Many have asked me, “What do Bhutanese eat?” We tell you here!
If Hainanese Chicken Rice is to Singapore, we wouldn’t be too far off to say ema datshi is to Bhutan. I don’t think we’ve had a meal in Bhutan that isn’t served with ema datshi! The airline food was a sign of the local cuisine we were going to have for the next one week. My vegetarian set came with a dhal of sorts, but with green chillies and a hint of cheese. Chilli and cheese, the unlikely combination that is definitive of every Bhutanese meal. Ema datshi, they call it. Ema means chilli, datshi means cheese. In Bhutan, chilli is regarded more like a vegetable than a spice, and is used generously, creatively and frequently.
To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to like this traditional dish, but I rather enjoyed the subdued taste of the cheese that complemented the stronger flavour of the chillies on the airline meal. I was hooked since and this was the one of the many dishes I looked forward to at every single meal thereafter.
Every home cook knows how to make ema datshi. Curiously, as ubiquitous as this dish is in Bhutan, each version we tried exuded individuality. Most used fresh red or green chillies, the former making the ema datshi a tad spicier, especially if the seeds were left to lend a more fiery punch. In winter when there is no harvest, dried chillies are used. We had the pleasure of tasting one such version, and like the Bhutanese, I could eat this with my rice alone! Truly, you can eat chilli with every meal.
Cheese-wise, the choice is also entirely up to the individual cook. And this conversation I had with Ugyen’s family still makes me chuckle to this day! On my first trip to Bhutan, Ugyen brought me to his brother’s place in Thimphu for a homecooked meal. They explained that they used only a specific type of cheese for ema datse. “Craft cheese,” they said earnestly. Curious to know more, I asked for the brand of ‘craft’ cheese, assuming it was a special local artisan cheese I could hunt for during the trip. They enthusiastically went to their pantry and handed me the cheese. It turned out to be, wait for it – ‘Kraft’ cheese. Nothing fancy, but good old ‘Kraft’ cheese.
Sometimes it’s the simple things that make the boldest, most heavenly pairings. Leave the fancy elements behind, and just let these chillies and cheese shine.
Like butter and toast, ema datshi and rice just go. The Bhutanese eat a significant amount of rice, particularly red rice, a variety of rice that grows exceptionally well in high altitudes. With the fertile soil that Bhutan enjoys, irrigated with glacier water rich in minerals, Bhutanese red rice is highly nutritious, nutty in flavour, and cooks easily to a soft and slightly sticky texture. Unlike the red rice that I was accustomed to Singapore, we noticed that the rice we had in Bhutan took on a pretty pastel pink hue too.
Centenary Farmers’ Market, one of the biggest domestic markets for Bhutanese farmers in Thimphu, was a short ride away from our lunch venue, and what a field day we had exploring the red rice varieties on sale there! From the darker rustic russet hue to the lighter blush pink, it’s amazing how varied red rice can be. The friendly vendors invited us to feel the rice piled up in the sacks. The grains slipped through the gaps between my fingers, some grains broken, but most were full whole grains, a testament to the agricultural giants the Bhutanese are.
Our hosts served us red rice at every meal, even at breakfasts. As we tucked happily into our toasts (toasted on their cast iron griddles!) with local freshly churned butter and beautiful organic jam, the Bhutanese dug deep into their red rice, topped with ema datshi. On average, Ugyen and our driver, Panda, take about two to three heaped bowls of red rice a meal. That’s how much the Bhutanese take to their red rice!
We are not done with chilli yet! At Ugyen’s brother’s home, I learned some authentic Bhutanese cuisine in their rustic and well-equipped home. This was where I learned how to make the Bhutanese multi-use fiery hot chilli condiment, ezay. Unlike Singapore’s sambal chilli and Spain’s salsa that are served with specific dishes, the ezay is a condiment that comes with almost everything. I’ve seen the Bhutanese eat it with vegetables, poultry, fried noodles, and even on top of ema datse. Chilli with chilli—the Bhutanese truly like things spicy!
My first taste of ezay numbed my tongue with a hot so fiery I had to stop eating. But it was so good, so good I went on for more. Ezay is traditionally made with thingey, a locally-grown peppercorn known to the rest of the world as Szechuan peppercorn. The backing heat of the peppercorn and the red chillies make this condiment a perfect one to have in winter but also possibly a shock to palates that aren’t used to the level of spice the Bhutanese love.
Intrigued by ezay so much after the first trip, I busied myself in the kitchen once I came back to recreate this condiment. Prior to our second trip, I made a fresh batch as a gift to Ugyen, and I was souper stoked that he loved it! He kept the packet gingerly and took it out at every meal to savour with his rice. We had it as a topping with fresh cucumber and cottage cheese salad, as a dip for meat stews, even with plain red rice.
The beauty of ezay is that it heightens the clean flavours of Bhutanese cuisines, despite the sharpness of the spices. Enjoy our version at our stores!