Not so much a national dish as a national obsession: in Bhutan, Ema Datshi is ubiquitous – a palpitation-inducing chillies-and-cheese combo that’s much more than the sum of its parts.
Chilli peppers hark from the Americas, of course, but spread rapidly through Asia from the 16th century, probably arriving in Bhutan a couple of centuries later. But whereas in India chillies are used mainly to add heat to dishes, in this long-isolated Himalayan kingdom Ema are considered vegetables – the core component of Ema Datshi and an integral part of almost every other dish, though also served as condiments.
Whether you’re in a swanky hotel restaurant or a traditional farmhouse kitchen, Ema Datshi not just customary, it’s mandatory. Peer through the gloom (Bhutanese curtains are always closed) and pile the favoured red rice on your plate. Add a ladleful of dried beef stewed with – of course – chillies; in spring, you might also be treated to fresh asparagus or nakey (fern fronds). Finally, top with a dollop of Ema Datshi, and dive in. First, enjoy the crunch of sliced chillies, sweet and earthy; savour the contrast with the thick, rich cheese sauce as it folds around your tongue. Then reach for the Red Panda wheat beer and prepare to douse the oral conflagration. Repeat till sated and sweaty.
Ingredients You Will Need
- 250g (9oz) large chillies, sliced length wise into four
- 200g (7oz) soft cheese
- 1 medium onion or a handful of spring onions (scallions), diced
- ½ cup (125mL) water
- 4 tbs oil Salt to taste
- Rice to serve
Ema Datshi Recipe
- Place all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan and cook on a low heat for 10–15 minutes till the cheese has formed a smooth sauce with the water and oil.
- Serve with rice. That’s it.
- For reduced tongue-burn, remove the seeds and membranes from the chillies before cooking, and consider adding chopped tomato or other vegetables. Alternatively, if you’d prefer it turned up to 11, heat the water before adding the other ingredients
- Choose chillies to suit your taste: large green ones give crunch and freshness, reds heat, dried chillies intensity. In Bhutan, home-made cow’s-milk cheese is used, or rounds of cottage cheese bought at markets and roadside stalls; you can use pretty much any soft or medium-hard variety.