Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tingle your Taste Buds!

As far as world cuisines go, Bhutanese is probably one of the least known – even in Brisbane and the Gold Coast you will find Nepali and Tibetan restaurants, along with every other Asian favourite, but the food of Bhutan is elusive. Having travelled all over the Himalayas before I expected that Bhutanese food would be basically like Indian or Nepali food – and yet here in Bhutan, while you certainly come across a vegetable curry and dal is a staple, in the home setting I have found Bhutanese definitely have their own cuisine using the unique ingredients available that is very distinct from Indian cooking.

In an environment where for much of the year vegetables are scarce, the Bhutanese rely on a few fresh ingredients: chillies, onions, garlic, potatoes and datse cheese supplemented by dried fish, dried mushrooms, meat (chicken, beef, pork - every part of the animal is used) and eggs. Sporadically we are able to buy green beans, tomatoes, eggplants, cauliflower and spinach which widens the possibilities dramatically. Hopefully as the weather warms up we will see even more variety in what is available locally.

At any Bhutanese feast there is always ema-datse – which literally means chilli cheese. The chillies vary from mild to eye-poppingly hot and the cheese is usually a mixture of the fresh homemade datse cheese and processed ‘Kraft’ cheese from India. We have a milk processing plant right next door where we can buy datse cheese by the hand-sized ball and I find it very versatile – using it in place of ricotta or fetta in favourite recipes from home. We keep ours in the fridge, but I was told that Bhutanese people like to keep it on the shelf where it gets a mouldy outside crust which is scraped off to use in cooking and then it is left to sit a bit longer to grow more mould. I’m sure the French would understand!
Datse cheese on the left comes in handsized balls and the processed cheese that is the secret ingredient in ema-datse.

When we arrived in Thimphu  I was very keen to try ema-datse for the first time, and for the first week or so we were treated to a mild foreigner-friendly version that tickled our taste buds but didn’t overwhelm them. In the second week things changed and super strength chillies were introduced – I could only eat a teaspoon of the dish before I broke out in a sweat. A popular variation is shamu datse which has mushrooms (sometimes tinned button mushrooms or much nicer fresh or dried shiitake, matsutake or oyster mushrooms) with the chillies and cheese.

This delicious (made even more so by the hot pink dinnerware!) meal at Ura featured local matsutake mushroom shamu datse.

Bob really likes his ema-datse so he was keen to try out making it for himself – he came up with the idea of adding some green beans to the mix to fill out the dish and make it more nutritious and less spicy for our tastebuds. I had a go at making it last night too – and it was really tasty – the cheese is delicious, the chilli had enough heat to be interesting and the beans make what is usually a side dish into a complete vegetarian meal. We ate it with corn-rice. Here we buy course ground cornmeal (like polenta but coarser) which is mixed with rice in the rice cooker at a ratio of 3 parts rice to 1 part cornmeal. It is really tasty and a nice change from plain rice.
Corn-rice with bean ema-datse - will you give it a try??? (Sorry, I need to work on my food-styling and photography!)

So here is our adapted recipe. I hope Bhutanese readers don’t mind the way we have adapted their national dish.
Green Bean Ema-Datse
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion sliced
4 large green or red chillies sliced in quarters lengthwise (remove seeds if you prefer less heat)
4 garlic cloves sliced thinly
250 g green beans, sliced into 3cm lengths
1 large tomato (or two smaller ones) sliced into 1/12s
1/2 cup water
1 large ball datse cheese (or try a combination of about 100g ricotta and 100g fetta cheese)
100g processed cheese - cubed
1/2 cup milk
salt to taste
1. Melt butter in medium sized saucepan.
2. Add chillies, onions and garlic - cook until tender (3-5 mins).
3. Add tomato and green beans and stir.
4. Add half a cup of water, cover the saucepan and allow the beans to soften for 5 mins.
4. Crumble the datse cheese (or ricotta and fetta) and add the processed cheese.
5. Stir and allow the cheese to melt into the vegetables.
6. Add milk to loosen the mix - add more if necessary to create a smooth sauce.
7. Season with salt.
8. Serve with rice - basmati, Bhutanese red rice, brown rice or a mix or cornmeal and basmati would all be great!
What do you think of (this slightly different version) Bhutan's national dish?


  1. mmmm, sounds good! I might make it... or I might wait for you to come home and make it for me ;)

  2. We'll have to have a Bhutanese style dinner party when we get back - I really like the way they entertain here, it will be fun!