Chillies and cheese together? Not something I’d tried before but it’s Bhutan’s national dish and it is called ema datse. The cheese is more of a sauce/gravy rather than of a soufflé consistency and the chillies are not a seasoning but the main vegetable itself.
It’s literally chillies in cheese sauce served with the locally produced red rice (which is actually more brown than red in colour and has a slight nutty taste). And beware, it can have quite a kick which I guess isn’t that surprising when you’re eating a plateful of very hot chillies.
When we stayed in a homestay with a local family for one night in the Haa Valley, we adopted the Bhutanese tradition of eating ema datse for all 3 meals including breakfast (which was a little punchy in more ways than one!). Even the local family with whom we were staying were impressed by our hot chilli consumption. And a tip for any budding chefs out there, apparently you should only use cold (not hot) water to make this dish, otherwise the chillies can get way too fiery.
L: Lunch at the homestay (ema datse in top left bowl; nakey top right of plate and asparagus at the bottom); R: Breakfast at the homestay (ema datse in the pan and fried rice (with chillies) on the plate)
Continuing the cheese theme, we’ve also tried kewa datse (potatoes with cheese sauce) and shamu datse (mushrooms with cheese sauce). No prizes for guessing what “cheese” is in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan.
L: Kawa datse in the bowl; bitter gourd top right green veg plus bakora pancake type dish; R: General buffet spread.
And less successfully, we’ve also tried chugo which is rock hard (and when I say rock hard, I mean diamond hard, nothing breaks this sucker) dried yak cheese which is either white or brown. We were advised that the white version (which is boiled in milk and dried in the sun) was tastier than the smoked brown version. But to be honest, we failed at the first hurdle when we were unable to pull it cleanly off its string which meant we had a piece of disintegrating string in our mouths next to a rock hard large (approx 2.5cm cubed) flavourless lump. Our guide said you had to keep sucking it until it softened and then the flavour of this popular snack would come through. Well 15 minutes later, that didn’t seem to have happened: it was neither any softer nor any tastier and there was still the issue of the string to contend with. Yak cheese? More like yuck cheese to me but maybe that’s a little harsh.
After that experience, we weren’t brave enough to try the dried jellied cow skin known as khoo which apparently is another local snack. Even our guide couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for this one so we steered well clear (apparently it is when it is heated, that it goes jelly-like but we will never know!).
L: Chugo (yak cheese); R: Khoo (jellied cow skin), both for sale in local markets
On the vegetable front, we’ve had bitter gourd several times and also nakey which are wild fern fronds and one of my favourites. These are sometimes served steamed but, wait for it, are more often than not served in yet another cheese sauce. And just in case your cheese fix is getting a little low at any point, cheese momos (Tibetan dumplings with which we’ve become very familiar) are also widely available.
L: Nakey (for sale in the market); M: red rice; R: deserts aren’t a strong point in Bhutan
Although we’d remained pretty much vegetarian in India, in Bhutan we’ve not been limiting ourselves and have also tried many meat dishes too. Given the main religion here is Buddhism, there are far less dietary restrictions than in India and beef and pork (as well as chicken of course) are all widely available.
On the booze front, we’ve tried the different Druk lagers, albeit we’ve not always been able to tell the difference between them (except, perhaps, for the super strength 8% Druk 11,000 lager). We’ve also sampled the local arra (a rice-based whisky) as well as some surprisingly good locally produced red wine.
The portions have generally been ridiculously large and that, coupled with the fact that these 2 weeks have not been the most physically demanding and beer has been widely available, has meant we have pretty much piled back on any pounds we had lost while travelling in India.
However, although the food has been pretty good in Bhutan, dare I admit that I’m now really hanging out for a muttar paneer, dal makhani and some rotis. After all, in my opinion, you really can’t beat a decent curry!