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 
Read full article...


Blogger Ujang said...

A close counterpart would probably be Sundanese "Ase Cabai Hijau" except our cabai hijau is way lower in the Scoville scale compared to jalapenos. Habanero, much hotter than jalapeno, probably won't work either.

I would've thought paneer would be a close substitute for yak cheese. Danish blue cheese? Very interesting.

March 31, 2009 at 12:48 AM  
Blogger Aree said...

Thanks Ujang! Ase Cabai Hijau would be a close counterpart indeed.
The actual cheese here is "cooked, churned yak whey, further fired and cured for a long - very long time over a fire". I think the recipe already considers paneer as a substitute but opts for Danish blue, for reasons of similarity in pungency and taste, and not just because it's "western".

March 31, 2009 at 2:34 AM  
Anonymous shankar said...


A book titled 'Facts about Bhutan' by Lily Wangchhuk
has a whol chapter on culture with food and drinks of Bhutan.

I recommend it !!

May 14, 2009 at 7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to be pedantic but chilli isnt a vegetable. It's a fruit because it has seeds. The dish looks great though!

July 1, 2009 at 5:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

r u sure that chilli isnt a vegetable? r u a learned person. if u r so you should know that a chilli is a vegetable. if u r not sure of it ,please try to refer a books where u can find an answer for it.

May 7, 2010 at 7:42 AM  
Blogger Tasha said...

I work for the Bhutan Observer and was wondering if we could get permission to use the image of ema dhatsi for an upcoming issue of BO focus which focuses on food nutrition and security.

November 21, 2010 at 7:41 PM  

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