Ema-datse: Bhutan's ultimate manifestation of the classic chili and cheese pairing 


The word "cheese" might not make you think "chili" the way "oil" makes you think "vinegar." But they show up together in many dishes, such as chili-cheese fries, green chile cheeseburgers and chile con queso.

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan might be the only place in the world where the popularity of the chili-cheese combination is greater than it is in the American Southwest. Inhabitants are low key and soft-spoken, but enjoy consuming hot chilies the way many Americans eat Doritos. One Bhutanese friend of mine reminisced, "As children we would eat ema (chili) until our ears rang."

Bhutan's national dish is a stew called ema-datse, made of little more than ema and cheese (datse). It can be a merciless dish. In my travels in Bhutan I've often waved the white flag at ema-datse, crying and laughing simultaneously while tears and snot converged on my chin.

In the U.S., slurping while eating is considered rude. In Japan, slurping is considered a compliment to the chef. In Bhutan, slurping while eating ema-datse is a matter of survival. It's the slurp that cools, as the air rushing over your mouth offers enough relief that you can make it to the next bite. Paradoxically, another bite of ema-datse offers temporary relief as well. The fresh injection of cheese takes the edge off for a fleeting moment until the ema kicks in.

Onion, salt, butter and water are almost always included in ema-datse. Most recipes call for tomatoes, too, which like the chilies can be red or green. Other ingredients like ginger, mushrooms and green onions are also commonly included. But the most difficult part of making ema-datse outside of Bhutan is finding the right cheese.

In the U.S., finding yak or mare's milk cheese can be a challenge, while most cheeses here, including imports, fail to melt properly. They're too lumpy, too sticky or too rubbery.

In proper ema-datse the cheese melts into a thin, smooth sauce that lightly coats the chili. It must not glob everything together, and must hold that consistency after it cools. Enter Kraft Singles or Velveeta, which I typically regard like a rabbi regards pork. But on a multi-day backpacking trip with my Bhutanese friend, I converted.

I had packed home-made dehydrated elk stew, while he packed nothing but Kraft Singles, dried chili pods, a few onions and salt. By the trip's end, I was trading stew for his simple ema-datse.

Here, my friend prefers feta. A 50/50 mix of feta and queso fresco can work as well. Whatever you choose, here's an ema-datse recipe for fresh chile:

Thinly slice one onion, longitudinally, and add it to a pan with 3 tablespoons oil on medium heat. Add five cloves of garlic, chopped, and one or two tomatoes, in thin wedges. Slice a half pound of hot chilies lengthwise into halves or quarters. Remove the seeds if you're getting nervous. Add the chilies, stir-fry briefly, then add a cup of water. Let simmer for a few minutes, then add two tablespoons butter and a half pound of whatever cheese(s) you're using.

With the lid on, simmer until the cheese is smooth and bubbling. Add salt to taste, and simmer until the chile is tender. Serve with rice, preferably Bhutanese red rice. With your hands, compress a handful of rice into a ball. Work some ema-datse on top of the rice ball, and enjoy. Brace yourself for the chile-induced endorphin rush.



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