Friday, March 27, 2009

Cooking Bhutanese, where chili is a vegetable

Chilies are ubiquitous in South Asian vegetable dishes. But in Bhutan, chili is the vegetable. Enter ema datshi, or emma datschi (literally, "chili cheese") dubbed as the national dish of Bhutan. A dish made only on chili and cheese and nothing else sounds downright philistine, it is taunting at me. So, this I have to try.

Emma datschi, Bhutanese chili cheese (recipe).

The first ingredient, as one might expect, is chili peppers. Many recipes are tolerant on the type of peppers to use, but the close equivalent to Bhutanese green peppers is jalapeños. The Bhutanese are crazy about chili that it's integral in any Bhutanese cuisine. Toddlers are encouraged to have a little heat by the elders. Obviously, chilies are not native for Himalayans, but they are warmly welcomed like tomatoes for Italians. One theory says that the Portuguese brought chilies to Goa, home of the Vindaloo (the more famous Indian hot curry adaption of Carne de Vinha d'Alhos) and they rapidly spread North. Nowadays the spice is grown so much everywhere in Bhutan that the fresh air is hinted with chili.

Chilies by lightmeister.
Chili drying is seen everywhere in Bhutan. Courtesy of lightmeister.

The second ingredient, yak cheese, is impossible to acquire. Forget about finding it in any store, it is only available in Bhutan. Several recipes subsitute it with feta cheese, but convincing arguments are found that yak cheese tastes like, to my surprise, Danish blue cheese, of all cheeses. Also, Danablu has a mild yet exotic taste, while feta may be too close to other familiar dishes.

The basic recipe is really just chili and cheese, but this credible recipe calls for a few more unomittable ingredients, such as turmeric, ginger and lemon zest. Ema daschi is then served with Bhutanese red rice, here substituted by Thai red rice. Curiously, to simulate the taste in the Himalayas, the ingredients are gathered from different parts of the world. Then, Bhutanese cuisine is one of the simplest to cook: "Water, butter, boil!"

Basic ingredients: green chili, blue cheese.

Butter, or a form of ghee, is another fascination of the Bhutanese. While in general I don't find a huge repertoire of spices, butter is prominent in all dishes. To satisfy both craving for chili and butter, there are even buttered chili skewers, and that's already a snack.

So back to the ema daschi, is it just a masochistic dish, or a treat? Reviews about ema daschi are fascinated with its heat. But actually going beyond the burning sensation, I could pick out the multitude of flavors of chili in its entirety like, say, I do with green beans. Combined with the cheese, it's a rich, powerful, tangy, simple yet exciting combination of tastes. Ema (chili) gourmets says the best ema tastes like meat. I'm not there yet, but for now, I'm already convinced: chili isn't a spice; it's a vegetable.

References / recipes:
1. Emma Datschi (recommended) [1]
2. Ema the fiery Bhutanese food, from Bhutan's daily news site 
3. A Brief Introduction to Bhutanese Food 
4. Bhutan's love affair with chillies, from 
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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The little dumpling who travelled across a continent

When I think of Central Asia, my mind goes blank. Nomadic people on horses in dry dusty land, but that's about it. That was what aroused my interest in browsing through Kazakh/Kyrgyz/Uzbeki cuisine. To my surprise, on the list stood Manti, a little dumpling which I was going to experiment as a Turkish dish. Somehow this innocent dumpling made it all the way across the entire continent from Korea to Turkey.

Turkish manti with garlicky yoghurt and red pepper (recipe).

Apparently, Manti (or mantu or mantou) is just a loose name for boiled or steamed dumplings of meat mixtures, while the way it is served varies. The one shown here is Turkish, smothered with yoghurt. In Afghanistan, it is served with chatney. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, it may be made with horse meat and pumpkin, and sheep's fat from the tail is absolutely essential. For a nomad's hard day's work, nothing beats fat.

Tiny Turkish Manti requires a lot of labor.

The recipe calls for ground beef, but with ground lamb they taste much better - and for a few in Central Asia, the only way to go. I haven't tried the other variations, but the result was really good, it may be worth it to labor through folding these tiny dumplings again. Still, it's unfair that it takes half an hour to make and five minutes to eat! Luckily, the Central Asian version is bigger in size, so that will help.

Manti is like a great ancient lunch pack, made for nomads. They would fold a few dumplings and carry them over great distances, then plop down and boil them over a campfire. It's a luxury to even stop; legend (or at least one Uzbeki friend) says the Mongols ate while horseriding. It must have been messy eating plov that way.

Did Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde prepare manti the morning before raids?

Somehow, manti made its way across to Anatolia during the Mongol Empire. And there it grew into a traditional Turkish dish. It's always interesting for me to discover similar foods in various places, like when I asked a Ugandan colleague what's a popular snack in Uganda, she said, "Samosa."

References / recipes:
1. Homemade Manti, from Allrecipes [1]
2. Manti, from Wikipedia [2]
3. Je Mange La Ville [3]
4. Worldwide Gourmet [4]
5. I Love Turkish Food [5]
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