a mother and cubs are there. But that is the way Bhutanese people live. a part of nature, “said Dradul.

In her farmhouse, Dechen Zangmo hosts visitors and conducts cooking lessons (Credit: Nicole Melancon)
In her farmhouse, Dechen Zangmo hosts visitors and conducts cooking lessons (Credit: Nicole Melancon)

Two days later, Dradul and I were in Bumthang, a region of Bhutan that is renowned for its pastoral environment, vibrant local culture, and holy historical pilgrimage sites. Bumthang is one of Bhutan’s most popular travel destinations. We reached Tang Bebzur, a small, isolated settlement with only a few houses, after trekking the TBT through rhododendron and pine forests and down into a fertile valley of buckwheat and potato farms. There, Dechen Zangmo, a woman and mother of two girls, welcomed us inside her farmhouse. Zangmo appeared considerably younger than her actual age while wearing a purple-and-white striped kira (a traditional Bhutanese dress) and a blue flannel top for added warmth.

After I took off my shoes and was given a cup of butter tea, Zangmo eagerly led me into her small kitchen and showed me how to make ema datshi, a traditional delicacy from Bhutan (chilli with cheese).

Zangmo explained this to me as she demonstrated how to separate the dried red chillies and combine them with butter and cheese in a saucepan. “In Bhutan, chillies aren’t used as a spice, but as a vegetable, as the main element,” she said. I was standing next to her when my eyes started to water as I noticed how spicily hot Bhutanese food is. Because they adore them so much, Bhutanese dry their chilies anywhere they can, including on rooftops, in windows, and on the ground.

Bhutanese dry chilies covering the ground, hanging from windows, and rooftops (Credit: Nicole Melancon)
Bhutanese dry chilies covering the ground, hanging from windows, and rooftops (Credit: Nicole Melancon)

Zangmo served me ema datshi, homemade margu, a chapati bread made with local buckwheat, and home-brewed ara, the regional wine produced all throughout rural Bhutan, to finish the dinner.

The nonprofit Trans Bhutan Trail, where I made my reservation, included a guide, a driver, hotel, trail itineraries, all meals, and Passport Ambassador visits to remote farmhouses. Every penny of the trip’s earnings goes toward maintaining the trail and the nearby towns.

Tshering Farmhouse in Paro can be reserved separately if you want to have a traditional hot stone bath, eat, or even stay the night without traveling the Trans Bhutan Trail. (+975 17 68 76 42).

“I had planned to welcome tourists into my farmhouse in 2018, but the pandemic struck and derailed my preparations,” said Zangmo. “Then, a guide from the TBT came to my home last year and extended an invitation to serve as an ambassador, which completely altered my life. I have the chance to contact with individuals from all around the world and learn new things in addition to earning some extra cash for my family.”

There was no more personal way to see Bhutan than when we sat cross-legged on the floor, conversing and enjoying the food we had just prepared together. I became aware of how fortunate I was to view the hidden gems that barely any tourists ever get to see.

Dradul escorted me to Thinley Yangzom’s home, a good friend who owns the Tshering Farmhouse in Paro, for my final night in Bhutan. Six generations have owned Yangzom’s farmhouse, and she is both a TBT ambassador and an organic agricultural business owner. I was to spend that evening as a distinguished guest of their zaa-tschang, which is Bhutanese meaning “family.”

I felt at peace as I stood in the kitchen and watched Yangzom make our feast of homegrown quinoa, pork and radish stew, pumpkin soup, and of course, cheese and chilli.

The Tshering Farmhouse is run by Thinley Yangzom in Paro (Credit: Nicole Melancon)
The Tshering Farmhouse is run by Thinley Yangzom in Paro (Credit: Nicole Melancon)

As the final visitor of the season on the Trans Bhutan Trail, I had just finished an unbelievable five days of hiking and had enjoyed a traditional hot stone bath. And right now I felt like I belonged in their zaa-tschang because I was conversing with Yangzom and playing with her two little children.

Embracing rural life, Country Rambles is a BBC Travel program that teaches viewers how to live more sustainably, get back in touch with nature, and take in the local culture.

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