There is soup from Bhutan that is like soul food, and it is called Ema Datshi. It is also known as a dearly loved fiery soup. The first time I had a bowl placed before me and I took a bite of chili soaked in the broth that is made with cheese and exotic flavors – I felt as though fireworks were popping in my mouth. Much like the scene in Ratatouille when Remy first experiences food – real food.
The pungency of the chili, as it stung my tongue was slowly assuaged by the cheesy cheese. And then the cheesy cheese was ignited with another crunchy bite of the chili. It was alternate, it was separate too. The sting alternated with the creamy and crunchy deliciousness of the unique Bhutanese cheese made from the curd of cows or yaks.
My Bhutanese chauffeur said, “If you have been to Bhutan but have not eaten Ema Datshi then you have not been to Bhutan at all.”
This summer when I visited Bhutan, I tried a lot of vegetarian dishes of the land. No, I am not a foodie, but my husband is, and we ended up exploring the heterogeneous palette of Bhutanese cuisine.
Ema Datshi is the National dish of Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and rightly so. A serving of Ema Datshi, and one could literally blow fire through the mouth and nostrils.
However, all strong stuff become very dear and beloved – and this dish too.
Ema means chili (peppers) and Datshi means cheese. I surprised myself by having Ema Datshi on all the days I stayed in Bhutan, and expected to gain weight, but no, it did not happen, because this local Datshi is the non-fat part of the curd of curd of yaks. This one dish is available in all parts of the country. I say this because the cuisine of Bhutan is so diverse and has evolved drastically in various ways over the century across the different regions.
This Ema Datshi is prepared either as a soup, or as a stew, or as a gravy for rice or Roti (Indian flatbread). However, the basic taste and modus preparation remain the same.
Ema means chili or pepper in the Dzongkha language. One can use any type of pepper according to the taste. The chilies grown in Bhutan are hot. Pungent is the word, not hot or spicy. It stings and nicely so too. Depending on the season dried or fresh chilies are used. However, my non-Asian friends in other parts of the world can try poblanos or Anaheim peppers instead of hot peppers. It is also probably best to request the chef to remove the seeds of the peppers before they prepare the dish.
I was so surprised to observe that the markets sold chilies like in kilograms. I wanted to bring home some and asked if this vendor would give me about a 100 grams, and she looked at me like, “what can you possibly do with just 100 grams? Just snack?” So I ended up buying a bag, which was 1 kilogram.
This Datshi(cheese) is a type of farmer’s cheese, available only in Bhutan and unique. However in the west, one can try feta cheese. It about closely resembles the taste.
This Bhutanese farmer’s cheese made from the non-fat part of the curd of cows or yak is very healthy and has a unique flavor it. It is soft and tingly, it is not sour or tangy. It is just ‘beautiful’ or maybe we just have to ask Remy from the movie, Ratatouille how he would describe it
The fat part of the curd is not wasted but used to make butter. The whey which is separated is used for boiling the rice. These Bhutanese are very resourceful and nothing is wasted from the kitchen.
Ema Datshi is often served with cracked red rice.
One could also try it with Indian bread. We had it with rice, roti and a cup of dal.
Ema Datshi is not for the faint-heart and I am generally not a huge fan of spicy cuisines. I like milder softer textures of food. But this hot concoction stole my heart right away from the first taste. I had it not just every day, but twice every day for both lunch and dinner.
We tried to make it at home. It was milder. I removed the seeds of the peppers. And I added some tomatoes and a few potatoes. My son enjoyed it.
Bhutanese also love Kewa Datshi, which is Potato-Cheese. Instead of peppers, potatoes are used and it is very mild. It is totally a kiddo-dish, according to my husband. So, we ended up doing a Ema-Kewa-Datshi at home.
A very simplified and easy version of the recipe is below.
- Cut a few chilies (8 oz) longitudinally and sauté them in oil and then boil them for about 7 to 10 minutes in some water.
- Add onions, tomatoes (I also boiled potato cubes), and continue boiling them.
- Add feta cheese (8 oz) to this, and let the mixture simmer for about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Garnish them with cilantro leaves if you like the taste. Add salt to taste.
- Serve with Bhutanese red rice or Indian Flatbread
Bhutan to me is an exotic paradise. Hidden in the young-fold Mountains of the Himalayan peaks, it has so many exquisite dishes. It is a foodie-wonderland.
Other intense foods that piqued my taste buds were Bhutanese butter tea, Kewa (Potato) Datshi and momos.
Again, I say, I live by the principle, “Eat to live”, not “live to eat” and I am lazy to cook. But visiting Bhutan helped me discover a new side to my taste buds.
The food is as wonderful as the people. The joy of this wonderful cuisine is as much part of the ethos, as the serenity of the land.