Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mouth on fire!! Hot, hot, hot!!

O
I found this photo of ema-datshi, Bhutan's national dish, on Flickr.  Looks yummy
but looks can be deceiving.  Read on!
ne of my favorite things about travelling is tasting all the different foods. Secretly, I like many people I know, would love to have Anthony Bourdains' job - globetrotting and stuffing my face as I go along.

I pretty much eat (or at least try once) everything and I mean everything.  I truly enjoy tasting the local cuisines wherever I go. So far, the only foods I can't tolerate are raisins and after my trip to Mongolia, mutton which has now made it on the list of food items that I would jettison off the planet Earth if I only could. 

Every trip I go on, I try to read up a bit about the cuisine of the country beforehand because I'm just curious about what people eat. Given its geographic location, squashed between India and China, I had imagined that Bhutanese cuisine would be very similar to Nepalese food with hint of Tibetan - so curries, momos, yak meat, yak butter tea, thugpas, etc. Lo and behold, after doing some reading, I've learned that that's pretty much the fare.  I enjoyed the food I had in Nepal which was a milder version of Indian food.  Tibetan fare is pretty bland and yak cheese is not one of my favorites but it's tolerable.

The one thing that distinguishes Bhutanese cuisine from either Nepalese or Tibetan food is that Bhutanese are obssesed with chillis so the food is extra, extra, extra spicy hot!! In fact, the national dish of Bhutan is something called *ema-datshi*, a fiery concoction of green peppers and yak cheese that is indigenous to the country.  Ema is the word for chilli and datshi the word for cheese.  Yes, chilli cheese stew is their national dish.  Oh boy.  I love spicy food but will I meet my limit in Bhutan?

Sometimes transliterated as ema-datsi or ema-datse, ema-datshi is eaten in Bhutan almost daily, often accompanied by Bhutanese red rice.


In Bhutan, I soon realized that blistering-hot chilies are the essential ingredient, probably because they raise body temperatures in the cold Himalayan climate. It's not uncommon to see whole families sweating enthusiastically over their ema datsi. And that's just breakfast.

Actually, breakfast, lunch and dinner are pretty much the same in Bhutanese homes. Heaping plates of chilies, cheese and potatoes. The signature ema datsi, made with chilies cut as thin as string beans, smells and tastes like jalapenos and Velveeta, and you eat it with your fingers. Butter tea, made with yak butter, has a sweet, heavy feel, kind of a hot milkshake. As for the ferns, they're green, stringy fiddleheads, curled like tiny sea horses. Boiled to slimy doneness, they tasted like spinach crossed with asparagus. But they felt healthy and weren't too bad over Bhutanese red rice.

Emily Wax;  Washington Post


There are some pretty obssessed ema-datshi fans out there - there's even a Facebook page dedicated to it!

The species of chilli used in Bhutan is Capsicum onum, a fluffy red variety. Who would have thought that this nation that is more for its reputation as a serene, mystical land is actually filled with a bunch of hardcore chilli heads? I've seen pictures of chillies are spread all over the place – on the roadsides, on rooftops and on the courtyards.

The recipe for making ema-datshi is pretty simple.  It goes something like this.  Take a bunch of fresh red or green chillis and cut them into lengthwise strips.  Leave the seeds in.  Throw into a pan along with some garlic and onion.   Season with a bit of salt.  Smash up cubes of yak cheese and soften in hot water.  Mash the cheese and mix with the chillis.  Voilà!  Ema-datshi.  Serve with rice and plenty of water to douse out the flame that will surely ignite in your mouth as you down this national obsession.

Fortunately, Bhutanese are also rice heads.  Normal consumption is a staggering 5 kilograms (12.5 lbs) per person  per week.  Considering their obsession with ema-datshi, I can see why so much rice is eaten!!  Rice is the only crop cultivated so it finds its way to the dinner table in various forms - usually rice with curry or curry with rice or rice with curry.  I get the picture :-)

Two categories of rice are used in Bhutan. The urban areas including Thimpu, Paro and Phuntsholing use the white rice while the rural population use the red rice (the grained variety). Rice based delicacies include something called *desi*, a tasty mixture of white rice, butter, sugar, golden raisins and saffron and *zow* or fried rice mixed with sugar, butter and sometimes oilseeds.

Throw in some yak meat, yak butter tea and you've got a meal!

Yeah, it's going to be interesting eating in Bhutan. :-)