This tiny enchanting and picturesque nation – Bhutan, nestled in the folds of the Himalaya impresses us not only with its spectacular scenery but also with its unique and unaffected cuisine. The Bhutanese cuisine celebrates simplicity by keeping its flavor pure and clean based on the local produce. Even though it is landlocked between India and China, there seems to be less influence from these two regions. It has its roots from the Tibetan cuisine, which was gradually adapted and evolved according to their homegrown produce. The country has a flair for using unique ingredients that stimulate all our senses. The local cheese and chili are the best examples.
The chili affair
Bhutanese have an undying love affair with chili peppers. Their journey with chilies begins from their infant age. Every dish in the Bhutanese cuisine invariably has copious amounts of chilies. People don’t touch the dish if it is not spicy enough. Despite the fact the chilies are not indigenous to Bhutan, it is probably the only cuisine in the world where chilies are considered a vegetable rather than as a spice or condiment. This South American crop is believed to have arrived via India with pilgrims and traders between the two countries. Before the arrival of chilies, the natives used an herb called namda to spice up their dishes.
They are predominant in the Bhutanese diet. This could be mainly due to the fact that a hot/spicy food helps you stay warm and energized during extreme cold conditions. It is a natural way to keep oneself protected from the chill, especially in the olden days when homes didn’t have any heating system installed. As humans are not naturally habituated to eating such spicy food, the Bhutanese start training their children by introducing in small amounts and gradually increasing it as they grow.
Ema in Bhutanese is chili. The local markets are flooded with varieties of chilies in different colors, shapes and sizes. There are the green varieties, the red ones, and the white variety, which is made by drying the green ones. No other spice mix is used to spice up a meal. It is solely the chilies, lots and lots of them! They are not only a staple in the kitchen; they also hold an important place in their ritual and traditions. Chilies are burned to drive away bad spirits and omens from houses. Three chilies are even thrown in while brewing the local liquor aara, as a sort of good luck for it to brew properly without any hassle!
Eating chillies are deeply rooted in their culture. It is their way of life and no wonder the star dish of Bhutan is a chili cheese stew. Ema datshi is their national dish. It is a simple stew made of a variety of chilies and a special cheese, yak cheese, called datshi. Variations of this dish include potatoes (kewa datshi), beef, beans (semchung datshi) or mushrooms (shamu datshi). But just chilies and cheese are their favorite! The chilies that are used in the ema datshi are really spicy and this dish is served over a bed of red rice, another staple food of the Bhutanese.
To balance the heat quotient in the dish, tomatoes, butter and cheese are added. In spite of this, it is hard to have one spoon without rushing for a glass of water. The Himalayan has a rare and unique kind of cheese named chhurpi. Known as datshi in Bhutanese, it is a cheese made from goat, cow or yak’s milk. There are two varieties of chhurpi – the soft and the hard variety. The soft cheese is used in the preparation of ema datshi.
The texture of chhurpi/datshi is similar to cottage cheese or ricotta cheese. This cheese is prepared by fermenting raw milk. Once the milk is fermented, add some fresh milk gradually to the fermented one over a period of five days. The mixture will coagulate into a thick curd. Then, it is churned to separate the butter and the remaining buttermilk is heated to make the chhurpi. This cheese has a strong pungent smell and is bearably tangy. Wrapped in jute bags strung together, it is sold in markets throughout Bhutan and the entire Himalayan region. People snack on them everyday.
Ema Datshi, the national dish of Bhutan is a deliciously spicy stew made of chili peppers, onions and locally produced yak cheese.
- 10 oz. chili peppers (spicy Thai green/red chilies and jalapeño)
- 1 red onion , sliced
- 1 tomato , sliced
- 3 cloves garlic , crushed
- 1 tsp unsalted butter
- 10 oz cheese , grated (a combination of feta, cheddar or farmers cheese)
- Salt to taste
- 1 cup water (to cook the veggies)
Heat a pan and add butter. Add the sliced onion, tomato and chillies. Give them a quick toss and the water. Season them with salt. Cover and cook until the peppers become tender.
Turn off the flame and add the cheese and let it melt in the residual heat.
Serve it over a bed of red or white rice.