Traditional Food and Food Grains of Kheng region


Zhemgang district lies in the south-central part of Bhutan and it is divided into eight gewogs. Each village and community in Bhutan have developed a distinct food habit as a result of mountainous topography. For instance, in Buli village under Nangkor gewog, besides rice and Kharang (coarse-milled corn), people used to prepare these traditional foods such as run toh (fox tail rice), brangja toh (type of millet), and dhamroo toh (Elatostema rice). Nowadays, these traditional foods are hard on the daily menu because of imported food products from India and Thailand. Today, people prepare such traditional dishes only during special occasions like Losar, annual rituals, and festivals.


Many communities have developed food cultures that are different from region to region because of mountainous terrain. In eastern Bhutan, kharang is the main staple crop and in western Bhutan, rice is the staple food. Whereas people living in high altitudes such as Bumthang and Haa grow bitter buckwheat, sweet buckwheat, wheat and barley, and in the south and central Bhutan, millet, and maize are the main food crops.

Khengrig Namsum (three regions of Kheng) was once a remote district in the country, and this remoteness created distinct cultures and traditions, including food habits. People in the Kheng region depended on their immediate environment to grow crops that are suitable for their climatic conditions. Moreover, the district lies in the sub-tropical region and the lush forest also provides wild fruits and edible vegetables. But due to modernization, lifestyle and food habits have changed. For example, millet was once an important food crop not only for the people of Kheng but also for the people of eastern and southern Bhutan. But now people buy imported rice and vegetables from the neighboring country, and most people have stopped preparing these traditional dishes: run toh—cooked foxtail millet, bandhar toh—cooked quinoa, dhamroo toh—rice cooked with Elatostema, and cree toh—rice cooked with beans

 Run Toh or Cooked Millet

Runtoh is a foxtail millet of Kheng. Millet was once popular in Kheng because of the sturdy nature of millet, it could grow in poor weather conditions. To prepare runto, first millet has to be de-husked by pounding in Lheu (traditional wooden motor and pestle). Then, the husk is removed by winnowing and the millet is ready for cooking. The traditional method of cooking is adding millet to a pot of boiling water. It takes approximately fifteen minutes to cook and then it is cooked for another 10 to 15 minutes on low flame. Today, people use rice cookers to cook millet. Runtoh is usually served with vegetables, or ema datsi (chilli dish).

According to oral sources, people in the Kheng region have stopped growing millet, and preparation of runtoh is almost like a past history. People no longer cook this traditional dish for daily consumption because of the availability of cheap and imported rice in the market. This millet grain is cooked and served only at special events like an annual ritual, festivals, or when there is a special guest. But some families do grow millet for self-consumption and it is cultivated in the month of May and harvested in October.

Bandhar Toh or Cooked Quinoa

Bandhar (Quinoa) is also one type of grain that is grown in Zhemgang. Bandar is cultivated in the month of June and harvested in November. Bandar toh is the special food of Kheng. First, bandhar (Quinoa) is de-husked by pounding in Lheu (traditional wooden motor and pestle). Then, the husk is winnowed and the millet is ready for cooking. It is cooked for 20 minutes in boiling water. Today, people use rice cookers to cook quinoa. The taste of bandar is a little bit sweet and it is eaten with ema datsi, or mushroom datsi, or potato datsi, etc.

Bandar toh is also prepared during important occasions like an annual rituals and served to a special guests. This food grain provides a wholesome and healthy meal, but people have stopped growing this grain.


Bhutan is home to a rich list of wild plants that are used as food. Elatostema linoleum which is known as dhamroo in the local language is a wild edible green vegetable. It grows in abundance in the warm and damp area, and most people prepare green soup out of dhamroo. But people in Kheng prepare a different dish called dhamaroo toh. Dhamroo green is chopped into small pieces and cooked together with rice, it is considered to be good for health. People say that during the shortage of rice, people used to cook dhamroo toh with other food items like millet and maize. Now, people do not cook dhamraoo toh, even though it is considered good for health. Probably, the perception is that it was eaten during a food shortage, and perhaps it is considered to be poor people’s diet. This dhamroo toh goes well with any veg and non-veg curry.


In Zhemgang, every region has its own unique dietary culture and traditional dishes. Earlier, these foods and grains like run toh, bandhar toh, dhamroo toh, and cree toh were once a prominent Khengpa diet. Over the years, people have stopped growing these food grains, and the traditional dishes are not cooked for daily consumptions. These dishes are cooked and served only on important occasions and festivals, or to important guests. The food habits have changed because of the easy availability of imported food grains in the market.  In the name of globalization and development, lifestyle, traditional culture, and values are constantly changing, and our traditional way of life and food habits are slowly eroding. Therefore, historians and writers need to capture and document the traditional way of life and food habits of our country to show our distinct way of life to posterity and also to the outside world.


Chezom. 44, Ngangla Trong

Karma Chophel, 34, Ngangla Trong Tshogpa


Dechen Tshering, Associate Lecturer, CLCS, Takste, Royal University of Bhutan, 2019

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