My souperinspiration: Roasted Vegetable Chilli Cheese Soup
Running a close second to Bhutan’s primary cliché are chillies. A largely rural society, the Bhutanese eat fresh, fruity, large and not particularly hot red and green chillies in impressive quantities most of the year, and use them dried daily. There is a lively piquancy to most of the country’s stolid, vegetable-based wet dishes (meat – beef, yak, pork and chicken – is used sparingly, often dried, to add flavour), which are always consumed with mountains of boiled red rice (chum marp) and cups of salted, slightly rancid yak- or cow-butter tea, taken with every meal. “The Bhutanese like to eat, but they don’t like to kill,” said one local chef. But the real national food is a simple, fresh cheese, made mostly from cattle but also a yak population that grazes high in the mountains during summer and on lower pastures for winter. Put them together and you have ema datse – chillies and cheese – Bhutan’s national dish: a creamy, piquant dose of vitamin C.
The ultimate experience in Bhutanese dining will always have to be at the home of a Bhutanese family sharing a specially cooked traditional meal, complete with suja (butter tea) and ara (homemade whiskey). In the home of tangka(Buddhist relics) artist, Kinzang, he showed me how to prepare a proper ema datse, a chilli cheese stew made using local cottage cheese with green chillies. What’s interesting is every household has a different variation adding shamu (mushrooms), French beans, ferns, potatoes and even orchids when it is in season. 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. I was hooked since and this was the one of the many dishes I looked forward to at every single meal thereafter.
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.
Like butter and toast, ema datse 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.
Red rice can be roasted and puffed and eaten as a snack together with suja tea known as Zaw. We were souper stoked when we happen to chance upon a woman making it at the Folklore Heritage Museum, witnessing how she cooked the rice over very low heat in a large hot pan until it is was crispy. The rice had to be soaked in warm water overnight, drained off its water before it can be fried.
The cooking process
Inspired by the ema datse, we have made ours with an array of vegetables (including green chillies) commonly eaten in Bhutan, cooked with cream cheese, feta cheese and cheddar cheese topped with chopped coriander and toasted Bhutanese red rice.